Interview: IN DIALOGUE // Spencer Bailey & Trent Davis Bailey
Earlier this month while on a trip to NYC, we had the pleasure of sitting down with brothers, Trent & Spencer Bailey. Trent is a San Francisco-based artist and photographer & Spencer is the editor-in-chief of Surface Magazine.
Below in our candid dialogue, we discuss their connection to one another, their photo/interview subjects, and the evolution of their individual work.
Artist & Photographer, Trent Davis Bailey & Surface Magazine’s, Spencer Bailey
Trent: I think a lot of the creativity that Spencer and I have started when we were really young. Because we grew up in a single-parent household, we didn't have someone supervising us all the time. We would bang on things, we would draw on things, we would make our mark all over the house. Our dad would eventually find our creations and get a little upset, but he never reprimanded us for expressing ourselves.
I remember a specific moment when we moved out of our childhood home. Our dad moved all of his file cabinets in his office revealing that he had placed them in front of these crayon drawings we had made probably 10 years earlier. We obviously didn't remember the drawings were there, and our dad had probably forgotten about them at that point, too. I think that impulse has always been there.
RB: To create?
Trent: Yeah. That impulse to create, to express ourselves, whether it's with a crayon or a camera or a pencil.
RB: Would you say you had similar experiences growing up?
Trent: As twins, we shared a lot of our childhood together. We were often conjointly referred to as Spencer and Trent or Trent and Spencer.
Spencer: Our dad called us the ”Gruesome Twosome” or “The Terrible Two.”
We made a lot more trouble when we were younger. There was always this want to be seen as twins, but also as individuals. We were really only able to do that when we turned 13 and convinced our dad that it would be a good idea for us to go to boarding school.
RB: Did you attend the same one?
Trent: We left Denver and headed all the way to two small towns in Connecticut to attend different schools. Our dad wasn’t shipping us off to boarding school; we both really wanted to go.
Because of that experience, I had unique access to a darkroom as a teenager. All of these things came out of a bit of luck and a mutual desire to seek out these opportunities. That's what we've constantly had to do in our lives: find ways to pursue our own interests. It also helps that our dad has always encouraged us to forge our own path.
RB: What prompted your focus on photography versus painting, or another medium?
Trent: I'm interested in how a photographic image can render something real, yet become something completely different. This notion relates with photography that dives into the human imagination. However, there are so many different options with whatever tool you're using. I find it exciting to be working in a medium where the technology is shifting, and as a result, my relationship with photography is shifting.
As an artist, I question how am I contributing to the lineage of photographers who have come before me, as well as the artists who have come before me. It's about innovation and figuring out new ways of using [the medium], or putting together a picture. It's a tall order sometimes, because there is so much history, but it's good to give yourself those challenges.
RB: Spencer, how did you come to be interested in journalism?
Spencer: It really happened in high school studying fiction and poetry, and then in college, realizing I was never going to make a living writing fiction or poetry, and that I needed an outlet. I eventually ended up working at my college's alumni magazine, Dickinson Magazine. It was there that I got to work with an editor, Sherri Kimmel, who really showed me the ropes. I also had a few professors who made me realize I wasn’t that good of a writer and had to push myself to become that much better. I was able to learn the craft of writing a story.
After college, I went on a trip around the world with Trent for two months, and then arrived in New York City to find a job in media. The day after I signed the lease on my first apartment, Lehman Brothers collapsed.
RB: Did you have a job yet?
Spencer: No, but I had experience. I had previously interned at Harper Collins Publishers, spent a lot of time working for the alumni magazine, worked at a music-news website in London and also at a literary agency in New York. I felt like I had built up a decent resume. Still, I was a 22-year old kid in New York without a job and entering the worst recession in decades.
After a couple weeks in the city, I landed a position at this arty, highbrow magazine called TAR, which was a good experience in learning the dos and don'ts. I eventually finagled my way into an internship at Esquire, which trained me for a big office environment. During that time, I got into Columbia Journalism School and thought that that would be a great way to ride out the recession as well as get the bootstrap-reporting chops I lacked as an English major. During my spring semester, I got an internship with Vanity Fair, which opened the door to a lot of opportunities. My mentor there, Jon Kelly, was hugely influential and hired me as a freelancer when he went on to work at Bloomberg Businessweek and The New York Times Magazine. Another boss of mine there, Claire Howorth, helped get me my first full-time job, at The Daily Beast.
