Leslie Baldwin is one of the most sought after photo editors in Texas. She shares her insights, favorite TM covers, and advice on approaching photo editors. ”You have to be totally passionate and dedicated or you’re going to get steam-rolled. Next comes perseverance and patience. Oh, and be nice! That’s very, very important.”
How did you get started in photo editing?
It was quite an indirect route, which I think is common for a lot of photography editors. I received a BFA from UT, which is great, but it doesn’t quite prepare you for the real world. After I graduated, I had enough sense to know that photography had the most real-world application — as opposed to painting or print-making which I did quite a lot of in school. And if I wanted to avoid working for the IRS or Allstate I needed to learn fast how to make a living with photography.
I started out taking pictures of kids, but struggled to make ends meet. I had a lot to learn about the trade. I moved to New York in 1995 and landed a job as a studio manager. I didn’t even know what a studio manager was at first! That job was basically boot camp into the photo industry. I went on to manage the studio for Matt Mahurin whose work I admired so much. That was a fantastic job. I learned all aspects of producing shoots and dealing with magazines. Matt was doing a ton of editorial work at that time. It was through this job that I developed an interest in becoming a photo editor, so when Matt shut down his Greenwich Village studio and moved to Long Island I transitioned over to working at magazines.
My first full-time magazine position was working with Arthur Hochstein, the Creative Director at Time magazine. I helped coordinate covers at Time for four years. I had been in New York for 8 years and was becoming homesick right at the same time a staff change was happening at Texas Monthly. I jumped at the chance to come home and come on board at Texas Monthly. I interviewed with Scott Dadich and, fortunately, I got the job. Here I am nine years later.
Be talented. And be nice.
Texas Monthly is one of the most desirable publications to shoot for in the country; how can one make an impression with you if you’re inundated with emails and promos.
That’s a really good question because I am totally inundated! Show your best work and keep it simple. And as counter-intuitive as this might sound, don’t expect a reply. Just keep sending the occasional e-mail or promo. If your work is good and relevant to our publication, we know you’re out there and will come to you when the time is right.
I still love old-school promos too, btw. I get a stack of mail everyday, and while 95% of it might go in the trash if there’s that one promo I like I put it on my stack of promos on the shelf (see below). It might be nine or ten months later, but I’ll remember the work and will go look for the promo if we want to consider hiring that person.
Be talented. And be nice.
Since you mentioned what to do, what are things NOT to do when contacting you or any other photo editor?
Do not call or email and ask what type of photography I want. It is the photographer’s job to know what type of work a magazine publishes. There’s not a photo editor in the world who has time to call someone and explain what type of images they run.
Being persistent is a good thing, but there is a fine line when it switches over to being annoying. It’s very difficult for me to be able to give individual feedback about someone’s work. There’s just no time. I get multiple e-mails a day asking for that one-on-one attention. I wish I had more time, but, the hard truth is that I don’t.
Unless I’m your best friend, do not IM me on Facebook.
Tell us about a shoot that went horribly wrong.
Honestly, we haven’t had a total catastrophe. My struggles have been more with celebrities and their egos!
Navigating the Tommy Lee Jones shoot was quite difficult (ok, I cried that night). He’s known for being a tough character, so I don’t think I’m speaking out of line here: we flew in Kurt Markus from Montana and we all caravanned out to Tommy’s ranch. After 5 minutes, TLJ said it was time to shut it down. That was tough, because it was supposed to be our cover, and I just knew we didn’t have it.
So when something like that happens with Tommy Lee and it’s a cover shoot, what happens?
Our Editor had to call his publicist – he had a movie coming out – and we had to inform them that we barely got any images. They did allow us to come shoot him again, and we got a few more frames, but it wasn’t much different than before. It was just a difficult shoot. The images ended up running on the inside of the magazine. In the end, I really like the way the portraits came out. Tommy Lee kind of looks like hell, but hey…
Do you get to go on shoots often?
Rarely. We’ll go to cover shoots if they’re nearby. It’s too bad, because that’s the most fun part of my job, when I’m able to get away from the desk and go.
You’d mentioned hiring a photographer from Montana for the Tommy Lee shoot and you sometimes hire out of town photographers. Does that get the goat of Texas photographers? Do they give you a hard time?
Some of our contributors who have a long history with Texas Monthly will give me a hard time if we use another photographer too much or fly someone in from out of state – but it’s always in a friendly way. I think in general photographers are a competitive group of folks, so it gets their goat when anyone is hired besides them! Doesn’t matter if it’s here locally or out-of-state.
