Born in London, raised in Rome, and now living in Paris, Lucy Conticello is the director of photography at M, the celebrated weekend supplement of Le Monde, France’s most widely read daily newspaper. She joined for its relaunch in 2011, having started her career as a picture editor two decades ago on Liberal, a newsweekly in Rome, and later working on titles such as Businessweek, International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times Magazine.
“Twenty years later,” she says, “I still love how photography works on the psyche, how its immediacy lets readers access stories simply, and fosters – sometimes very casually – an emotional understanding about a story, its subjects and their circumstances.”
Here, Conticello shares her approach to commissioning photography for M, and why she prefers working with photographers who shoot on film.
BJP: What is M all about?
LC: Our stories aim for originality and rigour, with an irreverent streak. The magazine is a mix of genres: political and social tensions, culture and its broadening definition, fashion series, and stories about industry, design, and food are all recurring topics. In our portfolio section we have a mix of strong visuals, story- driven portfolios, acclaimed masters, and younger talents.
How has M evolved since you joined?
By leaps and bounds. We started out with no time to test-run issues, and all the top positions were covered by very experienced people, but almost everyone was covering that position for the first time. Today, I feel we really have a great mix of stories, all with a particular and diverse tone, as well as formidable art.
Does M have a distinct visual identity?
We have a penchant for natural light, warm hues, beautifully composed portraits. The images are never overly produced. The places we strive to shoot in are simple street scenes, the subjects’ neighbourhood coffee shops, their homes. We care about giving our readers an insight into the subjects’ daily life.
Is it true you prefer to commission photographers who shoot on film?
I enjoy working with photographers who have a clear vision, and less, in most cases, is more. Film encourages younger photographers to assert a greater control over their work. It’s about how you understand a situation, how you interpret it visually; it is about your voice and your edit. As the commissioner, I will ask to see all outtakes if the edit doesn’t align enough with the story, or a key opening scene was lost. However, time permitting, I always share the working layouts with photographers, as I want them to be involved in the process and see what we would like to do with their work. Collaboration works if it’s a two-way street.
How much do you collaborate with the magazine’s writers?
It’s important to nurture a respectful relationship with the reporters so that they can appreciate the photography’s contribution to their story, and also see how photography can effectively expand on it. We are all different, but in general, a ‘lone wolf’ reporter rarely engages with the photo department, and rarely has compelling art attached to a story. They alert us at the last minute, not giving us a chance to find a visual solution that could carry the story’s angle. Fortunately, in my experience, the lone reporters are a rare bird.
Do you aim to strike a balance between new and established talent?
I, like all the photography staff at M – Hélène Bénard-Chizari, Françoise Dutech, Laurence Lagrange and Federica Rossi – are constantly looking at new work and researching photographers and illustrators whom we don’t know. For urgent or last-minute assignments, we will refer to photographers who are solid, reliable and who successfully push themselves, consistently coming up with unexpected yet great art. We try to meet with photographers as much as our work permits, and we keep notes on their passions and interests, in case a story comes along that they’d be interested in collaborating on.
What is your advice to photographers pitching for commissions?
Work hard on finding your personal voice, your own signature. I always assign shoots based on a photographer’s personal work. So the pictures and types of stories you choose to self-assign will be those that also generate assignments.