Portrait of Colson Whitehead for the cover of Publishers Weekly created by Matt Peyton Photography in New York City

The Call

I got the call for the Publishers Weekly cover from Art Director Clive Chu.   About this time every year, the National Book Award nominees are announced – and that is the biggest thing in publishing all year long – always a cover at PW – so it’s an honor to be helpful.    In the past, we’ve photographed Patti Smith, Maggie Nelson, Victor LaValle, etc.    Heady company for  me!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want….

Publishers Weekly has an upbeat, bright and friendly look to their covers.   Often created on primary color backgrounds, I’ve used Regal Blue, Buff, Perfect (blown out) White, etc.    This time around – I was game to try something more serious.  Something that would really set this cover apart.    And that’s where things went briefly pear shaped…

For those of you who haven’t read Colson’s book The Underground Railroad, it’s both fanciful, and deadly serious at the same time.  It’s a reimagining of the Underground Railroad that brought slaves to freedom in the United States as an actual railroad – with tracks, and stations, and etc.   It’s both playful and brutal.     It certainly got my creative juices flowing to try to out do anything we had done previously for a cover… I started to think ‘location, location, location’.   In Brooklyn NY, there is a museum of the New York Railway system….  The New York Transit Museum.    They have railway cars, stations, tracks, etc etc.     What could we do there?   Knowing that this was a fixed bid, the location fee was going to come out of my end – but I wasn’t even thinking about that – I was sure I convince the museum to let us shoot with a small crew for nominal fee and a mention in the byline…. (because I’m ‘persistent’…)

Having read the book, or at least as much as I could in the day before we had the meeting – I knew that I could do something great here – but that it would be both complicated, and creatively risky.   I was trying to forge a connection between the book and the man – to say that ‘the ride continues’ and we are all riders on this journey.     Tricky stuff – could be a vague connection – my job is to make sure it wouldn’t appear gratuitous.

But If You Try Sometimes….

A couple of weeks before the shoot – I wrote up my pitch, included a few shots as seen above, and the results of the preliminary calls I has with the New York Transit Museum and Colson’s publisher, Michael Goldsmith at Penguin/Random House.

The pre-amble with Colson’s publisher was politically risky – I was authorized to speak to Michael, but should I mention my little plan?   If I sold in something to PW that Colson flat out rejected – I would be in trouble.  Likewise – if I sold in something to Colson that PW didn’t fancy – same trouble.   I decided to hedge my bets and broach the subject with his agent – with the preamble that it was my ‘crazy photographer idea’ and didn’t have buy in at the top… but maybe….  , but maybe…. etc.   He liked the idea, thought Colson would too – and we mutually decided to discuss again after I pitched it to PW.

Disclaimer.  Alot of my job is politics.   It’s not a instinct I was necessarily born with.  I have a famously inaccurate social radar – something I know about myself and I work on.   I’ve been known to hire assistants who have very keen listening sense for things I miss – simply because otherwise I will full steam ahead myself into trouble occasionally.   I have ‘pre-visualization’ skills for days, but I’m rubbish at weddings.     I can brainstorm a dozen ideas for any given shoot over a pot of coffee, but I’m known to offend people, say the wrong thing, without realizing it from time to time.   Life is a journey.

So – the meeting happens at PW.   I receive a call a few hours later.   Yes, they love the idea of a more ‘stark’ and serious cover.  No, they don’t want to go to Brooklyn at 4 oclock in the morning to make a risky cover that may in fact be way *off-brand*.    “Is there anything I can say to change their mind?”.  Nooop.   Dead duck.

For one, oh so brief second, I thought – put your foot down.  It’s a creative vision, it’s worth fighting for… all of that.     It was a hard, long second – and might have involved a walk around the block.    The thing is – my job? It’s about more than just me.  It’s about alot of people’s visions – and I’m damn lucky to be a part of it.   Repeat that daily.  Damn lucky.  Colson spent 4 years writing this book.    Oprah’s book club selected it.    It did in fact win the National Book Award.    I’m on this project for what, a week?  Less?    I gave myself a good talking too… came in off the ledge, and got back to work.

So – I reverted to my backup plan.   Another thing about my team.  We’ve been at this a few years.  We’re fast.  With a little prep in the morning, I can get a bright, upbeat cover, and get a serious, ‘critically lit’ shot.  It won’t be my homage to location, think-piece shot – but I can do serious work.    My back-up plan involved making the shot look like a Daguerrotype…. to as much a degree as I can ‘fake it’ without shooting an actual tin type process.    It’s ‘period’ correct for the late 19th century, if the clothes are right, I can make something serious still…


…You Get What You Need

My crew for this one consisted of my trusty first assistant/producer Rachel Woliansky and both Jacqui Phillips and Laura Koski.   Team Style!     Rachel has the ability to double on clothing, so once we had the lighting right, she fell back to work on prepping Colson  – giving his clothes a quick once over.   Laura fussed over Colson while I poured coffee and did the ‘chat’ that I nervously do before I shoot someone prominent.  Colson and I had some people in common, we both worked in on the same strip of stores in Long Island when we were teenagers, that sort of thing.  He worked at Big Olaf Cones on the pier in Sag Harbor!  I lasted a week at one of the restaurants (I’m also rubbish at waiting tables… see above).

We shot at the strobe only studio Camarts on West 20th Street.    I say “strobe only” because the room is spacious, has a generous styling area, but scant natural window light of it’s own.  This is fine by me – I’m a strobe shooter by training – and for Colson we started with about 8 heads up – 4 on the background, two ‘side fills’ which are comprised of gridded strip banks, a 7 ‘ octabank, and a large strip bank on the floor as a lowlight.    That’s how we started – creating images that I felt were ‘warm ups’.

Sometimes, when creating portraits, it’s a ‘wearing down’ process.   For me, it’s seldom that the first take is ‘magic’.  Often, as I get to know a subject, all that tension, that tendency to ‘pose’ and stiffen up…. goes away.   It’s hard to stay tense for too long!  Harder still if i’m telling bad jokes, running a subject through poses, etc etc.   Eventually, I’m going to make you look great – and get inside you, past the poses, past facade, and catch a moment that’s transcendent. Often tho, first, I have to make a bunch of images that are just OK….   Technically decent, but a little ‘static’  You need to build that trust…

As far as the image above – which was a finalist for the LensCulture awards (so I’m told….), we brought everything way down.. way close.   I traded my 100mm portrait lens for a 50 (wide), traded all those lights I started with for ONE BEAUTY DISH, mounted up high….    I had been waiting to make this image for Colson….   and I grabbed the moment and went with it.


As it all turned out, Clive selected a different image for the cover…   It’s from the same set as my hero image, which ran as a the right hand page opener of the article.   It’s above – the one with the logo and type on it.   Colson leaned in a little and smiled, and that had very slimming and sculpting effect on his features – and created intimacy.

Last I heard, Colson was really happy with the way it came out…. I’m busy entering it in various portrait contests…..(as we do)… and getting ready for the next call!