Sometimes I try to explain to them (and to staffers too who will sometimes ask) that even though the bulk of our photographers are here locally, we still love and are excited that we’re occasionally able to bring in photographers that aren’t based here – whose work we love and we think would be fitting for a particular story (Todd Hido, for example).
We have a lot of photographers that grew up in Texas that have moved, either to LA or NY, and so we have great pre-existing relationships with a lot of folks who are no longer here but who come back on occasion — people like Peter Yang and Van Ditthavong.
So it sounds like there’s a story and you hire based on who’s best suited for the story?
Definitely. We try hard to match up the right photographer with the right story. Some photographers will be fine wandering around a ranch all day, while others might find that terrifying and prefer a studio environment – which I totally understand. For covers, sometimes we know we’ll need to do a lot of comping and post-production. Someone like Randal Ford is a master of that. He managed to photograph a chimpanzee in Las Vegas and put it in the same frame as a shoot we did here in Austin – it appeared as if it was all in-frame. That type of shoot is not for every photographer!
Since you’re talking about covers, do you have a really controversial cover and a favorite cover, or is it like your kids and you can’t pick a favorite?
I tried to pick a favorite, but I couldn’t. On the one hand, you have the classic Texas Monthly covers – cowgirls, cowboys, small towns , etc. — that are cliches on some level, yet I never tire of them because I think we do them so well (I should specifically point out our Creative Director, TJ Tucker, who designs and art directs them so well). On the other hand I love the big production shoots we frequently do with photographers like Randal Ford. His 2011 cover for Best and Worst legislators (which was a remake of a cover we did in 1977) was so much fun to do — as was our How To Raise A Texan cover, though it was almost the death of me. Lots and lots of work.
One that was really controversial more than the others?
Dick Cheney as our Bum Steer of the year was probably the most controversial . You might recall in 2007 Dick Cheney, unfortunately, shot his friend in the face on a hunting expedition. We did a spoof of the National Lampoon magazine cover where it says “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog (below).”
Darren Braun created this spot-on photo-illustration and we thought it was perfect, but a lot of our readers were really, really offended. One reader was so offended they took their shotgun to the issue and mailed it to our editor (below). But, I totally love that cover and thought it was perfectly executed.
Should photographers pitch story ideas to you? Is it worth the effort? Say you like the idea, what happens next behind the scenes?
Yes, it’s worth the effort. If it’s a good idea, it’ll stick in my brain and we’ll offer it up at our monthly ideas meeting. Or present it to out editor directly. But, be patient, it might be something that we can’t explore until a year or two down the road.
If your work is good and relevant to our publication, we know you’re out there and will come to you when the time is right.
What do you think about instagram? Other magazines have started hiring instagrammers, and I noticed Texas Monthly just recently got an account and had some images from Allison V. Smith from Marfa.
I think instagram is fine, but, for me, it doesn’t beat seeing a 10-page photo spread in a magazine.
Allison V. Smith asked if she could send some stuff from Marfa for the web and our instagram account. It was the first time we’d hired someone specifically for social media. Her work came out beautiful. No denying that.
Since the Texas Photo Roundup reviews are just around the corner, do you prefer print or iPad portfolios?
I’m open either way. I love iPad portfolios but still enjoy the physical books as well. Photographers sometimes present their work then apologize, which photographers should never do! They should feel confident in the way they’ve chosen to introduce themselves.
While it’s rare, I might still get the occasional set of loose prints that are disorganized, etc. – I’d avoid that for sure.
Any final thoughts or advice for any up and coming photographers?
First and foremost, you have to have talent. I know that’s hard to define, but you have to be totally passionate and dedicated or you’re going to get steam-rolled. Next comes perseverance and patience. Oh, and be nice! That’s very, very important.
I know in this digital age, it’s harder and harder to have the personality and vision of the photographer shine through. While it’s impossible to define talent and what being original means, just do what you want to do, and not what you think someone expects or is the trend.
I’m a Smitty’s girl. Just love the brisket and that open fire pit that greets you when you first walk in.
Water, of course. Next up: Vodka + anything.
Favorite Weekend Getaway Spot in Texas:
It’s been a couple years but there are some rental cabins out on the Rio Frio that I just love. It’s a notch up from camping for sure, but still pretty rustic. And enough of a drive where there aren’t too many floating drunks.