In a grungy basement located somewhere in the less salubrious purlieus of the Rive Gauche, the 1981 launch issue of Select Magazine – an exiguous forty-eight pages with a logo cobbled from Letraset on its cover – was conceived, gestated, birthed, incubated and nurtured.
No more than a commercial photographers’ showcase, Select came upon a stage long dominated by inveterate annual tomes from France, Germany and the UK which, to all intents and purposes, were already fulfilling one of the industry’s most pressing demands: that of providing a fount of talent from which those responsible for commissioning or purchasing commercial photography could draw. Routinely, these creatives received the sourcebooks free-of-charge, a publication’s print-run being sustained by its advertising revenues.
What Select offered – and what set it apart from established publications, inculcating its reputation as an inspired upstart – was a determination to direct its advertisers into portraying themselves in a totally new and revolutionary way.
Traditionally, any photographer purchasing space in a showcase would be presented in unwavering fashion: images from various commissioned jobs, entrusted to him or her but, nevertheless, under the aegis of a slew of smug art directors, nervous clients, agency suits and other creative hurdles.
Select, on the other hand, urged its advertisers to choose a personal picture, something they’d shot for the sheer joy of photography, and to eschew exhibiting too many (and hence, too small) renditions of work executed under the inescapable yoke of commercial requirement. Select allowed one to trumpet, “This is who I am” and not the usual “This is what I’ve done”.
The other compelling differences were that Select’s advertising rates were considerably cheaper than the gargantuan fees demanded by the entrenched annuals, and that it published every four months, giving three-times as many opportunities to impress; the format was way larger; the paper lusciously matte; the print-quality superior. And uniquely, it was not confined to national borders: for instance, an image from a British photographer could be seen by important decision-makers, not just at home, but now, for the first time, from Germany and France too.
Furthermore, by the early-‘80s the practice we now know as “branding” was gaining steam, creating a radical shift in the imagery being presented in advertising campaigns. At the high-end at least – which anyway sets the trend for the lower echelons of the industry to follow – a certain narrative, a kind of “realness” was fostered (often bolstered by the sexual nature of the pictures). Fuzzier focus, obtuse angles, incongruous lighting, bizarre compositions and risqué allegories were being seen as more persuasive than the literal and uninspired pack-shots of yore in encouraging an increasingly sophisticated consumer-base to buy the “brand” instead of the product.
The two foremost examples of this trend were the campaigns from Guess? and Calvin Klein in which the clothes were patently secondary to the messages being promulgated. The images from Wayne Maser and Bruce Weber respectively showed alluring trompe-l’oeils peopled by the handsome, hip, happy and horny that tempted the consumer, with the promise of membership to these exclusive clubs, to participate (perhaps through the acquisition of that pair of jeans or sunglasses after all).
In many respects, this rejection of the hackneyed approach mirrored the very leap Select had been encouraging its advertisers to take: a purer portrayal of one’s own artistic integrity, bravura and creative capabilities. The response from the advertising and photographic industries was immediate and salutary, and Select, having found its little legs, toddled-off happily into the future.
The smartest move I ever made was to take over the reins of composing the editorial for each edition, a concept we’d concocted for no other reason than to create a break within a sea of advertising pages. Initially we’d simply devised articles about other alternative publications – Interview from the US, Ritz from London; Egoïste from France, etc. – since these were the swiftest and cheapest to produce, but soon began presenting travel guides, specifically geared to the photographic and advertising communities, that profiled a different city for each edition. For fifteen years I visited dozens of places – on expenses – from Athens to Zürich, staying in hotels, noshing in restaurants, lounging in cafes, seeing the sights, perusing the shopping, hitting the spots and generally living an enchanted life.
Fourteen months and three issues down the line, the founders of Select, Wilhelm Moser and David Colby, made a decision to expand the publication’s territory to include the United States. Arriving at a photographer’s studio in New York – where, biding my time as a stylist, I happened to be working that day – we met, clicked… and the rest is history.
Over the ensuing years, we produced over fifty editions of Select, pushing the worldwide free-mailing into the tens of thousands, selling space to hundreds of individuals and companies, whomping-up the subscription base and retailing thousands of magazines through bookshops spread across the face of the globe.
In the closing years of the twentieth-century, the business (and art) of photography underwent a seismic upheaval. The advent of the internet, digital images and manipulative software programmes radically altered the landscape, affecting virtually every aspect of the industry. Not least of which was self-promotion (and, by extension, sourcebooks), something the worldwide web seemed propitiously positioned to harness. For any photographic showcase to survive the future, it was imperative for it to go digital.
There is something about the feel of paper and the smell of ink, the very heft of an object weighing in one’s hands that we understood would be lost to this online realm. It was a fate none of us was willing to countenance.
Select had forged a commendable path during its two decades and, rather than abet the diminution of the cherished craft of printing, we elected to sell the publication on to the next generation who was more willing to embrace cyberspace as a suitable podium for fine photography.
by Johno du Plessis
A WIDER ANGLE