By Jim Colton
Like many people in our industry, I too thought I was going to be a professional photographer. When I was 7-years-old, my father, professional photographer William J. “Sandy” Colton, let me use his Olympus Pen camera…fully loaded with one 36 exposure roll of 35mm film that shot half-frames (18 x 24mm) resulting in 72 images. I immediately climbed the highest tree I could find to look for some unique angles…beginning my foray into the world of photography.
But it wasn’t until later in my professional life that I found my true calling. In 1972 I was working at the Associated Press photo library in New York City as a researcher. On my day off, I covered a local fire in Queens where I lived, with my trusty Nikkormat EL and a couple of lenses. Rushing back to the office, I developed the Tri-X, made contact sheets and presented the work to my father/mentor and I said two words to him; “Not bad!” After looking at my work, he replied with two other words; “You suck!”
I’ll be the first to admit, he was right. The pictures were awful! They were out of focus (manual focus in those days) and the heat from the flames was making everything wavy and unsharp. They were not well composed at all. At best…they were grab shots. Those two words crushed me at the time. It doused whatever flames I had in my head of becoming a professional photographer. I just didn’t have what it took.
But what I did have was an undying love for the craft and I soon realized that my talents were better served at the other end of the loupe. In that vein, my father encouraged and supported me stating that “Photo editors were as equally important as the photographers themselves.” 40 years later, I can say he was right…as usual.
In many ways, it can be difficult to try and follow in your father’s footsteps. But there is nothing like a father’s love…especially if it is bolstered with encouragement, knowledge, and the occasionally needed kick in the ass!
As a young man, Sacha Lecca experienced a similar genetic encounter of the first kind. Sacha’s father, Dan Lecca is a world renowned fashion photographer (as well as his mother Corina). As a teenager Sacha used to assist his father at fashion shoots until one day (after much instruction) he was also allowed to shoot. And the only instructions given to him were two different words: “Shoot well!”
Just prior to graduating NYU, Sacha landed a lob at the Guggenheim Museum in 1992. In 1994 he was hired at Newsweek magazine and worked his way up from the traffic desk to senior photo editor over the course of 6 years. In 2001 he left the magazine to join CMP Media until 2007 when he was hired at Rolling Stone and was recently promoted to Deputy Photography Editor.
This week, we have a conversation with photographer, photo editor, music enthusiast and the apple of his father’s eye, Sacha Lecca.
Jim Colton: We have a similar "genetic” connection to photography, as both our parents were in the industry. Tell us a little about your early years as the son of prominent fashion photographers Dan and Corina Lecca. What was it like growing up in that household? And are you surprised at all that you wound up in a similar field?
Sacha Lecca: They are still in the business and just back from Milan. They work an exhaustive schedule and they haven't had a proper vacation in over a decade. My twin sister and I have definitely been influenced by their work ethic and both of us work crazy hours. (My sister, Samantha, is an amazingly gifted music video director.)
I got my first camera at age twelve from my father who passed down his Nikon FM with a 35 f2 lens and that’s all I shot with for almost 20 years after. I learned at home how to process and print BW film and by my mid-teens I was helping to print and retouch my father’s work. I shot all the time and took advantage of the darkroom in our basement and would literally spend days in the dark. For a short time I also worked at the Frick Museum printing in their darkroom, which is located on the second floor in one of the old servant’s quarters.
At around age 17, I started going to the fashion shows, first to assist my father and then to eventually shoot. The only advice ever given was encouragingly shouted at me as the show was about to start; “SHOOT WELL!!” Despite all that, I never considered photography for a career. For me, photography was a creative outlet and just one way I could interact with my surroundings.
JC: Like many young people, I understand you changed you major mid-stream from Math and Computer Science to Art History. What school was that and why the change?
SL: I went to NYU and I wish I had a clear answer, but I can’t adequately explain the shift. I had been writing programs and code for many years and by the time I was sophomore in college, I felt like I suddenly got rewired. I think I just got burned out from it. The change to art history felt destined, like a perfect match. My father went to art school too so if you’re looking for more connections to what possibly influenced me…there's that.
JC: After college, how did you embark upon your career path?
SL: Prior to graduation I landed what would have been the perfect gig; I was selected to be a "junior curator" at the Guggenheim Museum. Unfortunately the junior curatorial program got scrapped at the last minute and desperate for a job I ended up selling tickets and memberships there. And I gave museum tours. I even co-founded a tour program which I think is still running.
When I left, it was to go to Newsweek. I had zero experience but you hired me for the traffic desk. That was just over 20 years ago. At that time nearly everyone there was a legend, and I learned a lot from them. After a while, I made it to photo researcher, then senior photo researcher, then photo editor, and finally senior photo editor.
