Ever want to know where the brains behind the beauty comes from in those well-crafted images of seductive models (who can never seem to keep their clothes on) and A-list celebs wanting to show us a new side of themselves? Where do the ideas come from, why do they choose the photographers they do and how does it all come together? Well art director Matt Brooke who has worked with iconic photographers like David LaChapelle and Robert Maxwell, has an impressive client list including Motorola, Nike, and i-D and is credited with launching Maxim Fashion USA is ready to spill the beans. We get a front row seat as Matt details two shoots he art directed for Arena and Maxim Fashion.
Produced by Liman Cheng.
Tell us a little bit about your background and what you do.
I’m a freelance art director based in London. My first job was at the fashion bible i-D, which was a great apprenticeship straight out of art college (Liverpool). After that I moved on to become art editor of British Elle. Finally I settled at Arena, where I was first design director before becoming art director. After four years I went freelance, initially to art direct the first American bi-annual mens’ magazine – Maxim Fashion USA but also to devote more time to commercial clients I had worked with while at Arena. These clients have included Iceberg, Gieves & Hawkes, Motorola, M&S, John Smedley, Reiss, Dunhill, Gossard, Sony BMG, Boden, Luxottica and Nike. I’ve also consulted for publishing and PR companies, including Condé Nast. In 2004 I art directed a photo-biography for the Portuguese football superstar Luis Figo and my most recent book, marks Jean-Paul Gaultier’s 30th anniversary party celebrations. Although rooted in menswear, my folio is pretty diverse covering fashion, music, sport and reportage. This is pretty much a a reflection of the editorial school in which I was formed. I just enjoy that diversity. You never know what’s going to happen when that phone rings!
You’ve art directed so much beautiful work and I’d love to know more about your process. Can you take us through your art directing of the Bridget Hall series for Arena and the Christian Bale cover for Maxim Fashion?
It’s nice to know you recall those other shoots. Particularly the Bridget Hall story for Arena. That is still a favorite of mine and quite important in setting me off in a certain direction.
It was around that time that lingerie shoots in men’s magazines were being produced that were enthusiastically retouched, beyond the realms of physical attainability. They still are to be fair. I’ve never had any interest in that. My thinking with that was to create something incredibly sexy but based in a reality that was incredibly cinematic. I prefer my shoots to be more real, and if they aren’t then they are blatant parodies of that whole pin-up ethos, hence my collaborations with David LaChapelle over that period too.
I asked Steen Sundland to shoot the Bridget story. He was a photographer I’d admired a lot. He’d been shooting regularly for Arena but I felt there was a personal side to his work that could work harder. I was really looking for someone who could translate this direction I had for shooting women. It was crucial to the magazine to run these kind of stories, but I wanted to do it with warmth, make the women strong. It had to be passionate, intimate, a fantasy – but still attainable. There was a lot of pressure at Arena not only to get the girls wearing less (competition was intense in the men’s market) but also for great styling credits. I think this story cleared the way a bit for us to build on that for a period.
Anyway, I’d had this idea of Bridget Hall, trying to keep cool on the hottest day of the year in an East Village and failing miserably, hence providing a suitable vehicle for her to be in various states of undress. I wanted it to be sweaty and sexy, and well, hot! The styling was fairly conservative compared to other stories in other magazines, but I’d argue ours was far more provocative. The low rent apartment gave it a little edge, a bit Taxi Driver. The key was Bridget, she was such a stunning model who was rocking all the shows and campaigns at that time. I don’t see which other girl it could have been. In my head that story was always her. Arena had a great caché back then and together with Steen we could literally hand pick the models we wanted. As a team we were a bit ahead of the curve with respect to supermodels. We leaned towards those girls as we were so aware of trends and shows and all that aspect of it. I remember we shot a lot of those models way before anyone else on men’s newsstand figured who they were.
Steen cracked that story, it was killer when it came in. It was a joy to put together. I think it probably took moments to lay out. I’ve never been one for all that procrastination that some editors and AD’s do, laying stories on the studio floor for hours and having everyone stroke their chins putting them in order. You see what works, do it, move on. First layouts, like ideas, are generally the best. Steen and I shot a lot more stories after, mostly girls and later, menswear. It really forged a direction for me when commissioning girls stories that I used with other photographers such as Kate Orne. I don’t think we ever retouched them.