RB: Did you have any other mentors in the industry?
Spencer: My biggest mentor has been Kate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. While a junior at Dickinson, I came into her office’s conference room on a trip sponsored by the college’s career center. It was just 15 people, 13 of whom were women. I stood out in that room. She and I ended up having this great connection, and I just kept in touch. Coincidentally, her son, then a student at Dickinson, was in my fraternity, and my dad happened to be a freshman at Union College in the ’70s when she was a senior. She continues to give me great advice. Meeting her was such a fortuitous thing. I've never had aspirations of working at Cosmo, but our passion for magazines and big ideas was shared and it continues to be.
RB: What's your favorite part of being in this business?
Spencer: The collaboration, getting to meet all the different people, whether it's who you're interviewing or who you’re working with. There are so many incredibly smart, passionate people in this industry and specifically at Surface. Journalism and editing is a passion, not just a job—it's something you live and breathe.
Trent: I remember when I first moved to New York. Spencer and I moved in together into an apartment in Brooklyn. He had just started working at Surface. Every Sunday he would be reading Paul Goldberger. I don't know which book it was, but obviously it was about architecture. I kept questioning him, saying, "Spencer, don't you do that all week long? Aren't you tired of reading and writing about architecture?" And he's like, "No, I can't get enough of this stuff."
Spencer: I could name five architects when I started at the magazine. I discovered design through journalism, through Surface. I happened to really love the name of the magazine. I thought Surface was an incredibly smart name for a publication because the word itself can be played with on a lot of different levels. There's the metaphorical level, where you can say that you're “going beyond the surface.” There's also the idea of the literal surface, and everything that we cover, whether it's a painting, a building, a car, a piece of technology, it's almost all a hard surface. We're starting to cover some software, but everything has its own surface, it's own sort of layer. The word itself, I nerded out on, and that became the reason I ultimately wanted to work at the magazine.
RB: It sounds like they wanted you for your fresh perspective, and you weren't in the design world at the time, so your ability to ‘see’ was totally different, fresh.
Spencer: I think being trained as a journalist does that. You put your radars up and you just want to find out about the story, and oftentimes that means the human side of the story: Why should our dad in Denver care about this? Why should anyone care about it?
Over the next 20 years, you're going to see design become a huge word in our culture. Already, we’re increasingly thinking as a society about how we interact with the street, how cities are built, and how our lives are led by design, whether it's landscape architecture, building architecture, computer architecture—it's all design.
RB: It sounds like part of the reason that you're in journalism is because you like to understand people and how they think. What's been the most effective way for you to connect with your interviewees?
Spencer: It's always doing your research. You learn everything you possibly can about the person before you meet them, and come in and ask them a question that you couldn't have answered from what was already written or on the Internet.
RB: Say you're interviewing someone high-profile you’ve followed for years and now you got to meet, and they're difficult? How do you get them to open up?
Spencer: You start with a question that they've never been asked before and you usually find that question out by reading and reading and reading to the point that your eyes might want to fall out.
I've interviewed some people who haven't been super easy, but the second you get that first question out showing that you've done your homework, whether it's referencing something specific about their work or their life, or something that is so clearly a part of who they are, it all of a sudden becomes easy and they open up. Tone and demeanor is a huge thing.
RB: Surface is a platform that serves multiple industries: art, fashion, architecture, design. Which of those is your favorite, would you say?
Spencer: Architecture. It’s what I gravitated to the most when I started here six years ago. I wasn't into fashion back then. I was really interested in art and business, and where art and commerce collide. To me, that was the most ripe area for tension, which means the most ripe area for storytelling. If you could capture that, the creative side of what art is and the business side in a way that seems real, and isn't just PR fluff, then you can serve the reader, you can serve adding to a greater conversation, which, in turn, can shift culture.
RB: That's where your Design Dialogues talks come in too, right?
