Musings on Photography

The Brooks Jensen Effect

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 10, 2009


I’ve had a subscription to LensWork Magazine for quite a while. (It’s the only magazine where I’ve saved issues, and I have the original issues from way back when it didn’t have photos in it, just articles, and it was 8.5″x11″).

I admit that when my subscription runs out, I’ll let it lapse. The issues don’t seem to hold my attention much any more. That’s not necessarily the fault of the magazine – my tastes have changed, and no magazine can appeal to everyone.

But one of the things I note is that because LensWork is a venue where a lot of photographers would like to see their work appear, there’s this subtle bending effect, where because LensWork publishes a certain kind of photography (e.g. black and white, fine art, project based, with a certain kind of ‘look’) this means that photographers seems to tailor their work to match that aesthetic.

Maybe that’s because it’s a good aesthetic, and thus makes a good target for aspiring photographers. Or maybe it’s just what Jensen likes, and because Jensen likes it, that’s what goes in the magazine, and thus that’s what aspiring photographers aim at so that their work has a shot at getting in. I know I’ve seen bodies of work I thought were stronger than the usual LensWork stuff which were submitted to LensWork and weren’t selected. It’s hard to generalize, but I’d observe that the work I know about didn’t quite match the usual LensWork fare.

I just wish that the reproduction qualities of the www, or of devices like the Amazon Kindle, were as high as the quality of LenWork magazine. Websites would be a lot more fun, and I think we’d see a more diverse crop of magazines if you could really view photos easily on the Kindle (and if it was easy to publish a magazine for the Kindle).

There are no final, distilled thoughts here. I am just observing that just as the popular trends in photography affect what sort of magazines flourish, the trends set by the popular magazines also tend to affect what sort of photography flourishes. It’s a two way street. That might be good, and it might be bad. But either way, I’d rather see more diversity than less.

16 Responses

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  1. Alexandre said, on March 10, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Have you taken a look at the website It has some of the magazine quality (though in less extreme ways than Lenswork, of course) but a lot more variety. A great source of inspiration to me.

    As for Lenswork, well, I just received my first issue two days ago, so it’s a bit too early for me to agree with you on whether it has a specific “look”, but I must say I was blown away by the quality of the prints!

  2. Andrew said, on March 10, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    I tend to agree with you on LensWork. It is fantastic and beautifully done, but after a while it begins to get mundane. It’s his magazine and he clearly has a vision and strict editorial control, and you have to take it for what it is. My wish would be for additional magazines like LensWork to offer more variety. But, in the magazine world it stands out alone.

    I just ordered a copy of another magazine. I don’t remember the name (it should arrive soon), but it is the first issue and is in color. Much smaller distribution than LensWork. The web is great, but in the end I prefer to view photographs in print.

  3. Ed Richards said, on March 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    As I have been watching and lamenting the demise of good print journalism, I realized that being a subscriber was a/the concrete way to vote for its continued existence. I let my Lenswork subscription lapse for somewhat the reasons that Paul stated. When I got an email nudge about resubscribing, I realized that I admire the quality of Lenswork, and that about once a year it publishes something that catches my eye. I would miss it if stopped publishing, and I realized that I cannot count on other people to keep it going. While this is not a pitch for Lenswork (or maybe it is), I think that if you value high quality print publications, you need to support them, even if they could be different/better, because they can not become either when they are gone.

  4. adam said, on March 10, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    You said, “The issues don’t seem to hold my attention much any more.” Well, I let my subscription to the paper copy die several years ago, while at the same time switching to the “Extended”, i.e. CD, version. I bought two years worth at the time, and it’s on the verge of ending. When I first started getting the paper version, I would have it read through he same day of its receipt. Indeed, I would re-read it several times, thinking I may have missed something. I received the latest issue of “Extended” over a week ago, and it’s sitting on my computer table, still in the shrink-wrap. That’s how excited I’ve become about the contents of Lenswork.

    I would be the last person even to imply that there have not been some superb portfolios presented in the magazine, or that the print quality is not excellent. One of the best I’ve ever seen was the portfolio of D.R.Cowles in issue #49, but I have seen nothing that even comes close in the last several years. Maybe I’ve outgrown it photographically, but it simply is not offering anything I need anymore for my artistic enlightenment. After all, how many tours of somebody’s darkroom can I handle? Needless to say, my subscription will not be renewed, simply because the return is not worth the investment, and I suspect that’s exactly what you said in your blog.

  5. Rod Machen said, on March 10, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    I think there’s one thing that has to be considered when talking about buying a or renewing a magazine. The magazine economy (much less the overall economy) is so bad that I feel I have to support anything I want to survive. There are so many magazines going under all the time, I encourage anyone who likes a magazine to get a subscription. We’re at a point where there’s a real possibility it won’t be there if we don’t.

