The sad, albeit inevitable, news of the demise of The Independent as a printed publication reminded me of an interview I conducted some 17 years ago with Colin Jacobson. The interview was about his brilliant Reportage magazine, and foretold its inevitable closure in print form. Much like The Independent today it was compelled to become an online resource, but considering we are talking about 1999 when the web was in its infancy, it was a poignant indicator of the way things were going. Why is this relevant? Jacobson was probably best known for being the founding editor of the Independent Magazine back in 1988. The Independent may be highly regarded for the quality of its writing now, but in its heyday it was universally admired by photographers for the quality of the images it used, and the prominence with which it used them. That drive to make photographs of primary rather than secondary (or space-filling) importance within the paper was in no small part due to Jacobson and those with whom he worked, and it attracted photographers of the very highest calibre to work with them. When other publications shunned black and white for being an anachronism, The Independent proudly proclaimed that it was the quality of the image that mattered, and to photographers that mattered and the paper and Jacobson were seen as their champions.
The interview may be older than the digital revolution, but what it has to say is just as pertinent now. The online version of Reportage is still available, although has not been updated in fourteen years. Here’s hoping that the Inde online is more successful.
An Interview with Colin Jacobson
As men of vision go, Colin Jacobson is an unlikely example. Soft spoken, bespectacled, and, it appears, utterly at ease with life. But looks deceive, and he definitely has a vision, albeit one which by his own admission is self-indulgent.
In 1993 Jacobson launched Reportage, a magazine for quality black and white photojournalism. Image led, it was inevitably hailed as a Picture Post for the nineties. But poor business decisions and Jacobson’s reluctance to compromise on quality led to its demise in 1995.
At about the same time, the arguments about the death of photojournalism became a favourite in the pages of the photographic press. Perhaps it was coincidence. Nevertheless, the received wisdom was, “nice try, but the genre’s dead.” It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Reportage was relaunched in the winter of 1997.
Working in London’s Shoreditch, Jacobson is now guiding his creation into the second year of its second incarnation. It’s make or break time and, quietly, he knows it. Files and papers all around him an exercise in controlled chaos; the hum of his Mac standing in for the insects oddly missing from a humid summer’s day, he took time out to consider how he had reached this point in his life.
Jacobson’s career seems in retrospect to have been grooming him for Reportage.
“I started as picture researcher for The Sunday Times Magazine in 1971. At the time it was a very strong magazine with topical features. They had Don McCullin going out to Vietnam. It was in the tradition of front-line reporting. My job was to find photographs to illustrate texts that were already written. It was a very good learning school because at that time it was definitely the most influential magazine in the world.”
From there he moved on to become photo editor on the Economist, before working on a short-lived but interesting magazine called Now.
“It was the first real attempt to launch in the UK a news magazine a bit like Paris Match, or Stern – a kind of hybrid between that and Time or Newsweek. A lot of text at the front and back but the centre of the magazine was visual. You always had a strong photoessay in the middle, which was usually news related. A lot of our stories were the first to be published in the world, like the Reagan assassination attempt, which we got out very quickly the day after. That was a fast moving magazine but unfortunately it closed after eighteen months because it wasn’t making any money.”
Did that set the seed for Reportage?
“Not really. Where you could say it planted a seed was my realising that the best photography always comes from a particular individual’s perspective. The way the photographer sees the story is the difference between ordinary photography and memorable photography.”
Another lesson he took from Now, was that a good picture magazine does not need high profile writing staff. The major input should be visual not textual. But he is adamant that this is not the same as saying that good captioning and well written text cannot enhance an already powerful set of pictures.
“Despite the fact that Reportage is an attempt to swing the balance towards the visual, as opposed to the textual, I do believe very strongly in good text. Photojournalism means context – photography in journalism – so it requires good headlines, good intros, good captions, good text to make it all work. I have a couple of volunteer slave labourers who help with the text. I hope that the text is not just throw-away, I am really trying to avoid that.”
From Now he moved to the Observer Magazine as photo editor for six years before a very brief excursion to another short-lived paper, News On Sunday. When that closed after only eight weeks, he freelanced for a year, editing the photography for Chronicle of the Twentieth Century before landing the job for which he is probably best known, founding picture editor on the Independent Magazine in 1988.
