10 minutes with David Cicconi

Interviews with Photo Editors March 29, 2013 8:19 am

When did you first become interested in photography?

My father, who first gave me the travel bug by taking me on some great trips starting at a fairly young age (around 12), was very into the pictures that he took on these vacations. He still has some of them framed in his home. His sister also took some beautiful black and white jazz portraits in her 20’s, which definitely made an impression on me.

Then I first got excited about taking pictures myself when I did a year abroad in Spain while I was in college. I had some semi-automatic Minolta and shot some 30 or so rolls of 35mm over the course of eight months. I blew a good deal of my limited budget getting these rolls developed at the local Corte Inglés, but I couldn’t wait to see the results.

I didn’t really know what I was doing, and definitely shot way too many churches. But I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I got back to Columbia for my senior year, I took at Photo I class. And some of those Spanish churches made it into the makeshift portfolio I put together for my interview for the assistant photo editor position at Travel + Leisure just a couple of years later.

And from that interview you went on to become the Photo Director at T+L, how did that happen?

Good bosses/mentors. Jim Franco (the photo director) who hired me, Pamela Berry (the creative director) and current design director of Trunk, Katie Dunn (photo editor) who’s been my photo guru over the years. Also, two other incredibly talented and heralded people in their respective fields—Heidi Posner was photo director over me for a period, and creative director Luke Hayman, now a partner at Pentagram.

They all encouraged shooting, learning, etc. And I liked the work. It suited me, and as a result I was good at it. My first job out of college was not enjoyable for me, but this one was. And I think that’s difference between what one does and does not excel at.

I started as assistant photo editor in the fall of ’98 and made my way to photo director in the fall of ’01. I left T+L in the spring of ’05 to move over to Spain/Italy to start shooting full time.

How long were you in Spain and Italy? What was it like going from the photo director, hiring photographers and editing shoots to shooting full time?

I was there for a little over two years—a year and change in each country. I was based in Granada, Spain and then Rome, Italy. The transition from photo director to photographer is a relatively easy one, provided you can take a decent picture. You have the contacts, people know you, you know how contracts, shoots, production work. So it should make you easy to work with and attractive to other photo directors. Though sometimes I’m sure I was a pain in the ass with contracts that tried to take a little too much. Granted, compared to the contracts today, those were nothing to complain about.

The lifestyle of a travel photographer is like crack. I’ve never done crack, but I’m told it’s very addictive. And traveling weekly on a magazine’s dime to take pictures, driving around foreign countries, getting by with the language, meeting and photographing people, the food, etc. It’s very addictive.

I found the same things that frustrated me about photo editing—not getting the edit you like in the final layout—is the same frustration, or even more acutely so, when you’re the photographer.

Was it during this time, while you were traveling around and enjoying the crack high of being a photographer in Spain and Italy that you decided to start Trunk?

The idea for Trunk, in its most fledgling and unrefined form, started in ’03 while I was still at T+L. I called my college friend—also a fellow publishing colleague and now partner in and editor-in-chief of Trunk—Diane Vadino. The original idea was just to do a cooler travel magazine—something not so service-y and mass market as the mainstream titles. I wanted to call it WANDERLUST, but with an 80’s style typeface, giving it more of a design magazine aesthetic than the typical travel look. See attached font reference. That’s not the exact font, but along those lines.

But the name Wanderlust was already taken by a UK adventure travel magazine. I then went for the name SEVEN (seven seas, continents, wonders of the world, etc). But too many things had the name Seven (movies, jeans, other mags). Then for a while we were going with the name DENIZEN, cuz Citizen was taken. But the name is too literal, too ugly, and no one really knew what it meant.

Anyway, to answer your question. Yes, the idea for Trunk evolved while I was living overseas and leading this mobile existence. The idea shifted from just a cool travel magazine to that of a global lifestyle magazine. It was Diane who first uttered the words “global lifestyle” to me. That was the first time I’d ever heard that expression. In the end it’s just semantics, but it helped a lot to finally express what I hadn’t really articulated as yet and to make the concept and direction of the magazine more concrete in my mind.

