Marcus Ross Interview
Pixel London’s editorial team had the pleasure of talking with Jocks & Nerds founder Marcus Ross, discussing his impressive career trajectory within the fashion industry, shooting film vs digital, and what it takes to be a successful intern.
Q. A lot of your work seems to follow a retro, 1960s inspired look. Do you think it’s okay to stick with your own clear aesthetic, and indulge in your own interests?
A. Well there are more magazines now than there’s ever been; a lot by nature are independent mags and some of them are very personal stories, so that’s absolutely fine. All I would say is whatever you’re producing is in some way contemporary. It’s about the world today. The thing about being retro is that time is a non-linear thing, in the sense that we all carry around different memories, and we’re all looking to the future, so the retro thing comes out of something contemporary. The later designs of Jocks & Nerds look less retro than the earlier ones. When we started the mag it was interesting, because it was 2011, where there was this trend for cookie-cutter retro fashion, where people looked exactly like that style, so we were reacting to that. My idea was that we were only observing what was going on around us, and that changed later on.
Q. Yeah I understand, I wondered if it was more of your own personal style being projected through your work.
A. I think there’s no getting away that obviously there’s a bit innately in me, even in my degree show as a fine artist, there seems to be something quite linear in my work. The mag came out of a process of analysis, it wasn’t like “I’m gonna do a mag”. Even the fact that I studied fine art and ended up working for the mag is probably more about my interest in communication and where culture exists. I studied fine art but I wasn’t enamoured by the white wall, white cube scenario, it’s quite elitist, it’s a different communication tool. There’s something that is partly me for sure. When I started Jocks & Nerds I used to say, we’ve got an audience of one, and I know it’s at least one because it’s me. You don’t know until you do it if you’re going to find anyone else. That’s the really interesting dynamic, you put it out there and someone goes “I really like this mag it’s what I’ve been looking for”, and someone else goes “what?”. It’s always like that; anything you do creatively comes from the inside, and you hope there’s someone else it connects with, whether it’s music or cinema, I think mags are the same.
Q. From looking at your work you can see that it is quite linear, even through your work with different brands.
A. At Jocks & Nerds we didn’t rigorously analyse it, but we were engaged in the men’s magazine market, and part of it was like “why is there nothing that interests me?”. There were some things we did that were analytically different to other mags. When I started Jocks & Nerds there was still the trend of ‘Brazilian models in a bikini’ fashion shoot, and we had a real mantra that we would never treat a woman editorially different to a man. We actually had two women on the cover, Lena Headey from Game of Thrones, and Maxine Peake. We interviewed them the same as anyone else. That was a real two fingers to those mags, and what I hated was when those editors were questioned about those things, they were really disingenuous, they didn’t stand up for what they were doing.
Q. Following on from that, listening to how you started with your fine art degree then going into magazines, do you have any advice for anyone starting out? Obviously you got lucky in the respect that you got an internship at iD then worked your way up, but if you didn’t have that opportunity, how would you have gotten into the industry?
A. The interesting thing is, there is a bit more behind that story. I didn’t know anything when I left uni, I didn’t even know there were internships at magazines. Studying fine art, it was a whole different world. When I left uni, my flatmate worked for a graphic design company, and the creative director’s girlfriend was a photographer, so I was already in that creative world. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do, I was really into music. Everyone knew my interest in fashion and culture, so I spoke to her and said “I want to get into the same scene as you”, so she put me in touch with Tamara Cincik who was a stylist, who’s just started something called Fashion Roundtable which you should check out. Without Tamara god knows what my career would have been. So I spoke to her on the phone, and she said “do an internship at a mag”. Through whatever connections I had, it was one tenuous connection, which led me to somewhere else, then meeting a few more people. Interning is just one thing you can do, and it may not be viable, but the important thing is to try and get in the industry and meet people, and be useful. I can’t stress enough, interning is a strange dynamic, and it’s changed a bit since then, but when I started the first thing they made me do is clean out a filing cabinet. After I finished I asked what next, and they gave me another mundane thing to do. A lot of interns sit around waiting to be told what to do. I remember when I was at iD, of course it was all letters back then, and maybe emails by the end, and people were asking to intern, anyone who wrote “As part of my course I need to…”, we threw it straight in the bin. But there are lots of ways to help out, stylists always need assistants. There’s no one single answer, it’s just putting yourself out there and showing real enthusiasm. When I left iD, I assisted as a photographer, although I had worked for five years shooting. It was like starting from the bottom again, and I would ask the photographer if they wanted me to clean their equipment, I wouldn’t wait for them to ask me to do it. I knew I had to make myself helpful, then they might ask me to help for a paid job. The other thing is that everyone knows each-other, every magazine goes to the fashion shows and events, so you learn from being in that environment. You can start somewhere commercial, then go more independent, and equally the other way.