“The first few years of that magazine we achieved something really quite special in British magazine journalism. But all these things have a kind of life, and after a few years somebody decides on a change for no apparent reason. I left the Independent in 1995 just after the Mirror group bought the paper.”
The fact that he started Reportage while still working for The Independent is telling. Such a massive undertaking would put most people off.
“My spell at the Independent made me realise that nobody was doing the stories that we began to do. Once we started showing we were prepared to do black and white stories, and not about famous people or lifestyles, we started getting a lot of submissions. I realised just how much work there was out there that wasn’t getting published.
After three years the Independent Magazine got a new editor who wanted to make it more glamorous – much more like any other magazine really, and less like the magazine it had been. That’s the point at which I started Reportage because I wanted to find a home for this work which was either not being published at all, or if it was, it was very truncated – maybe just one big picture and a little one, and that was it.
It was a shame that somebody was spending a lot of time on a good story, producing maybe ten or fifteen excellent pictures, and then no one could see them. So I started the magazine in 1993 with the hope of providing an alternative to the mainstream magazines.”
Reportage is characterised by its high quality – quality paper, quality printing, quality design, and of course the quality images. If his motivation was to publish unseen work, surely it would have made more sense to compromise on the quality in order to reduce costs, lower the cover price, and give the magazine a greater chance of success?
“It was a time when the broadsheet magazines were going towards newsprint, so the reproduction was pretty mediocre. I wanted something that was going to be more collectible. I knew it was going to be expensive to produce anyway, and that it was not going to be a cheap magazine to subscribe to, so I felt people would want to get something of value.
It was an expensive subscription, particularly for a quarterly magazine with not that many pages. It started out at £12 in 1993. I wanted to persuade people that this was worth having, by having something well printed, and well designed; something that people wouldn’t just throw away like most colour magazines these days; something lasting, which in a sense, put together over a year would be a bit like a small book. You had an investment in something which you could keep.”
In the editorial to the pilot issue, Jacobson wrote that “in the minds of most people the distinction between photography as self expression and photography as a documentary tool still exists.”
“I think the guidelines are being merged more and more between documentary photography, photojournalism, and press photography. You could say that reportage is a kind of “catch all” description. But I think press photography is becoming dominated by digital technology, and to my mind suffers. What is paramount now is speed. The speed at which you can get something on the page. I think that is having a destructive effect on press photography generally, if you look at the quality overall of national newspapers in Britain today.
At the other end of the spectrum is documentary photography. This is becoming much more obscure. Documentary is getting closer to art in that it is more about personal expression than chronicling something out there in the world. It is tending to become more about a subjective assessment of a subject. Documentary photography is a lot more about combining fragments of this or details of that, and putting it all together as a show. I think that’s what has happened a lot in documentary practice. It’s becoming a curatorial product rather than a photography product.
In terms of photojournalism, I think the real problem – in Britain anyway – is that the outlets are going. Other outlets are replacing them. Like the Internet, which is available for photographers to show their work, but they don’t make any money out of it. Photojournalists are finding it difficult to survive. Some are reaching into commercial work and advertising, or company reports – well paid, but not very challenging in terms of being a photojournalist. Others are working in more focussed ways in niche magazines. These specialist magazines have good opportunities for photographers, but they are not going to give the same job satisfaction that photojournalists would get from say the Sunday Times Magazine.”
Does he feel then that the documentary rôle of photography needs to be protected?
“Yes. There is this big contemporary post-modern debate about, ‘is there any such thing as truth; can we ever talk about anything as being objective anymore?’ To me a lot of it is a philosophical game, because actually most people would agree a normal kind of reality. Like if you drop a pen from your hand it will fall downwards and not upwards. You accept this without asking if it’s true or false; it’s a common reality. What I believe is that there is a certain kind of debate about photography which is at an esoteric level of curators, critics, teachers, where a lot of mind games are being played. But I don’t think it is touching the greater public, who by and large still believe, despite all the evidence of manipulation digitally or non-digitally, in what they see in photographs. They accept it as a form of evidence and appreciate it as a kind of contemporary history. The general public are the people I am trying to get to. I am not really trying to get to the people who are happy to reject classical photography as meaningless, because as far as I can see it does have meaning if you want it to have meaning.”
So we arrive at the critics who from the outset felt that Jacobson and Reportage were trying to keep alive something they regard as an anachronism.
“That is a totally valid observation, but in the end you do what you want to do and what you believe in.
