David Hillman: Studio David Hillman
Need to put a face to a name, get the background story, the right advice and the inside track on how to get commissioned? This month we speak to editorial design icon David Hillman, who designed the Sunday Times Magazine, art directed the groundbreaking Nova magazine between 1969 and 1975 and was a partner at design firm Pentagram. Highly respected in the industry, he has worked with some of the greatest names in photography during his career.
Designer: Sunday Times Magazine
Art editor: London Life
Designer/editor: Design for Living, Sunday Times Magazine
Art director/deputy editor:Nova magazine
Studio David Hillman
Is it important to have a connection with the photographers you work with?
I find it difficult to work with people I don’t like. They can be great photographers but if I don’t think I’m going to get on with them then it doesn’t happen, partly because I think it’s unfair and also because things don’t normally work out. I’m not saying I’m always right but on the rare occasions I’ve been persuaded to work with someone [against my instincts] I’ve regretted it. On Nova my office was long and narrow, maybe 10 or 15 paces to my bench, and about five paces from the light box to the door, and by the time the photographer had walked to the light box I had already decided if I was going to work with them. Over the years I have built up a portfolio of photographers I really enjoy working with. The ones who worked with me on Nova magazine tended to be ex-magazine art directors so there was an understanding about telling a story, be it in fashion or reportage. If I wanted to do a montage, especially in fashion, there were certain photographers I knew who couldn’t bear the thought of me chopping up their work, while others would be more understanding of what I was trying to achieve.
On your website you have this quote, “The successful jobs are based on equal partnerships and living off each other’s experiences.” Is that a sentiment you strongly advocate?
For me, the relationship between the photographer and the art director should be extremely close, a single team. We should work together rather than it being a case of me ringing a photographer up and asking, “Can you do a picture of this?” I refuse to be treated as a ‘supplier’, that word drives me around the bend. When I ran the Pentagram office in Hong Kong we were always referred to as ‘the supplier’ and it really got up my nose. It’s why the office was never terribly successful, because there was no respect. The clients were buying design in the same way they were buying paper or concrete, so the relationships were short-lived. When I work with anyone there has to be trust.
How do you think the industry has changed?
The most important thing about photography is the relationship between the photographer and the subject at the moment you press the shutter. For me – and it’s not me being an old fogey – what I find is that the magic has gone out of photography and that’s to do with digital cameras. When I used to work with photographers such as Helmut Newton, Donovan or Man Ray, they all had an inner sense of when they had the picture, even though they couldn’t see what was on the roll of film at the time. With other photographers you knew that once they got past the 10th roll of film they weren’t ever going to get the picture, maybe because I’d chosen the wrong photographer to do the shoot or because they weren’t really interested in the fashion or the subject. With photographers such as Donovan it could have taken just one roll of film to get the shots, but nowadays so many photographers press the shutter, look at an image on the screen and are forever adjusting accordingly. It’s taken the spontaneity out of it. I hate it that everything now is over-retouched; for me that’s just laziness. On Nova magazine we did hardly any retouching at all, partly because it was so bloody expensive! The rule was that if a model turned up and she had a spot on the end of her nose, well, then she was sent home. On one occasion when I was doing a 10-day calendar shoot with Donovan, a model we had interviewed about two months earlier arrived and was about two stone heavier than she had been at the interview. We sent her packing. Today they would probably say, “We can retouch that.” For me the surprise element and the spontaneity have gone. These days it’s all about, “Can we have it now?” and I suppose that is to do with computers and the internet. Once upon a time you’d come back from a meeting and send the client notes from that meeting the following week, but now they want them straight away. The problem is if you don’t do it straight away there are 10 others lined up behind you. I think that’s the big problem the creative industry as a whole has.
Are you seeing new work? Are you still impressed by any new work that you see?
I do still see photographers whose work is amazing. I use less photography now because of the type of work I’m doing but I still have a great interest in photography and go to shows. I’ve just finished a project with the Royal Mail to produce the Olympic stamps and the original idea was to invite 30 image makers of all disciplines, so we did see photographers. We found it hard to get the photography through, though. I think [clients] feel that if it has an illustration they can interfere a bit more but if it’s been shot they can’t, for example, reschedule a cycling race to reshoot it. In all the time I’ve worked in the magazine and design business, photography and illustration have never been in vogue at the same time. I remember in the 1970s and the 1980s they were always in and out.
Are you seeing many books these days?
If we’re commissioning a job then I’ll get portfolios in, but I also get a lot of email flyers from photographers which I keep in a file so when I need to I’ll go to it and think, “Oh, I’ll get his portfolio in.” There are so many photographers now and so many designers.
Is photography as respected as it was when, for example, you were art directing Nova magazine?
I don’t think so. If you look at the Sunday colour magazines, none of them does the 10 or 15-page reportage picture stories they once did. I cut my teeth at the Sunday Times Magazine with Michael Rand as art director and Mark Boxer as Editor. They were commissioning every fantastic photographer in the world and giving them 10 or 15 pages. They were commissioning McCullin... people like Eve Arnold... other Magnum photographers, and these guys would be in the Sunday Times office all the time, so there would be a rapport between the photographer and the person doing the layout. When the photographer would go off to Beirut or wherever with a writer they would work together as a team; now everything seems to come out of a picture library.
What are you looking for in a portfolio?
Originality. I’m not terribly impressed by photographers who have built their reputation copying other people’s photographs. I do think there is still original work out there. What is interesting about photography now is that there are more artists doing photography as an art form. I’m not sure if I agree with it or not but there are some people doing fantastic things. It’s really interesting when you have two photographers working on the same picture, when two photographers are thinking about the concept rather than the style. I can remember working with Saul Leiter, who shot on a Leica. He only looked through the viewfinder once, the rest of the time he was standing up, talking to the model and only pressing the shutter when he thought the moment was right. The idea of always looking through the viewfinder isn’t necessarily the right way of doing it. Something many students and even some professional photographers don’t understand is that, if you’re going to see an art director, don’t take every picture you’ve ever shot; take 12 good images and if you can’t sell yourself on that there’s something wrong.
Is it important to show a breadth of subject matter in a book?
I think you’ve got to show what your passions are. The commercial world is bad enough as it is, so you’ve got to be true to yourself. The idea of your portfolio is to show what you think you are best at and the way you think. Part of the problem is that the majority of clients are looking for the solution in the portfolio. If the job is to shoot a horse in front of the tree and you haven’t shot a horse or a tree, that doesn’t matter if your portfolio shows you know how to compose and light a shot, and it looks intriguing. If you can do that then there’s not much difference between that and a 6ft 6in blonde model in a miniskirt.
Should photographers have an understanding of editorial design?
I think it’s important to have an appreciation of it. We used to plan with the photographers. Even if it was a studio shoot, they would think about how the pictures would work together. So they’d think about [things such as] change of scale and pace in the story rather than just plonk a model on a white background and take 300 pictures. When I worked with [Nova’s original art director and photographer] Harri Peccinotti we sketched things out, it was what made being an art director fun. When I think about going into an office day after day and laying out pictures on the same sized piece of paper, in theory it could become tedious. But every issue of Nova was a challenge. That’s probably why it didn’t last very long!
Given your views on photography being more instinctive than formulaic, is there still a place for studying photography in higher education? Is it still the best route in?
For me, the old way of learning photography is to go off and become a photographer’s assistant and that way you learn about everything, including the business. I always regret that when I was a student no one taught me how to cost a job or write an invoice; that’s the type of thing you learn from working with other people.
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