I knew I wanted to produce a magazine that reflected the experience I was having, and that of my peers as well, of being on the move constantly until it’s second nature; knowing other cities, and even countries, as well as you know your own; making friends in so many places that you have to travel pretty far before you’re reminded of what it was like to be a tourist.

It was during my two-month trip with Diane to South Africa for the debut issue of Trunk that I became sick of the name Denizen and set out to find a replacement. I found an op-ed piece in the NYT by Hemingway’s contemporary A.E. Hotchner, recanting an anecdote about a lunch he had with Hemingway at the Ritz in Paris. Together they rediscovered Hemingway’s long lost Louis Vuitton travel trunk, which had gone missing for two decades. Inside it was filled a ton of Hemingway’s belongings from his travels over the years, including a stack of his hand written journals, documenting his life in Paris. This image of a veritable lifetime of travel all contained in this single LV trunk (the perfect brand in that it seamlessly blends history, travel, fashion, lifestyle) which belonged to the world’s most iconic journalist/writer/ex-pat and quintessential first of his kind global citizen… It was just a perfect fit for what we were trying to do with Trunk, which is approach travel, not as a vacation, but as a lifestyle—a way of life, which is exactly what it was for Hemingway and for Trunk’s target audience today.

 
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I love that story about the LV trunk.. and also about the previous titles. Its funny how much weight we put into names.. like all of the band names you make up before you even know how to play an instrument.. So this is too big of a question, but, how did you get Trunk started? Did you have investors? Was it all coming from your savings? How did you get a team together? How did you choose which photographers would contribute?

No investors. For the first issue, I used my savings, some money from family, and sold a couple of ads. The next issue was paid for with my freelance gigs (photo editing at magazines—where I met you : )), some Kickstarter, and a few more ads. The last issue was all freelance gigs and ads.

The team was a no-brainer. Diane, the editor in chief, was there from the start. She’s brilliant – a novelist, journalist, editor, she was the executive editor at Surface, a senior editor at Nylon, and a founding member of McSweeney’s literary journal.

And Pamela Berry was also there from very very early on. She designed covers for SEVEN and did the entire DENIZEN prototype. Again, Pamela was the creative director and my old boss from T+L. She’s been at Esquire and Rolling Stone, was part of the team that just redesigned French Vogue, and she has more accolades to her name than can be counted.

Without the generosity of the Trunk team and our contributors (writers and photographers) the magazine’s not possible… obviously. That goes without saying… but I have to say it. For photographers, I started with people I knew from my T+L days. And again, their generosity is so over the top that it was simultaneously flattering and humbling. I did my best to make sure no one lost money shooting for us by covering expenses. But no one made money, and they had to work on a shoestring. We did treat their images, though, with the utmost respect and gave them as much space in the issue as humanly possible.

I owe this to T+L. My time there, what I learned, and the relationships I formed are the foundation for Trunk. The photographers I worked with at T+L are some of the best shooting today, and that was the biggest advantage I had going into this endeavor. After the first issue, I was able to hire photographers that I didn’t know, because they were so impressed with the look of the magazine and the way we treated the images.

To name some of the people I was blessed enough to work with (in no particular order): Anne Menke, Bettina Lewin, Anders Overgaard, Joanna Van Mulder, Bobby Fisher, John Huba, Frederic Lagrange, Jason Florio… I’m leaving out a ton of people, but every image in all our issues, big and small, led to the success we’ve had. I wanted to make sure that we never ran an image in which I’d be disappointed. And in that, Trunk is a complete success.

