Originally from Geneva, Switzerland, Pauline Magnenat received a BFA in Photography from Camberwell College of Arts in London. After working as an arts writer and editor, she founded Rocket Science Magazine, a publication dedicated to contemporary photography in 2016. She recently expanded her focus and launched Rocket Science Studio, a creative studio and photo agency providing an ethical, supportive and inclusive platform. She lives and works between Paris, France and Geneva, Switzerland.
Daylight Dialogues: I want to focus on the agency, but I first want you to just talk about your journey and how you decided to start Rocket Science Magazine before we get into the agency.
Pauline Magnenat: I grew up in Geneva and, during high school, I kind of hesitated between going to university for French and English literature or for Fine Arts. I ended up going for French and English literature, did a semester, and, I think that deep down, I kind of knew that I wanted to do something else and wanted to move abroad. I then kind of secretly applied to photo programs in the UK and had to tell my parents when I got in, but they were quite chill about it. I wanted to go and explore the world, and I think I was tired of Geneva and Switzerland, so I went to London and got into Camberwell College of Arts. It's part of the University of the Arts, London, which is where there is Central Saint Martin's, London College of Fashion, and other colleges. Camberwell was the more Fine Arts-oriented program for photography, which I really loved. It was super, super interesting, and I knew that I didn't want to become a photographer myself. I think I was much more interested in looking at other people's work and interviewing people and writing my thesis, which was the thing that I most enjoyed in the three years I was there. I really loved the program. And during my final year, that's when I started to freak out and wonder what I was going to do with my life and how I was going to make money because they did not teach us anything technical, or how to get into the photo industry. It was very, very fine art. When I meet people who went to the US to study photography, it seems like it's much more hands-on. Camberwell was not practical at all. So I stayed in London for a year and a half after that and then moved to Paris. I would do photoshoots, but I was getting more and more commissions for writing. I started doing some writing for mostly French and also some UK publications, not necessarily just photo-related, but culture as well, and that's when I started Rocket Science, basically. It was just on Tumblr, to begin with, and I was still in college, so it was probably 2010 when it started. During my final year, I was getting these massive panic attacks about how I would make money and survive, so the idea was to reach out to photographers and see what their trajectory was just to reassure myself that I would be fine.
DD: You weren't thinking, I'll start a photo journal. That will make me money!
PM: No, it was just little interviews with photographers. At the time there was Mossless and those kinds of blogs. We were all part of that clique. And people got interested and wanted to shoot for it. It was essentially just studio visits, to begin with. I think they're still on Tumblr. It was through that that I got to build my network and I realized that no one was making any money and also that everyone was fine. So it was a relief, I would say.
DD: You were strictly talking to photographers.
PM: Yes. I think it was strictly photographers, there might have been one or two photo editors in there. And then it evolved into Rocket Science Magazine in 2016 mostly because I wanted something that looked a bit nicer. With the option of having– which, you know, ironically enough, was what was very tiring in the end– but I wanted to have full-on issues and have a lot of people appear at once and have different features. The first issue was late 2016, and then we did nine issues in three years which is not a lot. It was a lot of logistics and coordinating everyone, but it was fun. I think the main feature that I was interested in– it's gonna sound like I'm obsessed with money, but it's not true, but it was the Money Talks column with two people having an open and honest conversation about their careers, trajectories, successes, and failures. I felt that was lacking, you know, when you're on Instagram and see people making those beautiful shoots and being super successful. When I was looking at what my friends posted and thinking about the discussions that we had, it was so different, and I thought that people could benefit from reading more helpful and open discussions. And then I built the issue around that and still had the studio visit and the interview, but I think that was really what I, personally, was most interested in.
Photo by Irina Rozovsky
Money Talks from Rocket Science Magazine’s first issue. Photo by Damien Maloney.
It's just so hard for people to talk about money, obviously, artists especially.
And I think that even I was looking at photo friends of mine who were considered to be, and still are, very arty and make these beautiful photo books. They would shoot for big fashion brands and just never say it.
So from the outside, it’s like, “How are they doing it?” But there is actually a way that they are doing it.
PM: Yeah, I'm glad. I don't see why it should be a shame. I don't see why it would have to be opposed to what you do in your fine art world. Brands come to you for that, but they would never post about it. There was still this kind of irony and the fact that no one was openly talking about money that I grew tired of.
DD: So the whole time you were doing Rocket Science was it just a side project? Did you also have a full-time job?
