Interview with Claudia Lebenthal – part 1

Recently I was contacted out of the blue by an associate of Claudia Lebenthal, asking if I might be interested in doing an interview with her for our blog. Always on the lookout for fresh, new content for our readers, my first instinct was to say “heck yeah.” This, of course, was followed up by an immediate Google search to find out who she was. It didn’t take long to realize that introducing Claudia to our audience would be a no-brainer. She has a long history in the magazine industry, with titles ranging from graphic designer to creative director to visual projects director. The fact that “photographer” was not listed appealed to me even more. Her areas of expertise lie not in creating the actual images for publication, rather in working with photography in a larger sense; using it to illustrate concepts, steer themes and capture culture.

So, Claudia and I teamed up to create a two-part interview. Today, in part 1 Claudia introduces herself and describes some of the work she has done thus far in her career. Next Friday, in part 2 she will answer questions applicable to students or recent graduates looking to get rolling in the photo industry.

So without further adieu … blog audience, meet Claudia Lebenthal. 

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1) Claudia, you aren’t affiliated with RMSP so some of our readers might not be aware of who you are. Can you kick things off by telling our readers a bit about yourself?

Hi all! I am a born and raised NYC girl, still living in the Big Apple, with four years on the west coast at Stanford University thrown in the middle there. I am an avid sports lover. Skiing, stand-up paddle surfing and tennis are what I enjoy most in my spare time.

2) Your bio states that you have served as photography and creative director at a number of Conde Nast publications, including Allure, Womens Sports & Fitness, and Self. How did you end up with those rather impressive titles on your resume? Did you come from a photography background? Explain your rise in the industry from your days in school.

I was, believe it or not, an art major at Stanford. The university has a small but very impressive program and faculty. I discovered my passion for graphic design there and became the art director of the campus magazine Up Front. I found producing a magazine such a great experience. It employed the teamwork I loved so much playing sports plus you had this physical thing to show for your work each quarter. It was there that I began to learn about visual communication, be it photography, illustration or typography. I knew I wanted this to be my career.

I returned to NYC after graduating and assisted a very well known art director, JC Suares. He was hired to design a new Manhattan weekly news and culture magazine called 7 Days. I worked with him on the design of the magazine, became the associate art director of the magazine and eventually the art director. Unfortunately, the magazine had a short life, and folded in just a little over two years. I went to Conde Nast from there to work of the start up of Allure, a much bigger operation, where I had to choose between the art and photography departments. This was the early 90’s, the era of the supermodel, and a very fun and glamorous time to be working in fashion photography, so I chose the latter. I started by producing the shoots, which were very elaborate productions, with such illustrious photographers as Steven Meisel, Steven Klein and Sante D’Orazio and eventually became the photography director of the magazine.

3) What attracted you to working in the magazine world?

As someone who grew up playing team sports I have found working on a magazine to be a very similar experience. Everyone has their different responsibilities, from the words to the photography to the layout. You are all working together to make something great that is smart and beautiful, and get a physical thing to show for your hard work each week or month.

4) You co-created and published a book called Stoked: The Evolution of Action Sports. Tell our readers about this book and explain how this project came into existence. Is this a culture you have been involved with for a long time, or did it rise organically out of being exposed to it through your magazine experience? Would you consider yourself a participant of these sports, or more of a stoked bystander who love the aesthetic?

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 11.27.26 AMConde Nast launched a women’s sports magazine in 1996, called Sports for Women, which is where I went after Allure. I was hired as the Visual Projects Director and my job was to come up with visually driven stories, produce and art direct the shoots. It was the dream job for a sporty girl like myself! “Extreme” sports were just becoming mainstream then and I found all my visual stories in the worlds of surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, downhill mountain biking and other action sports. I really submerged myself in those sports as an editor and got to know the athletes, gear, and cultures very well. I was about 10 years and a generation older than most of the participants so despite being an expert skier by NYC standards, I was hardly extreme, but that “stoked bystander who loves the aesthetic” you mentioned! I would tear inspiration images out of every vertical magazine, catalog and book and my office walls were covered in all these jaw dropping action sports pictures. So yes, Stoked: The Evolution of Action Sports came out of my exposure through the magazine. Many of the images in the book were ones that had been on my wall and I saved them hoping to one day put them all together.

5) Another title I see you have held is Executive Creative Director of Trunk Archive. What is Trunk Archive and what did your work life there entail? Essentially, what were you doing there on a day-to-day basis?

Trunk Archive is a high-end image licensing agency representing the archives of the world’s most reputed photographers. We never used the word “stock photography”, because our images were so beyond the level of what you would find at a Getty or Corbis and we hardly considered them “stock.”

I was hired at the early stages of the company’s development to build its editorial collection, based on my experience in the magazine world. Not every photograph at a magazine can afford to be shot and photo editors are always looking for great pre-existing imagery as unique as what they could shoot themselves but don’t have the budget to create. As someone who had sat in that seat, I knew what kinds of pictures were needed and the desired photographers. I eventually became the Creative Director of the archive with an executive title.

My day-to-day work life consisted of photographer outreach — to bring the top photographers into the archive, and build our roster and reputation for representing the industry’s best talent.  I was also responsible for editing their archives for the collection. Not every picture has a second life and my job was to find and curate the images we thought would resell or license not just for magazines, but for advertising, and special projects like hotel, restaurant and other commercial interior spaces, as well as product licenses and things like that.

6) Very general, hard-to-answer question here, but what makes a photo a great one? What is your approach to deciding whether gets a thumbs up or down?

Very hard to articulate! We all have our personal favorite images but everyone does always seem to agree on what the best pictures are. Take Richard Avedon for example, who undisputedly has taken some of the most iconic portraits and fashion pictures in photography history. I have been looking through my Avedon books quite a lot lately for a coffee table book I am photo editing. Every one of his pictures takes my breath away. They have a unique, unexpected and inimitable point of view. They are indelible and and feel like a frozen moment in time that could never be recreated.

7) Tell us about your latest venture “Style of Sport.”

Style of Sport is a website — really more of an online magazine– that marries my passion for sport and style. It celebrates the intersection of sport with fashion, design, art, news and culture, and features both editorial and shopable content, curated for the sophisticated sports enthusiast. Even though I write all the content, as a creative director all features are visually inspired. In fact, each post starts with the artwork, and I actually can’t write a word until the visuals have been created! Like “Stoked” it is beautifully designed and meant to appeal to both the athlete and the style conscious.

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Part 2 of this interview with Claudia Lebenthal will be posted next Friday – March 14, 2014. Claudia will be answering questions geared toward photographers who are at the beginning of their careers, fresh out of photo school and eager to get to work. As you just read, her years in the photo industry afford her a unique perspective on working with photographers. Be sure to check back again next week.