JC: The industry was very different back then. What did you learn or take away from your years at Newsweek? Is there a story you remember that you were particularly proud of working on while you were there…or any funny/memorable moments during your time at the magazine? Didn't you also meet your wife there?
SL: Ha! Yes, I did meet Michelle (Molloy), an amazing photo editor, while at Newsweek so that's my best moment...of all time! I mostly remember moments of breaking news where everyone just stopped doing whatever they were doing and went to work. The death of Princess Diana is often mentioned in this regard. It happened on a Sunday and everyone just showed up.
When I was still a photo researcher and a tragic event would occur like the Oklahoma City bombing, TWA plane crash, etc., one of the things we had to do was race to reach affected families for available photos. Pre-Google this was all on the phone, looking for husbands, wives, parents, relatives, etc., of everyone who had just died. It was one of the toughest parts of the job.
One of my final acts was being the onsite picture editor for Newsweek at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The Olympics was still an event dominated by film shooters and Kodak was there processing and replacing every roll. We made selects from color negatives and then scanned them to send to New York. Due to the time difference, at the end of each week we had to stay up a full 55-60 hours straight to handle each issue close. There are endless stories from this insane trip including talking my way onto the closed Olympic marathon course (It was the only way I knew how to get back to the hotel) and getting off just moments before the race started.
Last but not least, I remember when Newsweek contract photographer Peter Turnley was covering an international crisis (I forget which) and in the middle of the night I got a call from the lobby that Peter Jennings (Anchorman for ABC Network News) was there to see me. I went downstairs and Jennings handed me a Newsweek film envelope and said, “Someone asked me to pass this along.” Turnley, while having trouble finding a flight to ship film back, spotted Jennings about to get on a US military transport to eventually make it home, and asked him to deliver it. His first stop after arriving in New York was to us. I always thought that was so cool. It was the way things got done back then.
JC: How did you wind up at Rolling Stone magazine? I understand you also just got promoted at the beginning of the year to Deputy Picture Editor. What responsibilities come with that title?
SL: It was two former Newsweek coworkers that recommended me. That didn't seal the deal but it got my foot in the door. When Rolling Stone made an offer, I jumped at the chance. I had left Newsweek and had been at a business technology magazine for a while, and I needed a change.
I'm basically responsible for nearly every non-music feature in the magazine (give or take) and some music ones too…more so now than when I started. I'm grateful for their commitment to me and to my new title but I don't pay too much attention to it while I'm actually working. I'm just trying to do the best job I can; whether it's making an assignment or researching for a small image usage. I haven't stopped pushing myself since I got here. It's the way I operate.
JC: Do you find it ironic that you wound up at a "rock and roll" magazine doing photography? I ask as it crosses both worlds that your dad was in. Wasn't he like a rock star in Romania before coming to the states? What does he (and your mom) think of your new position at Rolling Stone?
SL: My father was in a late 60’s pop group in Romania called Coral, known as the “Romanian Beach Boys.” I’m not sure if that had anything to do with my parent’s excitement for my being here, but they seemed far more energized to learn about the Rolling Stone gig than when I got hired at Newsweek. I recently searched online and found Coral’s single on eBay and just dropped some cash to get it. My father has one but I’m hoping this one is in better condition!
JC: So going from a news magazine to a pop culture magazine, was there any culture shock?
SL: No, not really as I was brought on primarily to concentrate on the non-music features. Our department has gotten smaller in recent years so I have worked on many more music/pop culture stories. It's a very talented and versatile department.
JC: What do you like best about what you do at Rolling Stone? And in the interest of fair play, what do you like least?
SL: Long time contributor to Rolling Stone Matt Taibbi said it best upon his recent departure from the magazine: “The magazine’s very name is like a magic word. I noticed it from the very first assignment. Even people who know they probably shouldn’t talk to you, do.”
I grew up reading the magazine and it is pretty nuts just to be here and contributing something. Pressed for negatives I have to say that with this kind of work, a lot of attention after hours is required. I'm always working late and most weekends, but I love what I am doing. The only other negative is that I really wish I wasn't in midtown.
JC: What were some of the more interesting stories/covers that you have worked on at Rolling Stone?
SL: I feel lucky to get to work on so many interesting stories. Here is just a tiny list featuring a variety of subjects with assigned and researched material.
Runaway General: A great piece by another former Newsweek-er Michael Hastings (who is sadly no longer with us) that's mostly remembered as being the piece that led to General Stanley McChrystal (and the military publicist) getting fired.