PM: I've been freelancing since I graduated, essentially. So, it was like having, not two full-time jobs, because Rocket Science was not a full-time job, but it was still on the side and I was working whenever I could on it which is, eventually, what led me to think about how I could incorporate it a bit more into my daily work hours and have that be more productive, both for Rocket Science and also for myself. People would ask me for recommendations constantly, asking me if I knew a photographer wherever, and when I would start to open up the conversation about budget, there was never a consulting fee. This plus the fact that I was working on Rocket Science and essentially doing press for people for free– it was either I make something else out of it or quit because it was too much in the end. There were no bad intentions coming from anywhere but when you get like, five DMs a day asking for recommendations, it's like, maybe I should do something else with my life! I think if I had been working full-time with a fixed salary I would have been much more relaxed.
Juan Brenner, from his project Tonatiuh
Fashion work by Juan Brenner
PM: There was the amount of work that was involved in Rocket Science Magazine, but it was not really just that. I was frustrated not being able to follow photographers over time and work a bit more closely with them as well, which I was doing in my day job as a freelance art director. I would work specifically with some photographers on some projects, and I was longing for a more long-term relationship with them. I knew that I had a good network by then. I was getting these emails and DMs from people asking me to recommend people and was like, I'll just present them my circle of photographers. And I think what stressed me out at the time was that I really didn't want Rocket Science to go from an educational and interesting platform to a full-on agency website, where you see only the work of seven or eight people. So that was very clear in my mind that if I was to open anything, the magazine would still stay, in some shape or form, on the side. I think that was very important for me when I started to have those conversations with the photographers that I wanted to work with. It was very important that they understood it and were ok with it, and they were because they're all nice and sweet.
DD: It is in your description that Rocket Science is an ethical photo agency. What does that mean to you?
PM: I think my goal when I say that it's ethical is to have a diverse group of people, both in terms of style and in terms of locations. I didn't want to have the typical roster of a photo agency where you have someone in Paris shooting fashion, someone in London shooting still life, and someone in Milan shooting interiors. I wanted to have something a bit more interesting, hopefully, and to really push the photographers forward. I have people like Juan Brenner, who's 43 years old, and shot in New York for years before moving to Guatemala and people like Rodrigo [Oliveira], who's 29 and just started photographing a few years ago. I wasn't very afraid of taking on new, less experienced people that really brought everyone together in that sort of tight-knit group, and I didn't want people to feel like they were up against one another for jobs or in terms of location. I think that's been really helpful because when we've pitched stories to big brands, no one feels like they're up against one another. And the fact that I don't take anything off editorial, but honestly, my network of contacts is like 75% editorial.
Alice Mann from her project, Drummies
Malcolm Gladwell for the Financial Times by Olivia Joan Galli
PM: Well, we have a contract that has two different routes. It's either they bring in work, but they need help with logistics, production, anything. I take different percentages based on the budget of the job. And if it's work that I directly bring them, same thing, I take different percentages depending on the total budget. Editorial does not have anything to do with it. I don't take anything off editorial. Unless it's over a certain, very big amount which is very rare in the editorial world. So yes, editorial, I bring them jobs. Olivia [Joan Galli] just shot for the Financial Times. I've had a meeting this morning with Die Zeit. When I meet with photo editors, I tell them that I don't take anything off editorial, so that they don't feel that by commissioning people that are on my roster, there would be a mark-up or something. There's not a ton of production needed for editorial. But it's more in terms of putting people in touch or just showing the work and doing meetings. I mean, it would be crazy for me not to use my editorial network and try to get them jobs, to be honest.
DD: And, so far, this model is working for you financially?
PM: It's working well, yes! I mean, we've only launched earlier this year, but the response has been incredible. We've had some great stuff commissioned. I was not expecting it to be working so well so quickly.
PM: It was a mix of both I would say. There were people like Peyton Fulford and Juan Brenner who I have followed for years and been in touch with a bit informally. Peyton had been in Rocket Science before. I'd followed her work for years, Juan as well. Bettina Pittaluga, for example, I met through the print sale that we did last summer on Rocket Science. She offered a print. I followed her work, but I'd never spoken to her and was such a huge fan of her work. I think the common theme among everyone is that they are actively working on personal projects, whether or not they're being commissioned for it, or whether or not there's money involved. For me, the only way to successfully pitch people is through their personal stories. And I think that especially now, people are so interested in personal work and personal stories that you can easily pitch by only using personal projects.
DD: Do you think that there is a change in the industry, in general, that lends itself going in that direction and being able to focus on that? Are clients looking for that more, too?
PM: I think so. It's hard for me to say, because I haven't been commissioning over a span of decades, but when I meet with people, they don't necessarily care about previous shoots. They might request them later on just to make sure that people are comfortable with working with a big team or doing production or lighting, but really, I only show personal projects in my meetings, and people don't ask to see anything else because the work is strong enough. When I work with big brands or big companies, they are interested in stories and personal stories. It's a lot of work, but I really work with photographers to make personal projects. I don't want to be appealing to brands because I think they’re already dictating the pitch, and I think that's something that a lot of photographers struggle with- adapting and tailoring your pitch when you approach a brand or even a publication. Don’t just show what you have the ability to shoot, show them what you want to be shooting.