  6. jerry said, on March 10, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    After several years I have let my subscription expire. While the printing of LensWork is impeccable, I find the content stuffy and repetitious.

  7. julie said, on March 11, 2009 at 3:30 am

    Just a note in case it’s an unknown on your side of the water – Ag magazine ( is a quarterly that hits the spot for me. I struggle to get it in shops here but was lucky enough to pick up a couple of issues at the recent trade show in Birmingham, and meet the editor too! It’s the only magazine I’ve found that actually has articles relating to something other than ‘how to use studio lights’ or ‘how to shoot insect macros’ – it’s probably enough to point out that Bill Jay writes for them regularly. I haven’t fallen under the spell of lenswork simply because of that particular aesthetic that everyone has mentioned – and the lack of colour.

  8. Mike said, on March 11, 2009 at 5:48 am

    To be honest, i’ve pretty much given up on magazines. The vast majority, on any topic, exist purely to fuel the aquisition instinct and sell wares. This doesn’t help me do anything any better. Others tend to be focused ona narrow sector and so don’t really appeal.

    In terms of the impact on creativity and engagement, there can be similar issues with forums or camera/photography clubs. The work that is celebrated becomes strongly influential and anyone who does different work loses heart in their own vision and either becomes excluded from the clique or tries to adopt the other approach. Neither is really successful as a means of developing your own work. Increasingly, I find that I am very happy to be inspired by a variety of photography and other art from all sorts of sources, but I force myself to remember that the value in my work is what I bring not what I copy. If I like pictures of the mundane, that’s fine:)

    To avoid these issues, my close friends share my work, but they are friends because of our relationship and not because of external activities.


  9. Martin Doonan said, on March 11, 2009 at 6:18 am

    I only lasted a year with LensWork. Main probelm has been the lack of time to read, but I understand where you’re coming from about the central aesthetic. Does black and white photography need to be 90% black?

  10. Martin Doonan said, on March 11, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I also let my LensWork subs lapse, largely due to lack of time to read them. But I also agree with your points. Does black and white photography need to be 90% black?

  11. Lawrence Plummer said, on March 11, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I will have to pipe in here. I just renewed my subscription (as well as buying another one of the folios). The quality of publication here is one that I must continue to support. Looking at photographs on a display just doesn’t cut it.

  12. Gordon McGregor said, on March 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I used to subscribe to lenswork, like playboy, just for the articles.

    Now I am an avid listener to Brooks’ podcasts, but I don’t subscribe to the magazine.

  13. Oren Grad said, on March 12, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    I subscribed to LensWork for a year, got bored quickly and didn’t renew.

    I think B&W suffers especially on the web – the backlit glory of most displays really messes it up. For reasons I haven’t entirely figured out, color seems to be more forgiving on a screen, even if one is inclined toward subtlety rather than glitz.

  14. Chuck Kimmerle said, on March 13, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Better late than never….

    While the subject matter in Lenswork may be somewhat narrow in scope, I do not think it fair to dismiss the quality of the published work. Going back 25-30 issues, I have only seen one porfolio with which I was truly disappointed.

    As well, in this time of overly conceptualized psuedo portraits with their obligatory stoic subjects, sheer lace, masks, birds nests worn as hats and all-too-forced irony, there are too few publishing outlets for the more traditional type of photography. Lenswork helps fill that gap (as well as B&W).

    Lastly, it is one of the few (the only?) photographic journal where common-sense takes precedence over the insanity of the “art” world. Articles by both Brooks and Bill Jay speak to the hearts and minds of many, many photographers. Bill Jay, especially, has an amazing insight.

    That all said, I don’t think it is perfect by any means. I have my gripes, but I have them for almost everything I spend my hard-earned dollars for. I am sticking with my subscription not only because I enjoy the Lenswork, but because the alternative (no magazine at all) is a consequence I am not willing to risk.

  15. Jim Rohan said, on March 13, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I probably always will subscribe to the printed magazine. Although I may not find the work in every issue to my liking, the printing is superb and more often than not I am intrigued by the published photos.

    I got to admit, I was a bit disturbed by the last issue featuring Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape,
    who I think is more of a salesman than photographer. And I find the podcasts a bit pompous at times.

  16. Chris Klug said, on March 15, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I discovered the Podcasts a year ago, and I have since downloaded and listened to every single one. To me, I don’t know if they are pompous, but I think I know the kind of thing you mean. That quality either strikes one as enjoyable or irritating, I think. For me, the fact that there seems to be no other publication in existence that even tries to go when Brooks goes (talking about the ‘art’ if you will) insures, for me, that Lenswork will be something I read. I have come across many photographers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise, and, while I agree there is an aesthetic to what Brooks will or won’t publish, thank goodness for that! I’d rather know what I’m getting into when an issue arrives rather than going someplace like Flicker, where, while there are certainly wonderful images, finding them can be very daunting (at least to me).

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