Kill Team: This story is a great example of the kind of pieces Rolling Stone does so well; in this case by Mark Boal. How we came to have these photos, I cannot mention nor can I tell the cloak and dagger story of how I had to pick them up!
Black Keys: I got to assign one of my favorite photographers, Danny Clinch (I've been obsessed with his work since the mid 90's) to shoot one of my favorite bands.
Haiti: We got to use some images by Jake Price whose amazing work was a perfect fit for the feature.
Snoop: Well, it's Snoop, nuff said… and it is by Peter Yang who is just amazing to work with. We were all set to shoot in a (marijuana) grow room but it got raided by the DEA, stripped of all the plants, so this was plan B.
Avett Brothers: Bryce Duffy recently shot for our feature on the Avett's for me and did an amazing job as always. I remember when Bryce came to show his work at Newsweek and I gave him his first assignment there when I first became an editor.
Myth of the Surge: I had Danfung Dennis embedded for the photography. I love the range of pieces I get to work on here. This was one of the earlier ones.
Duke Heirs: Such an interesting story about a troubled family. It took a couple of weeks of talking to the subject’s mother before we could arrange a photo shoot which was done by Danielle Levitt.
Coy Mathis: I had been thinking about Gillian Laub to photograph Coy, a four year old transgender, even before I saw her lovely work for Time on a transgender teen.
Boston Bomber: I am including this as there was such a strong reaction to this cover story. I did the image research for this story and cover.
JC: So how does a photographer who wants to shoot for Rolling Stone get their foot in the door with you? Any tips for what works and what doesn’t? What do you look for before assigning a photographer?
SL: Send an email. Send a promo. Make a call. We all look at portfolios and take meetings in an effort to find photographers we can potentially use. I'd expect anyone reaching out to any magazine to really look through that publication and to make an assessment about how their work potentially fits in or not. See what photographers are being used, and how. The photographers who do this, and who might suggest their work for a particular type of story, will get my attention quicker.
I don't always get to meet with everyone but I do look at every promo. I’m always looking for excellent work of course but work that comes from a real understanding of what they are trying to show; photographs that have a clear author with a strong point of view.
JC: It's been a long road since logging in slides and rolls of film to viewing lightboxes and digital transmissions. Is digital technology friend or foe? Has the sheer volume of available material desensitized photo editors...and eventually the viewer?
SL: When I started at Newsweek I remember watching images from AP come in, each of the four colors (CMYK) transmitted separately and then combined...and it took nearly 7 minutes per image. I also recall not having an email address until at least a year into the job (maybe longer?) so we researched by calling people, and worked the phones all day long. We sent cables to our foreign bureaus, received film pouches daily from them, and had an in-house lab.
I'm happy to have had my formative years be almost entirely analog as I picked up some great work habits. Though I have to say, the advancements in digital technology has made much of this easier; in receiving files, in researching information, communicating with people, etc. So I vote "friend" though up to a point.
The deluge of imagery hasn't desensitized me. The strongest work will still always stand out. It just takes longer to find it, so a dedicated editor is even more important these days….just saying.
JC: I know you shoot as well as edit. Are there any personal projects you are currently working on? Or, what kinds of situations or genres do you like shooting?
SL: I shoot mostly reportage, though I am in the office so often that I haven't gotten to shoot too much lately. Although, for Rolling Stone, I covered the Occupy Wall Street protest for as much as I could arrange around my schedule. I photographed Chris Hayes of MSNBC on the first night of his prime time show. I have also shot the Black Keys, Elvis Costello, ?uestlove, Tom Morello, Sean Lennon, the Avett Brothers and more…many during live performances. I do enjoy shooting live shows but much prefer getting extra access to shoot behind the scenes.
If there's any sort of personal project I have, it's photographing some local skaters in my area which I've done on and off for years - typically when I'm out skating as well. Some of those images were printed in Relapsemagazine last year. I don't market myself as a photographer; I don’t have a website but I do add images to my Tumblr account: sachalecca.tumblr.com from time to time and I am active on Instagram: @sachalecca.
JC: Lastly, any bits of advice you'd like to share with up and coming photographers or even people who might be interested in photo editing as a career?
SL: My very first role at Newsweek was at the traffic desk, a position which surely does not exist in the same way anymore due to the advancements in photo technology that we discussed earlier. I have to admit I was very lucky to have had the chance to learn on the job at a top magazine from some great people. Today there are fewer opportunities like that in the print world, so I'd suggest exploring available internships at publications that are doing good work.
As for photographers; keep building your portfolio, even when you are not on assignment. You are bringing everything you know and who you are to every assignment. So follow all your interests and do anything in order to stay inspired…including from time to time, putting the camera down. And of course, when you do shoot; “SHOOT WELL!!”
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