Incorporating fashion and style were also important to me in order to take Trunk out of the strictly travel realm and into the global lifestyle space. And photographers, like Anne, Bettina, and Joanna were absolutely indispensable in accomplishing this. They pulled together $20-30K shoots for a mere fraction of that cost, busting their asses to get it all done in one or two days of shooting. They used their relationships with their respective stylists (who are magicians in their own right) to get clothes for a magazine that no one had ever heard of, which is no easy feat. For Anne’s Mexico fashion shoot in issue one, I took 100K points off my step-father’s Amex card to fly the stylist and model to Mexico. They stayed at Anne’s place there and pulled together that absurdly fun and beautiful shoot under less than ideal circumstances (an approaching hurricane—two in fact) with no time or money… and they shot it on film, per my misguided request at the time!

Anne and Bettina brought fashion to issue two. I’d never worked with Bettina before, and what she pulled off for a stranger with no budget is… I’m not sure what to call it other than very difficult to ever pay back. And I caught the end of Anne’s shoot. A crew of about a dozen people running around NYC on 100 degree August day in an RV with a bogus shooting permit. They did 11 shots in one day! Lastly, Joanna Van Mulder pulled together the FLEMISH RENAISSANCE shoot that, together with the other amazing photography in the issue, has us up for “best photography entire issue” at SPD this year.

Then there are the photographers who allowed us to run their personal work. They’re saints as well. You get the idea. I could go on and on gushing over these people without ever really doing them justice. So I’ll stop now.

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Considering the photographer relationships and the team behind Trunk, we had everything we needed to physically make a magazine—an editor, designer, creative director, writers, and photographer. So that wasn’t the hard part. The difficulty was going to be getting ads in it and getting it distributed—out there in the world.

This story is further testament to our photography and design. We acquired ads, got Swatch to partner with us and provide the magazine for free with a purchase, had Thompson Hotels sign on to take enough copies for every room at every Thompson hotel in the US, Missoni and Kartell (worlwide) took copies for their stores, Emirates, Swiss, Virgin Atlantic for their first class lounges—and all this was done with a laptop and a few mock-up layouts in pdf form.

The one member of the team that was hard to come by was a marketing/ad person, as I had no experience in cold calling advertisers… not to mention no contacts to even call. A lot of people from my T+L days were unable to help, due to conflicts of interest. But through them, I found my soulmate, both in disturbing humor and work ethic, Michelle Gysberts, who was with me on all those calls and meetings to pitch the first issue.

Some months after the debut issue, I did an online interview that someone at Borders saw. Their distributor reached out to us. Borders closed but B&N took Trunk on in over 120 of their stores nationwide. And that same distributor has Trunk in over 20 counties worldwide.

And then for subsequent issues, we partnered in similar ways and beyond with brands like Artek, the Conran Shop, and Emirates requested copies of the most recent issue to provide in-flight in their first and business class cabins.

The point is, because of the quality of the content, things fell into place. And when some things fall into place, more things then follow. They may not be moneymakers, but they all contribute to the growth of the brand.

So, being that you have worked in magazines for most of your adult life and created your own magazine, what do you think the future of publishing looks like?

There are, obviously, significant negative indicators for print publishing: all the titles that have folded since the onset of the economic crisis, ever-diminishing newsstand sales across the board, an iconic print title like Newsweek going all digital, a company like Time Warner unloading Time Inc (though maybe prematurely), and advertisers just not wanting to pay as much for advertising. I think the last item is significant. Even if everything goes digital tomorrow, you still need photo editors and photographers to produce content. But will there be as much money in the industry—considering the digital ad model is still being written and doesn’t pay as much as the print model—and will photographer rates and photo dept salaries ever be what they were? Well, we already know that photographer editorial rates won’t be. They went over two decades without increasing, and now have even gone down with smaller editorial budgets.

Anyway, this is hardly a groundbreaking observation, but I think, in light of how good images look on a tablet and how many people now own tablets, that the digital format is clearly the future of magazine and newspaper publishing. I think newspapers and tablets, especially, were made for each other. I love my NYT digital subscription, how easy it is to read on my iPad, all the integrated extra features: video, slideshows, saving and emailing articles, connections to social media, etc. And some magazines have great tablet editions as well.

