A room with a view – The New York Times Magazine’s photography special

Design director Gail Bichler talks through the process of creating an issue full of ‘visual journeys’ and, in using Alec Soth’s self-portrait taken from inside his room in the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, making one of the best magazine covers of the year

The work of six photographers – Alec Soth, Glenna Gordon, George Georgiou, George Steinmetz, Bieke Depoorter and Hiroshi Sugimoto – feature in The NYT Magazine‘s latest issue of its travel photography issue, Voyages, and most recent special edition (dated September 27).

The resulting photo essays take in Nigeria, Venezuela and Italy, the Black Sea, Istanbul and Tokyo.

Voyages opening page, using condensed type by art director Matt Willey
Voyages opening page, using condensed type by art director Matt Willey

Writer Teju Cole introduces the journeys (see excerpt) and touches on the difficulty in conveying place through photography in 2015. With cafes, malls, even amusement parks and home interiors bound to a sense of similarity and uniformity, “travel photography remains in thrall to the typical,” he writes.

What, then, can photographers find in a world that is so continuous, with elements of the same appearing everywhere?

Cole suggests it is the mark of a great photographer to seek out the “less-obvious differences of texture; the signs, the marking, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.”

This is what the reader finds in the latest issue of The NYT Magazine’s Voyages.

Willey's type treatment is also used on the contents page, vertically stacking the names of the destinations
Willey’s type treatment is also used on the contents page, vertically stacking the names of the destinations

“Travel lends itself to large scale landscape photography, so while our past Voyages issues have had beautiful expansive imagery, the photos have always accompanied a written story and in some way played a supporting role,” says design director Gail Bichler.

“This year, our editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein wanted to foreground the visuals and make an all-photo Voyages issue.”

Photography director Kathy Ryan and her photo department approached number of photographers, Bichler explains, asking each of them if there was a particular voyage that they had always wanted to take.

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Two spreads from Glenna Gordon's visual journey through Nigeria by train
Two spreads from Glenna Gordon’s visual journey through Nigeria by train

“These pitches were a starting point for what became six photo essays,” Bichler says. “We wanted our readers to experience a variety of places and types of trips, from a crowded train ride through Nigeria, to an aerial voyage over the world’s tallest waterfall in Venezuela.”

Voyages issue cover, designed by Willey, using a self-portrait taken by Alec Soth in his Tokyo hotel room
Voyages issue cover, designed by Willey, using a self-portrait taken by Alec Soth in his Tokyo hotel room

The least conventional of the voyages was the one taken by Soth, who elected to spend five days in a Tokyo hotel.

“One of his favorite movies is Lost in Translation,” Bichler explains. “He paid homage to it by spending five days and nights in the Park Hyatt, Tokyo where the movie was filmed, never leaving the hotel.

“Instead he brought the city to him – arranging for singers, sushi chefs, teachers and others to come to his room where he photographed them.”

Opening spread to Soth's collection of images made during his five-day stay in the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo
Opening spread to Soth’s collection of images made during his five-day stay in the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo

A self-portrait that Soth produced during his stay at the hotel was eventually chosen as the cover for the special issue. “His self-portrait, a reflection of him in his hotel room floating above the city, seemed like the perfect cover,” says Bichler.

“Kathy described it as ‘capturing beautifully the essence of the contemporary traveler. No matter where we are, there is always something more interesting on our mobile phone.’”

Intro page to Teju Cole's opening essay, Far Away From Here, featuring Willey's headline type
Intro page to Teju Cole’s opening essay, Far Away From Here, featuring Willey’s headline type

Art director Matt Willey then used the lights of the city in Soth’s portrait as the inspiration for his cover design. “He used an existing font that he’d drawn previously on the cover,” says Bichler.

“The display copy on the interior is set in a condensed typeface that Matt drew for use in this issue, anticipating that the photography would take up a lot of the real estate of the layout and we’d want to get some scale on the type within confined spaces.”

As is often the case with The NYT magazine’s special issues, one designer on the team will steer the look and feel of the issue, with the rest of the staff working to help execute that vision, Bichler explains.

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Two spreads from George Georgiou's journey to the Black Sea
Two spreads from George Georgiou’s journey to the Black Sea

For the photo special, Willey’s direction also included creating a typeface for the issue.

“We sometimes commission a font, work with an illustrator or typographer who does lettering, or use an existing font that we don’t normally use in the magazine,” says Bichler.

Georgiou's image of the interior of the remote Buzludzha Monument in the Central Balkan Mountains
Georgiou’s image of the interior of the remote Buzludzha Monument in the Central Balkan Mountains

“More recently, since Matt came aboard, we’ve used some fonts that he’s drawn for special issues. It’s great to have that as an option. It allows us to really make a custom design that is unique to us.

“It also allows us to modify characters or add additional weights as the design dictates. Moving forward we’ll continue to use a mix of fonts and lettering from different sources for our special issues.”

Opening spread to George Steinmetz series of photographs taken in Venezuela – an aerial view of Mount Roraima
Opening spread to George Steinmetz series of photographs taken in Venezuela – an aerial view of Mount Roraima

“The design of the issue is really meant to be a shell for the imagery and is secondary to the photography,” Bichler adds.

“Each voyage is indicated with a large number and a statement of intent by the photographer rather than a more conventional head and deck [headline and subhead]. The idea was to let the imagery stand on it’s own rather than framing it editorially.”

Design Director: Gail Bichler; Art Director: Matt Willey; Deputy Art Director: Jason Sfetko; Designers: Ben Grandgenett, Frank Agugliaro; Photo Director: Kathy Ryan; Photo Editors: Stacey Baker, Maureen Towey; Editor in Chief: Jake Silverstein

For more images from the Voyages issue, see the dedicated website at nytimes.com

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