Spencer: Yeah, those have been great. We've done 27 of them so far (the 28th is on May 31, with Robert A.M. Stern and Larry Silverstein). We launched the talk series three years ago. It's been really interesting to see it grow. Basically, the whole concept is you take two different speakers, sit with them, and moderate a conversation, letting them riff off of each other.
RB: Moderating is really difficult to do well, for some people.
Spencer: It's a challenge, but it's an exciting challenge, and it's one that, when you get the right chemistry and people together, it can be really exciting to see what transpires on stage.
Part of what is different about events, as opposed to creating a physical magazine, is that it brings people together in a real, physical, tangible way. It's not just about bringing people together on a stage, it's about bringing people together in the audience. All of the sudden you have a real sense of community.
RB: What about you, Trent? What brought you to photography and how you work now?
Trent: The first time I ever became interested in photography, I was the subject. My older brother had been assigned by his high school art teacher to make pictures that included a rope, and so his response was to tie me — then 12 years old — to the old cottonwood in our family's backyard.
I loved that experience. Photography gave us an excuse to enter this imaginative space. I still strive for that when I'm making pictures today—with or without people.
RB: Is there something particular that you do with your subjects [to get them to open up], when you have people as subjects?
Trent: Every picture I make is different, so there's not a formula that I follow. That's part of what I like about photography. For me, it's constantly changing. It's how I feel about a situation, how I feel with the camera in that moment. It's very rare that I have an idea and then I go out and find exactly what it is that I'm looking for. Actually, that never happens. I'm much more drawn to photography that is less calculated.
Obviously, if every person with a camera or every artist had that ambition to just say, "Oh, I'm going to go out into the world and see what I find," it wouldn't actually be all that interesting, so you have to give yourself some constraints. It's not that different than putting together a magazine [looking at Spencer]—you have to choose constraints, too.
For me, those constraints have been geographic as well as the types of pictures that I make, and then understanding how those pictures work side-by-side. I’m interested in how photographs can work in tandem with each other to say something bigger.
RB: Is there a body of work that stands out for you, as your most favorite, for a particular reason, or was impactful to create?
Trent: I've been working on this series The North Fork for the past four years. It's been extremely impactful ... Every time I make a trip to that valley to make new pictures I learn something new about what I'm doing there. I first started the project when I was the studio assistant for photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. They taught me that first you make photographs, and then later on the photographs tell you what you're doing. I think that that's a really refreshing way to work—letting the work guide you.
RB: Do you find that similar in your work, in any way?
Spencer: Not necessarily. I have two very different jobs. One as an editor and the other is as a journalist. They can work in tandem, but they're also very different. Interestingly, I learned from a really great editor who taught me a similar sort of thinking, at least when it comes to slowing down, and how that can be applied to the written word.
The summer of 2009, before I started at Columbia, I took this 12-week long workshop with Gordon Lish, who had been a fiction editor at Esquire in the ‘70s and after that a book editor at Knopf. He was most famously Raymond Carver’s editor, but also worked with writers like Barry Hannah and Don DeLillo. Every class started at 5 p.m. on Monday night and was supposed to end at 11, but sometimes ran until midnight or 1 in the morning. We began the class with probably 35 students at the beginning of the summer, and at the end of the summer there were around 20. It was everyone from a neuroscientist, to a New Yorker fact-checker, to Columbia MFA grads, The whole concept of the class was basically to learn how to write a story, period. What this class did was basically strip everything down to the barest essential, which was a sentence. Really, a word, actually, and then a sentence, and then you had to build everything from that first word. The idea was that by the 12th class, we would be able to have a full story. Very few people made it to a full story. For some, it was really humiliating.
RB: Did you have a full story?
Spencer: I made it to two and a half pages.It was more than a sentence, but I never finished the story. I was inspired by Lish, but also sort of terrified of him.
RB: Maybe that's a good thing.
Spencer: What it taught me, really, was the power of language, thinking of words not so much as a poet but really on a base level, making sure everything you put out there counts. That's how I approach the magazine, asking "Why now?" and "So what?" Those two questions all the time, which is Journalism School 101. Then also on a microscopic level, down to the sentence, down to thinking about words, which becomes a little more challenging. I still think it is that mentality of, "Why should I be putting this in the world? What does this contribute? Does this add anything?"
