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James Dunlinson

Hi James. For those of us who don’t know, can you explain what a creative director does?

A creative director inspires creativity within a team and oversees and unifies all details of graphic design and photographic work on a project. In my case, the magazine Martha Stewart Living.

What distinguishes you from the photo editor, stylist, and everyone else working on set?

The creative director acts as the liaison between all the shoot team members, including the photographer, stylist, etc. The creative director works closely with the photographer to determine the lighting and mood of the shoot. For instance: Should the images feel pared down and clinical, or would it be better if they felt feel moody and soulful? Often the creative director has a sense of how the story will be laid out and designed, sometimes working from a storyboard, other times not. The stylist is responsible for gathering all the props, surfaces, etc., and realizing the vision. At Living, the photo editors tend to be more involved up front—before the shoot takes place—booking the photographer and working out logistics. But on large shoots sometimes they are on set as a producer. Every shoot is a collaboration of all the team members.

What essential qualities does a good creative director need to have?

Creativity, obviously, and the ability to inspire and encourage others, be a good mentor and role model, and lead by example. A sense of humor doesn't hurt!

How does one come to be a creative director? What has your career path been?

From an early age I knew I wanted to work on magazines. I have worked in publishing for more than 25 years. My first job was as an intern at Country Living magazine in the UK, then I went to Good Housekeeping, also in the UK, then I freelanced, and then returned to Country Living as the magazine’s art editor. I worked for a while as art director on the Sunday Express Magazine, before moving to the States to work for Martha Stewart Living. I have always loved photography and storytelling, and I am passionate about making beautiful pictures.

Are there any photographers you especially enjoy working with?

I have way too many favorite photographers to mention individually. But needless to say, every photographer I work with brings something unique to the story.

What are your favorite kinds of shoots to work on?

I especially love working on food and entertaining stories—eating is one of my favorite pastimes!

Is it common for you to butt heads with people over creative decisions?

Not so common—hopefully my colleagues and I have a similar vision we are striving to reach as a team.

What was it like working for Martha Stewart Living?

The job was demanding as you can probably imagine, but there is a great love and respect for photography at the company. It was a great place to work, being able to combine the things you feel passionate about in life with what you do in the office each day.

Did the job enable you to travel?

Yes, I traveled to more than 20 states with the magazine. I flew all over America meeting the experts who were the best of the best in their fields and making stories about them, whether it was an avocado grower in California, a Mexican chef in Texas, or a gladiola grower in Wisconsin.

You have a huge volume of work on your website. How many photo shoots were you typically involved with during a given week/month/issue?

I do have a lot of work on my site, don’t I!? Usually I would be art-directing three or more shoots per month but also overseeing maybe 15 others.

What’s the worst thing to ever happen to you during a shoot (or a disaster that you’ve witnessed while on set)?

I think probably the worst thing was Martha cutting herself on a Thanksgiving shoot while she was carving a turkey, just as we were about to take her portrait. She ended up needing to go to hospital to get stitches.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Beautifying America one image at a time.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a creative director?

Just be true to yourself, follow your instincts, and don’t second-guess yourself.

You mentioned that you’ve freelanced before. Do you recommend it?

I freelanced in the UK a few times between permanent jobs. Freelancing is a great way to test out working for a company to see if you are going to like each other. It also gives you a bit more flexibility, but it’s not for everyone.

What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects?

I recently left Martha Stewart Living and am pursuing freelance opportunities. I don’t want to jinx upcoming projects, so let’s just say I have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.

About the photographer

James Dunlinson is an award-winning art director who was a guiding force behind the look and design of Martha Stewart Living for almost fifteen years. His work has received more than sixty awards and recognition from SPD (The Society of Publication Designers), the Art Directors Club, and ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors). A native of England, James is best known for his innovative approach to photography, including the use of x-rays, photograms, and pinhole cameras. James is also well known for pioneering the use of the prop-free, tight close-up in food photography. James is passionate about photography and design, and brings out the best in all of the teams he works with to create lush gorgeous images that leap off the page.

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