Q. What did your role include as a Fashion Editor?
A. At iD I was not making all the decisions. The founder, Terry Jones, was very involved in every aspect of the magazine, then Edward Enninful was the Fashion Director and he never worked in the office the whole time I was there, since he was starting his own freelance career. A lot of it was speaking with contributors, getting their ideas together. A lot of it can be office work. When I was there it was six issues a season, twelve issues a year, and we were thinking very seasonally. We would go to the shows which were six months before our editorials. You would look at trends and gather ideas from lots of different people, then once you commission stuff you don’t want it to all be too similar. It’s a management role in a way. Terry had strong relationships with contributors, he’d have direct dialogue, then Edward had a lot of influence on the look and feel. My role was to make their vision happen. I did write a lot of features and did my own shoots. Then at Vice there were fifteen different editions across the world when I started, so I was in charge of bringing a universal voice, but they all had their own local content. I was less on the super creative side; I was in my early 30s, so the wrong generation to decide how the photography should look. They had their own style, and there was a Fashion Editor there who had been there before me, so I deferred a lot to her. The way content was put together at Vice was similar to how we worked at Jocks & Nerds, we never reviewed anything, we went into detail on things we thought were interesting. It was a very different way from traditional journalism.
Q. What’s your preferred type of photography, out of Film or Digital?
A. That’s a really interesting question, because when we started Jocks & Nerds people assumed it was all shot on film, but it wasn’t. I had photographers who would ask “do I have to shoot on film?” but that was never important to me, it was more about the content. I never had an image in there purely for an aesthetic, it was always telling a story. I always said we would never run an image where the audience has to go beyond the aesthetic to understand the message. We had essentially no budget, so photographers shooting digitally was better. But I think digital photography has become such high quality that it’s less of a consideration now. What I found is when people shot on film, they wanted to show texture, and that stood out in the mag, and we wanted to be very straightforward, and we never had plays on words. So when we started using older formats it became problematic because it drew your eye away from the content. I ended up preferring when people shot digitally because it gave you a flat surface for layouts. The thing is with film is that the photographer has complete control, since it’s all happening inside the machine. The hardest thing with photography is capturing what’s going on in front of you, because when you put a camera up to someone’s face they start trying to make themselves look different. It’s rare that you see the other kind of photography, like people angry.
Q. Do you think there’s any future for print magazines?
A. It’s such a deep question, one thing I’m very interested in is that digital media has come along and in many ways the user experience hasn’t changed. When you think about audio like music or radio, what you experience has not really changed, and the actual content hasn’t changed. It’s the same with TV and cinema, it’s still a screen. The thing that digital media has not been able to replicate is magazines, because they’re a closed environment, they’re an entity of their own. When someone is with a magazine they have that person’s attention fully, so there are things mags do that are specific to that experience. The layout, the order of things, how type, word, and imagery marry together to tell a story. So that does not exist on the internet. I think there’s still something quite powerful in a fashion story in a sequence of images that come together and are static. I’ve never seen an interesting fashion film, and I’ve seen millions of interesting fashion stories. So that user experience has not been replicated in another format, and it might come in the future, who knows. You could argue that there are more magazines than there have ever been, and the problem is that mags rely on advertising to exist, and they possibly have the worst business model in the world. They have a customer, but the person who pays for it is the advertiser. There’s a huge conflict on what they want to achieve, and what the editorial goals are, and it’s becoming tougher and tougher. In order to survive mags are really diluting that independent voice, but also the consumers are losing out. There’s a lot of questions to be asked, your generation will be far more impactful.