I think there's a little bit of that parallel between what Trent's doing and what I'm doing in the sense that we both really care about not putting more junk in the world. Nobody needs more french-fry content. A couple years ago, I wrote an editor's letter about the notion of “Slow Design,” similar to the idea of Slow Food.
Why I got really passionate about Slow Design is, you think about Slow Food as a movement, and yes, it's a complicated movement that's become a billion-dollar industry and has a lot of issues, but there's a lot of good about it too. A lot of the good has to do with the fact that it's promoting a healthier, more balanced lifestyle and not just thinking about the food we eat but where it comes from. I think about that in the context of media and in the context of design. Not about the content that you read, but where it comes from, how it's made. When you think about how things are made, all of a sudden you begin thinking about the world in a much different way. How is that skyscraper made, how long is it going to stand? You know, how is the magazine made? Should I throw it out or should I keep it? Should I put it on my coffee table or should I put it in the waste bin?
RB: With intention, too.
Trent: Yeah, exactly, it's about having a clear understanding that every act is part of a greater process. If you slow down and think about every single thing you're doing, every mark you’re making, it subsequently makes your work more meaningful.
It has taken years to learn the technical skills that have gotten Spencer and me to where we are, but technical skills only get you so far. It has a lot to do with patience, perseverance, and being willing to fall on your face. It's been helpful that we have had each other. We pick each other back up when we fall. Even when we're apart, we find ways to maintain that level of support.
RB: Is there something that you're curious about right now? Anything particular, it could be work, maybe not work, that you're exploring for yourself? Spencer, do you have any post-Surface plans?
Spencer: No, I'm along for this crazy ride at this company. Six years ago we were doing a totally different magazine.
For me, this is my future. I work day-to-day with the CEO. The company went from being Surface magazine to Surface Media. We have four haloed companies within the umbrella that is Surface Media. One of which is this magazine; our sister magazine, Watch Journal; the Design Dialogues talk series; and then we just launched Surface Studios, a custom-publishing and native-content division, where we'll be able to work directly with brands to produce content for a design-conscious consumer.
Trent: I am curious about taking on some editorial work, but I've really persevered before taking that step to work for a magazine, or to work on a commission basis. I want whoever is hiring me to understand my vision for my work. A commission should not compromise the integrity of one's work.
RB: Is there something specific that you're both seeing from your individual vantage points in your worlds that's influencing the way you view your work? Are there trends, or ideas that have surfaced for you in the past that are influencing the way you are viewing the evolution of Surface, or the evolution of yourself within your medium?
Spencer: I don't tend to like to think in terms of trends, because I like to think in terms of real, tactile ideas. I'm much more interested in the "Why now?" Kind of thinking about things that are very much in the present, not asking, "What's it going to be like in five years?" We're very much capturing the moment as opposed to five years ago or five years from now.
The power of what we're doing, which includes photography in a huge way and specifically portraiture, is that it’s also the storytelling and really getting to the heart of who these people are, what they do, what makes them tick.
I've gotten to interview some really incredibly creative people. One example that just hit me really hard recently was Zaha Hadid, who passed away in March. It was the second time that a subject that I had interviewed had passed away, and it just totally shook me to the bone. I spent only an hour and a half with her three years ago, but that hour and a half was enough to really get this profound experience. I felt that we, as a magazine, were able to showcase her in a way that she hadn't been presented before.
Trent: Spencer is seeking a lot of what I seek in my work. It's as if I go out and ask, "Why now?" before I go and make work. I want it to be relevant now. I want it to be in conversation with what other artists are making right now. Best case scenario, I go out in the world with my camera, and I end up in that imaginative space that’s also creating a dialogue.
RB: Has there been one person that stands out to you, similar to Zaha Hadid for Spencer?
Trent: Yeah, the farmers that I've been spending time with on the Western Slope of Colorado. They create their own worlds on these small farms. They're artists in their own right. We share the fact that we’re all dealing with the problem of form. I hope that as I move forward with each new project, I can be working in a fertile terrain—conceptually, not just literally. I want to be in a place that I can become engrossed in.
I think, more than anything, it's just about following one’s own intuition and that's something Spencer and I have both embraced.