[The Christian Bale shoot] was our first Maxim Fashion cover. My editor, Greg Williams (now at Details), and I had left Arena and been offered this great opportunity to create the first American bi-annual fashion magazine for Dennis Publishing. It was when Maxim was off the scale in the US. They were hoping to ride off the back of that, but to be fair they gave us carte blanche. There was no pressure to make the magazine another Maxim. They wanted a premium product for advertisers so they gave us great budgets and beautiful stock. Our outlook at the outset was quite European. We literally carried on our Arena vibe. As we progressed we became more American in outlook, but you can take the boy out of Arena, not Arena out of the boy.
I commissioned Robert Maxwell to shoot it. He was a great guy, a funny character who was perfect in that Hollywood scenario because his feet were so firmly on the ground, but he’d rock up with his shaved head, tattoos, in a white vest, white tracksuit bottoms and Nike Airs chewing a toothpick. You’d think I’m not gonna mess with this guy! But he was really sweet. Great work too. What I call a real photographer’s photographer. David Maloney, his agent at Art Dept in NY had introduced his work to me. I always had great respect for David’s vision of photography and we had collaborated with many of his artists at Arena over the years.
It was a good fit. Robert did a fair few shoots over the initial issues of Maxim Fashion, shaping the visual cues for the magazine. The shoot was pretty simple, pretty quick. It was driven by the collections that season, pastel tailoring etc and we had a kind of Moroccan vibe going on at some house up in the Hollywood Hills. We stood in the street unloading equipment and Christian suddenly bounded over a fence in Maharishi combat pants dusting himself down. He said it was too far to walk on the street from where he’d parked, so he jumped a few fences Ferris Bueller style! I guess that set the tone, and we enjoyed a nice, easy, not very LA publicity driven, shoot.
When it was time to select a photographer for the shoot, who did you chose and why?
There are so many factors to consider here. I think the two examples above give a good indication of my thinking. I always want someone who is going to bring something special to the subject. Sometimes, particularly in fashion, it’s also about the whole team. I always want a team that fits. Photographer, art director and stylist working in tandem. If the three don’t fit together, it’s not going to work. In my opinion it always has to work. I was brought up through i-D and Arena, the budgets aren’t big and for me there’s nothing worse than stories sitting in plan chests gathering dust, because; a) you can’t afford to throw money away and; b) who needs irate photographers calling all day long asking where their story is?!
When I commission a magazine everything has to flow. I plan that thing from beginning to end and it needs pace and energy. For me that’s the attraction, taking the reader on a visual journey, creating an environment that is consistent, yet unexpected too. Every picture is important, every commission. I remember Terry Jones saying “Even if it is the smallest image in the book, it doesn’t mean it can’t be the best”. Kind of true when you consider all those guys who came through i-D that way.
Another to consider is being aware of what your favored photographers are up to, where they are in the world, what excites them. I always think it’s best to talk with photographers to see what pushes their buttons, then commission with that in mind. You’re likely to get better pictures.
Sometimes you get presented a celebrity and think of someone (photographer) who’s going to get what you need from them, who’s going to make it happen. David LaChapelle is genius at that. I’ve done a whole bunch of covers and campaigns with David and it’s always going to be off the wall. He makes magazine covers into magazine covers. He loves that responsibility, it’s art to him. You go in his studio and they are blown up all over the office. I was psyched when I saw my Arena covers got up there on his wall. Even though I have a great job, sometimes it can feel like a job, just because of the relentlessness and politics of it. To walk into the office of someone you’ve commissioned and see their enthusiasm gives a lot of validation for your thought processes and determination.
Another point is to always meet the photographer. I’m pretty reluctant to commission anyone I’ve not met. I like to know that there’s a connection and understanding.
We are now in a time when every corner needs to be cut, when only the “strong” survive and when industry professionals need to change their business strategy.
How has your job changed as a result of recent changes in magazine budgets?
I’ve not worked in magazines for some time now. Most of my workload is for commercial fashion and music clients, out of choice. A couple of years ago I published a photographic music magazine called Sly’n'Chic with Michel Haddi. We hoped there’d be a second issue but the fact that there wasn’t tells its own story of the climate out there. We managed to fund it without advertising, but to push it on we needed to get some in. That’s not really happening right now, even for the big boys. Even the established magazines are feeling a little thinner on the newsstand.