Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Today’s Issue

  • Like the cover of a book, “editorial art exists to grab your attention,” Katie Martin, an art director at The Atlantic, says. “If the art persuades you to pause, the words get the chance to do their job.”
  • In today’s edition of The Masthead, Katie takes us behind the scenes of her photo shoot for The Atlantic’s big end-of-year series on the best in pop culture.
  • This art crystallizes one of last year’s “cultural moments,” as Katie puts it. Read on to see a moment through her eyes.

Capturing the “Big Mood”

By Katie Martin

At the most basic level, editorial art exists to grab your attention. If the art persuades you to pause, the words get the chance to do their job. Editorial art can signal an incredible array of detail. Does the story feature a particular person, time period, or topic? Is the tone wry, somber, shocking, or uplifting? All this information informs the reader’s first decision: Click or scroll?

Consider the artist Edmon de Haro’s illustration for a recent Atlantic article questioning the value of school-shooting drills. De Haro quickly communicates the topic of the story by using the ubiquitous school-crossing sign. Then he signals that something deeply familiar has become profoundly unsettling just by adding bulletproof vests. The sign that once cautioned drivers (Watch out for students) now cautions children: Watch out for gunmen.

Edmon de Haro / The Atlantic

This is editorial art at its finest. De Haro not only captures the topic and the mood, but also demonstrates the writer’s argument: Our current system puts the onus on children, not adults, to stay safe at school.

As an art director, I largely work behind the scenes, honing ideas and polishing details, but every so often I get to play the role of artist myself. My favorite opportunity is the Atlantic Culture team’s year-in-review coverage, which compiles the year’s best books, movies, podcasts, TV shows, and music. For each story in the series, I create a photograph with two simple requirements: Each image must reference the story’s topic, and each image must connect to the others in the series. Lately, I’ve added an extra goal: Crystallize a big visual moment from the year. Here’s how I did it.

1. Find the big mood. Identifying which cultural moment to reference is more of an art than a science. I reflect on far-reaching visual moments—it could be an outfit at the Oscars; a unique music video, TV show, or movie; or a particular social-media style. Last year, the moody blues and purples of the film Moonlight inspired our series. This year, I kept coming back to Beyoncé’s maternity photos. I loved Beyoncé’s celebration of motherhood and bold echo of European Madonna iconography.

To translate a photo into a series, I decided to ditch many of the specifics (the trellis, the veils) and home in on the flowers. I also doubled down on intense, vibrant colors. With this vision in mind, I sketched out a plan for each story’s photograph: a prop representing the story’s subject nestled in vibrant mounds of flowers.

2. Hunt down your props. I opted to use silk flowers instead of real ones. While fake flowers are more expensive per stem, they won’t wilt under hot studio lights or require floral wire to reinforce their stem. Plus, it was late November at the time and, if my occasional forays into the florist industry have taught me anything, it’s that peonies are only available for a few blissful months in spring. Beyoncé had peonies. I had to have peonies.  

Fake flowers posed challenges of their own. Beyoncé’s trellis leveraged many classic design tools, such as contrast in size (enormous peonies dotted with delicate poppies) and contrast in color (blush and lavender tones offset by small bursts of magenta, orange, and hot pink, themselves offset by greens). But the heady variety of the natural world is not reflected in the fake-flower market. The most readily available varieties are the most generic (roses, daisies, and ranunculus) and even within the popular varieties, bland colors (pink, white, and blush) are the norm. Magenta peonies cannot be found, even on Amazon.

Here’s how I adapted. I knew I absolutely needed punchy, unexpected colors to create something unique and exciting. My best options were yellow roses and neon-orange “flowers” of an indeterminate genus. Then I turned to size. Peonies, roses, and daisies set the baseline, and I used a handful of ranunculus buds to provide that essential contrast. In total, I gathered 91 fake flowers for my set.

Luckily, I already had most of the other props on hand from other photo projects—though I did take the opportunity to snag an antique film reel off eBay.

3. Build your set. I constructed my set by anchoring clumps of flowers to recycled shipping boxes, stapling fake greenery over any bare cardboard patches, and threading in a few real fern fronds to add height and variety. This took a full morning—about four hours.

4. Light it up. If you’ve ever tried to take a selfie with a sunset, you’ve experienced the importance of good lighting. A well-lit photograph can transform the most mundane object into a work of art. A poorly lit photograph can make the crown jewels look dull.

I used two strategies to achieve vibrant colors. First, I lit the blue backdrop with a blue gel to intensify the color. Gels are translucent, like Jell-O, and hold vibrant colors very well, making them a fantastic tool for changing the color of a light source. Lighting the background without the gel would wash it out, leaving a pale baby blue. Second, I supplemented my main light with two “bounces”—basically large white sheets of poster board that reflect (or bounce!) light back onto the scene, softening extreme shadows.

5. Edit. Cameras can distort corners and dull colors, so almost every image benefits from a little editing in Photoshop. I nudged the darkest shadows to almost black, the brightest highlights to almost white, and removed the slight color distortion. These corrections dramatically improved the vibrancy and realism of the image. Aside from basic adjustments, I decided to also intensify the blue background for extra punch.

6. Beg your boss for a storage closet. After the photos are edited and the stories published, what happens to the 91 silk flowers? The same thing that happens to the dozens of props I’ve collected in my two and a half years at The Atlantic: They squeeze under my desk. Dollhouse figurines from my first photograph series nestle next to a nun habit (yes, my Amazon recommendations are all over the place). They jealously side-eye the only prop that’s made it on the desk: My saint candle of LeBron James, acquired for a story on sports fandom. I’ve been thinking of refashioning the flowers into a permanent installation when I have the time. But who am I kidding? I’ve got a magazine to make.    

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