Most of what we understand about the past is mediated through pictures – a lot of it photography. Our understanding of Belsen comes very much through George Rodger’s pictures. What I can never quite understand about post-modern attitudes is that if they consider this kind of work as no longer valid, who’s going to provide this kind of history? It’s certainly not going to be through some of the post-modern work we see in the Photographers Gallery all the time. I mean what are people going to think in twenty years time when we look back on photography in the Nineties? What sense of society are they going to get? I don’t think they will get a very representative sense from this work.
I am quite happy to accept that a lot of stuff I publish is very “classical”, but I don’t see that as a pejorative word. Many of the outlets for photography on the page, apart from the mainstream publications, are into the avant-garde, and new ways of seeing. Fine, I have no argument with that, but I think somebody has still got to keep representing this classical stuff.”
If the need for Reportage is as real as he suggests, why did the magazine fold after only two years?
“The big problem with the first incarnation was that we printed far too many copies. We stupidly decided not only to supply subscribers, but also shops through wholesale distribution. We printed substantially higher numbers than we needed. About five or six thousand per issue for the first year, with about three and a half thousand subscribers at the end of that year. Our second problem was that all subscriber based magazines lose a high proportion of their subscribers at the end of the first year. You have to send a lot of letters out to people to remind them to resubscribe. Now it’s fine if you are Time or Newsweek because you can just keep doing it automatically. But every time I set up to do it, it cost me over £1000, and I could only afford to do it two or three times. So that was a reason why we never managed to get back our basic subscriber base. But maybe a lot of people didn’t like the magazine as well I don’t know.”
Having turned to other things, a chance encounter gave Jacobson the opportunity to try again. For most it would have been a case of once bitten, twice shy, but not Colin.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get a chance to relaunch. I hooked up with this publisher in Holland who is publishing it now. We met at Perpignan during the first incarnation and he rather off-handedly said he would always like to help. When I bumped into him again I told him what had happened and he asked if I would like to try again if he could raise the money. To which I said sure, I don’t want to lose my own money again! So eventually we did this one-off prototype for the new series. Then he managed to get a grant out of Canon Europe, which took us through to the end of the first four issues, and Canon Europe undertook to provide the same money for the second four issues. So we have that cushion. It’s not ideal to be dependent on sponsorship or grants. What we aim to do is to increase the subscriber base so that we can feel like we are our own people.
With the second incarnation we have a much more coherent strategy. We only print enough for our known subscribers plus some extras. The unit costs have fallen dramatically, but it’s still not cheap.”
Once more he finds himself holding his breath to see if people renew, which is, perhaps, a bigger question than the first time given the big increase in the subscription price since the first incarnation. If being a conduit for good contemporary photojournalism is Reportage’s guiding philosophy, what does Jacobson see as being its future?
“We have always hoped we could achieve a subscriber base of five thousand – internationally – over a period of years. That would be our ideal target, especially when we hit America, which we are trying to do now. Then we would be in a position to commission work, as opposed to trawl it in.”
That kind of support would also raise the possibility of the occasional colour story. While his preference is for black and white he is not averse to colour.
“If I could afford to publish colour I would probably do one story per issue, but it would have to be a special story where colour actually added to your understanding of the pictures.”
Contrary to suggestions that he is antagonistic towards advertisers, Jacobson suggests that quite the reverse is true; he would welcome advertisers, but can’t get them because Reportage is too small.
“My experience is that it’s more difficult to get people in the UK to help or sponsor than in Europe.”
Is this symptomatic of a British malaise? Evidence on the street would suggest not. Photography seems to be going through a renaissance, and black and white is more popular than it has been for years. But how is it seen at the publishers’ level? Jacobson’s view is rather bleak.
“What I detect is a growing disrespect for photography in that it is seen as just there to fill a space. There is no real belief throughout a publication that photography has a contribution to make.”
Clearly his own view is diametrically opposed to this, and his belief is strong enough that he doesn’t take any pay from the magazine. Indeed, almost all those involved in Reportage are giving their services for little or nothing.
There is no question that Reportage is an excellent and unique magazine, and Jacobson will continue to put it together for as long as the money is available. It will be interesting to see how history reflects on the man and his creation. By rights he should succeed. Whether or not he does is down to the greater public he aims at. At £32 for four issues it is not cheap, but then again, things of value very rarely are.