Now, in spite of diminishing newsstand sales and the transition to digital, there are still a lot of indie start-up titles being launched in print. And I think that’s where we’re headed. I believe we’ll see fewer and fewer mainstream titles on newsstands, as it’s a wasteful and ailing component of the print model (especially costly for mass market magazines) and is what will probably disappear first, while print subscriptions continue on for however longer. I believe newsstands—before they go away completely—will first become a forum for just the more artful indie titles, with nice paper, and their niche audiences.

But again, the statistics of how many tablets are out there is irrefutable. The future is digital. And in the digital space, magazines (ie professional journalism and photography) will have just as an important a place as they do in print, only with an exponentially larger reach. Magazines are (some better than others) taking advantage of these amazing resources (ie online social media) with which to disseminate information and promote their brand to a vast and global online audience. This is why at Trunk, we’ve overhauled our website and have redoubled our efforts and activity through our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram). There are tons of people to be reached through these platforms, who are there to find exactly the kind of images and content that we and other magazines want to share.

 
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The new site is beautiful. And its true, the access you get with subscriptions on tablets is pretty awesome, but I can’t help but love me some paper. Will we see more issues of Trunk in the ever-dwindling newsstands, or are you planning on staying with digital for a while?

Ditto. The goal with Trunk is to always have the print edition. I think the magazine works especially well in print, our audience appreciates it, and in the right bookstores, we sell out pretty effortlessly. But we’re still determining what is the most efficient way to distribute our print product, and have not yet settled on a concrete game plan.

But whatever that final print strategy ends up being, the new, robust digital component is here to stay, and the two will complement each other. They both play very different, but equally valuable, roles in growing the Trunk brand and business as a whole.

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(David Cicconi is a creative director who has been producing shoots for 15 years. After graduating Columbia University with a BA in Art History, David served as photo director at Travel + Leisure, where he was responsible for conceptualizing and overseeing the production and research of all photography in the magazine, ultimately defining its aesthetic. During his tenure atT+L, the publication recieved some 20 plus accolades for achievement in photography, from SPD to American Photography.Subsequently, David worked as a full-time photographer, dividing his residence between Spain and Italy and shooting for such clients as Conde Nast Traveller UKW magazine, the New York TimesFood & WineBudget TravelDeparturesMen’s Journal, and Travel + Leisure. He was selected as one of the “30 Emerging Photographers of 2006” by Photo District News, and he published a book with Rizzoli in 2008.In 2010, David launched the global lifestyle title, Trunk—an acclaimed print magazine that covers style, travel, cuisine, design, and more. In his dual role as publisher and creative director, David has produced and acquired all visual content featured in Trunk, receiving medals from the Society of Publication Designers for best photography travel feature and entire issue in their Pub 48 magazine awards (2012), in addition to recognition in SPD’s Pub 46 (2010) and an image published in American Photography 27. He also supervises every aspect of the magazine from printing and post-production imaging to coordinating distribution and marketing partnerships with brands, such as Missoni, Swatch, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss, Kartell, Artek,The Conran Shop, and Thompson Hotels.

David has also worked as a freelance photo editor for titles at Time Inc. and Conde Nast Publications. He speaks Spanish and Italian and has duel (American & European) citizenship. David currently lives in New York City.

See more of Trunk, here. Trunk is looking for photography submissions! If you think you have work that fits in with Trunk, send your submissions, here)

2 Comments

  • Eugene Brodsky

    What a wonderfully informative interview!

  • Papijam

    Wow. Fascinating. I’m rushing out to buy me a copy of Trunk!

    PS: Imagine what you’d have gotten out of him if you’d spent 20 minutes instead of 10…

    ;—)

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