I've been sitting here at my desk looking at a particular magazine. I won't say which one, because it's not relevant. But, I've been calling colleagues I know to get their take on it for awhile now. It's a mainstream magazine, and the photos are shot by a well known photographer, and the photos are horrible. They are poorly composed, the lead photo - a double-page spread - is soft, and other images have nasty color casts that could not ever be construed as an artistic style.
This photographer was on assignment for the magazine. Why didn't they just kill the story? Or, at least, the opener that was soft - the image was of a news event, and I know over a dozen photographers who have a far better image of the same thing happening that is sharp, and better composed. Yet, the magazine published a crappy photo.
I called around, and talked to other photographers, and more than one photo editor about this. Sadly, I knew the answer, but these guys reaffirmed it. The photos played because of politics. They had to run these photos, and not get a better image from stock. But, isn't that what a "guarantee against usage" is supposed to be for?
For those of you that don't know, there's a term in the magazine business that is mostly applied to Time, Newsweek, US News, Business Week, and maybe Forbes, People, and a few others. Specifically - if you are assigned a shoot, and you get a $500 assignment fee, plus expenses, that assignment fee is a "guarantee against space". That means that if a magazine normally pays $500 for a 1/2 page, $1,000 for a full page, and $1,500 for a double-page spread, if your image ends up being used just a half-page, you still get the $500, but if you produce a great photo, and they use it as a double-page image, then you get the larger amount - $1,500. If the publication runs two of your photos 1/2 page, you then get $1,000. You get the idea.
In this case, the photographer did a poor job on the assignment, and it showed. Some of the images were lit portraits that no one likely got (and I use the word 'lit' very loosely), so, as bad as they were I understand that they had to run them. However, they could have atleast color-corrected the horrible color casts on them in post, but they did not, and this was not a printing error either. Those you can tell.
Why did the photographer get the play that they did? Yes, I know, politics. But that leaves the readers with a crappy image to contemplate. The magazine felt they owed it to the photographer, but they didn't, not when they had options, and they did. In the end, the obligation is to the readers who in turn patronize the advertisers, and thus, the lights at the magazine stay on, and the editors get paid, and so too, the creatives.
Did the photographer do anything wrong? Yes, a few things. First, I have it on good authority that they used a prosumer lens for the job, and also a prosumer camera with a filesize that could not support a double-page spread. Further, the photographer should have known better than to try to complete a component of an assignment that they have little current experience doing. If you're a boxing photographer, but, well, back in the day, you used to shoot horse races, don't think you can return to your glory days and still make a great image. If you disagree, then don't have your first horse race back be the Kentucky Derby - re-flex your muscle-memory at a few smaller events where everything isn't on the line until you get your sea-legs back.
The best photographers make an assignment look easy. This photographer, generally speaking, makes their assignments look easy, but in this case, bravado got in the way, and the assigning editors didn't have the balls to call shenanigans on the bad photos, and find replacement images, or just kill the story.
In the end, the magazine didn't owe this photographer anything other than the assignment fee and expenses, and they should have done right by their readers and used better images where they were available and this photographer failed.
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