The photo director of the climate-conscious culture magazine gives an insight into her artistic process, the photo industry, and what makes a good cover
Atmos published their first issue last year, and since then, the climate-conscious culture magazine has carved out its place on the newsstand. Human stories are tied to bold images as they explore the changing climate from multiple perspectives. Sara Zion is the Photo Director for Atmos, bringing her knowledge and eye to the magazine. Beginning with no connections to the industry, Zion started at a photo representation studio, before moving into fashion photography through studio management. This led to Zion working as a producer for various artists and publications, eventually resulting in her position at Atmos magazine.
What does Atmos do differently to other magazines?
After working with a diverse set of publications over the years, I can say with confidence that the magazine is uniquely positioned in the industry. For one: Atmos does not work with advertisers and does not operate within the ‘fashion calendar,’ and thus is not beholden to
those constraints. Essentially this means that, without seasonal or promotional restrictions, our contributors have more creative freedom at all levels – from the projects they wish to pursue, to the subjects they wish to capture and the clothing, people, or places that are featured in their stories. Second, we do not work strictly on assignment but reach out to our community for pitches, so a lot of the topics that we cover come as a result of regular communication between artists, our Creative Directors, Laura and David of Studio 191, and me. It has always been a priority for me to foster ideas from the magazine’s and my own network of image makers instead of keeping the process completely insular.
Where do you find images/photographers for the magazine? How important is social media when it comes to finding new work?
There really is no formula or simple answer for this – inspiration and content are everywhere, and resources are accessible to the point of being overwhelming at times! Especially working both within and outside the confines of what is considered ‘fashion photography,’ amazing photographers can be found in surprising places. I’m lucky enough to live in New York City where there are many art galleries, bookstores, events, etc. that can inspire an idea or lead to a new discovery.
And then, of course, there is social media. Not only do social platforms allow for quick and easy access to worldwide image-makers and their work, but they can also act as an easily digestible and frequently updated portfolio, as well as a glimpse into one’s personal values and interests. Social media serves as a more immediate and informal means of communication. Oftentimes, the seedling of an idea begins to form through short messages and visual reference sharing, especially now that we are working more from home and in-person meetings have been replaced by virtual communication.
Social media can have its drawbacks as well. For one, I know that simply managing these accounts can become a job in itself for many artists and there are sometimes vehicles better suited to present their work. Instagram is usually a kind of gateway into an artist for me, introducing or reminding me of someone I find intriguing and leading me to their website/portfolio. If I’m taken by their work and/or it’s feasible, I always prefer to meet in-person. I tend to build the strongest connections and learn the most about their current work and future goals by talking through an artist’s process in an informal setting. Often something that the artist may not think would be of-interest will inspire another story or be a fit for a completely unexpected story or project.
How does collaboration work in the Atmos photograph selection process?
One of my favorite aspects of the role has been talking through initial projects with artists and the Atmos team to bring what may start as a vague vision to life in a beautiful and meaningful way. We work closely as a team to discuss each issue as it evolves. Our Editor-in-Chief, William Defebaugh, makes a point of involving everyone from the conception of an issue to potential stories and providing space for feedback as ideas develop. Before Covid-19, we would meet around a big table and talk through both the visual and editorial/written aspects of a story and how we all felt about a particular subject. We were all able to contribute with what grabbed us, what we reacted strongly to and where we thought the subject needed more detail. When final images come in, we independently choose our own selects and then compare notes, arrange final pages and pairings and review every story that makes it to print together –we all play an important role in the process. Though my title may have been Photo Director, we all wore many hats and our actual work expanded past the standard job description of our titles – a reality of a small team that I came to thoroughly enjoy.
Still, one thing that continually excites me is when an artist interprets a visual direction in an unexpected way or brings our attention to an event or subject that they are passionate about but that we may not be aware of at all. For our second issue, Greg White reached out wanting to cover the ice stupas in the Himalayas. We had not included anything like that in the initial planning of the issue, but we were all so fascinated by his proposal that we helped him to expand the story. On the editorial side, a writer was assigned to incorporate text about the practice. Between the text and the stunning imagery, the story ended up serving as one of the bigger features in that issue.
What helps a photographer stick out to you?
I’m grabbed by images that are not too busy – though I would not describe the works that get my attention as simple either. In general, I’m drawn to clean lines, rich colors, and graphic compositions that are not muddled with too much going on at once. My favorite works draw the eye to different points around the photograph without immediately overwhelming the viewer. To me, imperfections or things that may feel a little ‘off’ are actually what can make the strongest photos. Excessive retouching or overly polished images take away from the integrity of a subject and dilute the authenticity and artistic perspective involved in creating it. The ability to accurately depict or capture a scenario, person or situation is part of what makes photography such a special medium and images that are too glossy start to feel dishonest or inauthentic and, for me at least, uninteresting.
What advice would you give to new photographers?
Shoot often and collaborate with lots of different people. Find your style but don’t be afraid to deviate or shift. Someone like Alexandra Von Fuerst is one photographer who was very inspired by the ideas behind Atmos and, even though she lensed one of the covers for our inaugural issue, her work continues to develop and take on different expressions and emotions. To me, a strong body of work evolves and changes over time as the person grows personally and within their art.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.