Photographic idols for the Vice photo issue

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“George Pitts was very monumental in guiding my patience and understanding of photography,” explains Elizabeth Renstrom, introducing 2017’s Vice photo issue.
Speaking to me from New York, the Vice photo editor expands on Pitt’s immeasurable influence on her early career. “I was also a huge fan of his raw portraiture. I’ve never met as true an artist and as talented an editor with such a constant desire to absorb more music, film, photo,” she says.
A mentor and friend from her early days at university, Pitts taught Renstrom the importance of processing and understanding inspirations within the photographic industry. Renown within the photography sphere, Pitts could turn his hand from photography to photo direction, educator and writer and was the founding director of photography for Vibe magazine. When he passed away earlier this year after an illness, Renstrom decided to dedicate this year’s Vice photo issue to his memory.
Idols, the theme for this year’s edition, showcases photographers in pairs: up-and-coming names have nominated more established photographers whose work inspires or influences them, and series from both published next to each other, creating a narrative between the generations of photographers and drawing out comparisons between their styles. Several photographers provide small snippets of how their nominated pair has influenced them: Isabella Lanave looks at family relationships in a similar way to Alexandra Sanguinetti; Nishant Shukla has been influenced by the documentary style photography of Jim Goldberg; Tommy Kha matches colours and locations with William Eggleston.
“When I set out I chose younger photographers whose work reminded me of other more established names,” elaborates Renstrom. “I thought it would be interesting to see how different generations, stylistically, narratively, were obviously linked. For some of these portfolios, the connections are quite on the nose, but I actually think the more subtle examples are what made this issue so fun to produce.”

From Dorr’s series Maysa, which she started whilst shooting Miss Young Brazil, as it appears in the Vice photo issue. © Luisa Dorr
From At Home with Themselves: Same Sex Couples in 1980s America, by Sage Sohier, as it appears in the Vice photo issue. Sage Sohier was nominated as one of Luisa Dorr’s Idols. © Sage Sohier
From the series, The Others, by Res, as it appears in the Vice photo issue. © Res
Self portrait with fried eggs, 1996 by Sarah Lucas as it appears in the Vice photo issue. Lucas was nominated as one of Res’ Idols for the Vice photo issue. © Sarah Lucas
Presenting different photographers’ work together proved quite controversial in the Vice office, and it took some extra convincing to get the project green-lit. Work on the magazine would normally start in the March before the August release date, but to ensure that the younger photographers had enough time to nominate idols, production for this one began in February.
Back in the London office, Vice UK editor Bruno Bayley was amongst those with initial apprehensions. “I was definitely on the more worried end of the scale when it came to the complexity of the issue,” he admits.
“Some previous photo issues have had themes – ‘still life’ or ‘collaborations’ for example – but we have not before paired up artists like this. I was worried that people would be reticent about showing their work in the context of someone else’s.”
Fortunately, his concerns were alleviated as the issue shaped up, and he became fascinated with the connections between these various photographers. “It wasn’t something I had really thought about before. And in some cases the influence, be it stylistic or in terms of subject matter, was very clear, while in others you really had to look hard to see it.”
One of the more unusual problems faced by the Vice team was deciding who to feature in different regions. Whilst Renstrom provided the overall scope over in the US, Bayley was faced with the difficult decision of which material to pull over to the UK edition, which to cut and which to add. Ultimately, Bayley decided that it would be in keeping with the theme to include work from photographers who hadn’t been featured in Vice UK before.
“The UK had a lower page count than the US,” he explains. “That, in conjunction with my wanting to include two UK-only pairings – Gus Palmer/Jocelyn Bain Hogg and Daniel Castro Garcia/Tim Hetherington – meant I had to lose a number of portfolios from the US edition.”
Despite the challenges, the photo issue is a well-established event in Vice‘s publishing schedule. Now in its sixteenth year, Vice’s photo issue has developed a reputation for highlighting some of the most innovative photographic work of the past year, and breaking new talent. And that recognition is something that Restroom is very familiar with.
“I was published in the Vice 2012 photo issue and it was such a huge deal for me. Not only because it was my first time in print, but also because of the artists I had the honour of being beside had really become visual heroes to me, like Roger Ballen. I always wanted to keep that feeling in the back of my head,” she says.
“When you finish high school, people start asking when are you getting engaged. When you’re married, they ask when are you having a son. It’s as if, the man you marry, and the man you bring to the world are the only reason for your existence.” Norah, fashion designer, Riyadh. From Saudi Tales of Love as it appears in the Vice photo issue © Tasneem Alsultan
From Steber’s work in Haiti, as it appears in the Vice photo issue. Steber was noinated as one of Alsultan’s Idols for the Vice photo issue © Maggie Steber
Motivated by her own experience, Renstrom was keen to collapse the barriers between established photographers and newcomers. “I think that’s been the best part of the project,” says Renstrom. “I think bigger artists, despite the intimidating veil of success, are normally pretty generous when it comes to having a dialogue with generations below.”
One of the more interesting outcomes of this interwoven conversation is the reflection on social and cultural problems. Bayley points to Daniel Castro Garcia’s work on the migrant crisis; Renstrom cites the likes of Jonathan Gardenhire who challenges black representation or Tasneem Asulta who explores women in Saudi Arabia. Young photographers are adopting the techniques, or being inspired by the approach of older generations, and using them to expose contemporary global issues – and seem more politicised than ever.
“I definitely think there’s a greater amount of photographers using their practice to give voice and contextualise the oppression they face,” emphasises Renstrom. “It’s no secret that we live in a very politically decisive era, and I think a lot of young artists recognise that they can make change and go beyond aesthetics in their work.
“Just because the medium has been democratised does not mean that it has stopped its ability to motivate, inspire, and challenge people,” she adds. “I think the power, if anything, is how the image has grown to be such a part of all our lives and become such a tool in leading people towards new information.”
Maria Gruzdeva’s spread in the Vice Photo issue © Maria Gruzdeva, Vice
Mark Power’s spread in the Vice Photo issue. Power was nominated as an Idol by Maria Gruzdeva © Mark Power, Vice
Isabella Lanave’s spread in the Vice Photo issue © Isabella Lanave, Vice
Alessandra Sanguinetti’s spread in the Vice Photo issue. Sanguinetti was nominated as an Idol by Isabella Lanave. © Alessandra Sanguinetti, Vice
Logan Jackson’s spread in the Vice Photo issue © Logan Jackson, Vice
Roe Ethridge’s spread in the Vice Photo issue. Ethridge was nominated as an Idol by Logan Jackson © Roe Ethridge, Vice
Luisa Dorr’s spread in the Vice Photo issue © Luisa Dorr, Vice
Sage Sohier’s spread in the Vice Photo issue. Sohier was nominated as an Idol by Luisa Dorr. © Sage Sohier, Vice