Photographic Insights from Sierra Magazine's Art Director, Tracy Cox

Tracy Cox works as the Art Director for the Sierra Club publication, Sierra.  The Sierra Club has a long history of environmental protection, and its connection to photography is paramount in showing the world what it is trying to preserve.  One of the key individuals in deciding which imagery will be used, both in terms of stock photography and in selecting photographers for assignments for these stories, is the art director.

Pictureline:  As the Art Director, which publications do you directly oversee?  What are your daily decisions?

Tracy Cox:  I oversee Sierra magazine, which goes out to the members of the Sierra Club, six times a year. Each day, we look at the stories slated for the upcoming issues, decide whether they need to be photographed or illustrated, and then decide the best way to accomplish that. As the issue goes into production, we are then looking at design decisions like fonts, headlines, size of artwork, and so on.

PL:  How have you worked with photographers in the past and currently?  Do you have a small group or do you find new talent in certain ways?

Tracy Cox:  All different ways. Usually our photo editor will make the first pass-- deciding on the pool of photographers we will choose from. Then, we look at everything together and decide how to move forward. Our assignments are all over the country, so the first priority is often location to the story subject. Then, depending on many factors (like cost, travel, etc.), we decide whether to look for stock or hire a shooter to go out there. We are always looking, but people who have done great work for us in the past will usually have a leg up on an unknown factor, but we hire new folks to shoot all the time.

PL:  What are you feelings on the "icons" of nature?  Are we spoiling the National Parks, not giving enough attention to other well-deserving areas of the country, and what has been the impact of creating icons in nature?

Tracy Cox:  In Sierra, the editors usually are looking for stories that are flying under the radar... so I haven't worked that much with the "icons." Personally, I feel icons are extremely important in thinking about conservation. The same person who might not think twice about bulldozing a local park, would kick your butt down the street if you started talking about developing Yosemite. Icons are touchstones that everyone can relate to, so it's important to take care of them, but also important to have limited public access to these areas. Just my 2¢.

PL:  What styles of imagery does the Sierra Club appreciate?  Any preference to medium/large format?  Do you have any particular guidelines/feelings about post-processing in digital?

Tracy Cox:  Personally, I like photographers who have a style as well as an eye for a great shot. Of course, every style doesn't fit every subject so that's where we come in. Format doesn't matter so much in this digital age... although some large-format photographers can definitely get a unique look.

As far as post-processing, it's important for our photographers to know that Sierra is a journalistic publication. By that I mean we are accountable for telling the truth as close as we can. My rule of thumb is that the photographer shouldn't do anything in Photoshop that wouldn't be done in a traditional darkroom. When your magazine goes out to 500,000 people, you have to be accurate. Not doing so ruins your credibility, so our standards in that area are much stricter than say, for an advertisement or brochure. We don't want photographers mixing and matching different backgrounds and subjects.

PL:  For your position as Art Director, how do you shape the view of nature/wilderness for the viewer?  Do you find that you have a personal responsibility to show it in a certain way?

Tracy Cox:  I try to be as true to each story as I can. I feel my responsibility is not only to use the best photography, but also to represent each area we cover as it is, not as we would wish it to be. This is one of the reasons we gravitate towards photographers with a point-of-view... THEY shape the story as they see it because they are there--I'm not.

PL:  For you personally, what has been your path both in working with the Sierra Club and in becoming an Art Director?  Did you start out in any particular direction, and what moved your path into what you are doing now?

Tracy Cox:  I was formally trained as an illustrator in art school back in Michigan. Once I graduated, looking for freelance work at my local newspaper (The Detroit Free Press), I found that the art director needed a designer on staff.  I showed an aptitude for it and was hired as a designer/illustrator. The better I got at designing, the more I did that and the less I drew. In that first job, we all functioned as art directors of our own projects, hiring artists and managing staff photographers (which at that time were among the best in the business).

Eventually, I wound up moving out West art directing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and later, West magazine (of the San Jose Mercury News). In between those gigs, I worked at the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Francisco Chronicle and a magazine called Healthcare Business. At West magazine, we placed second in the POY for editing one year! That was exciting.

PL:  How does your role fit into the mission of the Sierra?

Tracy Cox:  My role is to tell the stories in our magazine in as compelling a way as possible. Our hope is the stories get read, and our audience becomes more knowledgeable and engaged in these issues.

PL:  Is there anything you would like to say or think photographers/nature lovers should know that you think they do not?  What would you discuss if you were on your pedestal and everyone listened?

Tracy Cox:  I wouldn't presume to know anything more than [the photographers and interested readers of your blog]! I can just mention some things I have noticed... the best photographers often will do more than shoot the scene as a snapshot (like I would)... they tend to look for unusual light or angles or color... Some of it is almost undefinable. We'll do a stock search and out of 20 photos, 2 or 3 will clearly be head and shoulders above the others, but it's not always easy to say why, exactly.

PL:  Finally, what equipment do YOU use?  Where have been your favorite places to travel/photograph?

Tracy Cox:  I'm not much of a photographer. I have an older Canon Powershot that takes amazing night photos. I love shooting city scenes at night. As far as nature goes, I like water and sky, so that makes Hawaii my favorite place, by far!

PL:  Thanks so much for the information.  The Sierra Club obviously plays a large role in the environmental community and photography has a special connection to the landscape.  We appreciate you taking some time in giving us insight into the art direction of the publication.

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Art directorFebruary 2012InterviewJoel addamsLandscape photographyNational parksNature photographyPicturelineSierra magazineTracy cox