Chloé Zhao by Pat Martin
Personal work by Pat Martin
PM: Maybe we should ask them and maybe you'll get a different response, but they're really friends. I'm good friends with everyone on the roster. The contracts are not for two years, they're shorter, so they can basically leave any time they want. I've heard so many horror stories from photo friends who were trapped in their agreements with their agents, not getting any work, but couldn't go anywhere else. So I want to have a trustful relationship with everyone, and I think that, so far, it's the case with everyone. That's also why I tell them, “just let me know what you're working on, even if I'm not taking a cut because I'm interested in knowing what you're working on and because that helps me see what you're interested in.” I think the key is really to have a trusting relationship. I don't want people to hide jobs from me. And that's why I invest so much time in stuff that's not necessarily getting me any money, like helping them submit to photo competitions or writing because a lot of photographers don't necessarily know how to write well about their own work. It's more of a friend relationship, I'm hoping. I see it more as a long-term relationship, that's a lot more fulfilling for me essentially, hopefully, for them as well. But just outside of purely the commercial work, and honestly, I think that, so far, we've only been out for like, a month and a half now, I think that the commercial stories that I have successfully gotten so far, are really so closely linked to their personal projects. when I pitch them for jobs, I really tell clients what people want to shoot, and I think that's so helpful. I think photographers don't necessarily do that enough.
DD: But it's a hard thing to do when you really want to get a job.
PM: I hear from people who commissioned and they really want to hear what people want to shoot and have, of course, a tailored portfolio. If you don't want to photograph kids don't put any kids in your portfolio. That's completely useless. I think they know it, but they need that boost of confidence to successfully do it and not feel like they might miss out on opportunities by not showing that they can shoot anything and everything.
PM: I hope so. I didn't set up to have a diverse roster above anything else. I wanted talented people before anything. My network is like 80% US-based and I think there's a very different conversation in the US than there is in France, but I think that people, hopefully, are, not necessarily only in terms of diversity, but I think people are paying much more attention to what kinds of stories people are telling and who should tell those stories. And I think that's something that I've realized just by looking at who's commissioning as well, and who's shooting who. I think that's something that people are much more careful about and also interested in. They're not walking on eggshells, but it's something that I think was not happening as much even two years ago, three years ago. That’s one of the main reasons behind having a diverse roster, not in terms of people, but in terms of locations as well. I don't see why you would need to send a photographer to Mexico to shoot a fashion story, I think you can find someone in Mexico or in Brazil or wherever. When I pitch stories to people, I can see that people are very interested in knowing more about the background and the reason why someone should be telling that story instead of someone else.
Justin J Wee for Apple’s 2021 Pride Campaign
Pat Martin for High Snobiety
PM: Yeah, I love pitching specifically tailored stories for brands and stuff, and I think that when people respond to those well, photographers are so interested in shooting them. And so that's what I've been trying to focus on and really tailor the pitches that we send out. And there's been some great response. Bettina Pittaluga photographed a lovely campaign for the French brand Sezane last month, Pat Martin is shooting some incredible fashion stories and celebrities but with his very personal eye to it. My goal is for people to be proud of the work that we have gotten them and also that the work blends in well with their personal work. And I think, hopefully, that's what we will be publishing soon– work that you can't really tell whether it was done in a commercial setting or not. That's the ultimate goal for Rocket Science, to have people shoot stuff that they're interested in, and then, when you look at the work, you can't really tell the difference.
PM: I don't think so. No, I think the budgets are so low these days that there is really no way of selling out. It's not the 1980s anymore. No one's gonna offer you insane day rates, right? I pay attention to the people that I reach out to, especially big brands, and I do think that the photographers are very conscious of it. They pay very close attention to who they're working for.
Bettina Pittaluga for Sezane
PM: Yeah, definitely. And I think that also, just to circle back on what we said before, I think, at least, I'm only speaking for the photographers who are on the roster, but they are very conscious of not telling anyone else's story. I don't think it's just because it's trendy to behave that way now – I think photographers are more ethically driven. The photographers that I'm talking with are very conscious of the work that they do and who they do it for. And who could do it instead of them? I've heard of photographers turning down the story because they felt that it wasn't their story to tell, which I think is a huge step in the right direction.
PM: I have a couple of people that I'm talking with, that I think would fit very well. I'm just very cautious of how many people I can work with, by myself. without feeling that I'm focusing on some people and not others. So I think the roster is really going to stay as big as it is now with just a couple more, for at least the next year. I don't want to take on too many people.
Lead photo by Peyton Fulford for Vogue Italia.