PLAYBOY has always presented a unique total package, and photography has been a significant contributor to the mix right from the start: it is a primary contributor to the strong visual impact of the magazine. The Playmate, and especially the Playmate centerfold, is PLAYBOY's signature feature. Whatever reason people come to the magazine, this feature has historically evoked excitement and captured readers' imaginations. As evidence of its influence, one need only notice that it is one of the most imitated and parodied features any magazine has ever presented. Even more notably, today on a daily basis Playmates pervade the Internet: from incessant requests for picture postings in public forums, to fan groups dedicated to Playmates in general and to each Playmate in particular, to web sites run by enthusiasts and by the Playmates themselves for their fans. I have no doubt that PEI is well aware of this phenomenon, some of which must keep the legal department very busy.
The Playmate concept, with an approachable, beautiful woman presented nude in classic pin-up style, is a winning one; further development of this feature can only help enhance its value for the magazine.
The current photographic style for presenting Playmates is the product of decades of practical refinement and is a coordinated team effort. This has resulted in a high degree of stylization that is both a strength and a limitation. Strong brand identification is the positive side, but over the long term it also means a lack of variety in presentation. Returning to Chicago Tribune Art Director Jason McKean's June 29 review:
PLAYBOY continues to shoot its models as though it's 1980 and everyone's auditioning for an all-nude episode of Dallas. Soft light, diamonds and gold had their time. I'm certain it has passed.
Again he may not be entirely accurate, but he has a point. With two house photographers for the great majority of centerfolds and a very limited and long-term team of editors, designers, makeup artists, and stylists, PLAYBOY's vision of the Playmate is narrower than it could be. Many readers desire more variety: variety in model types, sets, photo styles, layouts. Ultimately, careful diversification of photographic style while remaining faithful to the overall Playmate concept could greatly strengthen PLAYBOY and further enhance the appeal of the Playmate.
I will reiterate here what I have said elsewhere about Special Editions (see the section on Communication). I have been impressed with Special Editions ever since Jeff Cohen took over this division circa 1995. These twice monthly publications have consistently top quality photography and graphic design/layout, and there is ample evidence that the staff both looks for constructive feedback and uses it to improve their publications on a regular basis. They are willing to experiment. They have a strong and impressive stable of regular, popular models as well as a steady influx of new ones. They employ a wider variety of photographers than the magazine uses. The photographic style in these editions is quite different from that used in the magazine; part of this must be the diversity of photographers, but I think that editorial choice must also play a large part here. Special Editions clearly has a top rate graphic design staff. I would like to see some of this SE expertise (photographers, layout/design, photographic style, willingness to experiment) influence the photography and layout that appears in the magazine. Why not also employ some of the more modern-looking sets used in SE's for centerfolds? Published comments about Playmate photography often mention the old fashioned look of PLAYBOY's photographic style. The SE photographs do appear more modern, yet they still are entirely consistent with the pin-up tradition that has always been the hallmark of the sophisticated and elegant PLAYBOY style.
A very interesting departure from the usual PLAYBOY style is Katia Corriveau's Cyber Girl of the Month/week 3 layout, Hot and Cold, by Richard Fegley and/or Stephen Wayda (as of the time of this writing there are conflicting attributes in the Cyber Club, see http://cyber.playboy.com/members/cybergirls/monthly/2001/06/wk3/, http://cyber.playboy.com/members/se/daily/2004/01/20040115-B.html, and http://cyber.playboy.com/members/se/daily/2004/01/20040125-B.html). This is a bit of an extreme suggesiton, but this type of more abstract setting could be very interesting to consider for a Playmate pictorial and centerfold and would be a clear departure from the usual style. In my view the photographs are striking while still conforming to the PLAYBOY aesthetic. As a new approach, it offers one possibility among many.
The widespread availability of nudity and glamour photography today gives PLAYBOY's potential audience a range of choices, some of which are remarkably good. As a consequence of this wider exposure, today's audience is both more sophisticated and more demanding. PLAYBOY should take this as a challenge and an opportunity to evaulate and assimilate new ideas and consequently evolve its niche: do it better than anyone else by recognizing the best potentials of these alternative offerings and incorporating them into PLAYBOY's corpus, improving on them wherever possible.
Some of my favorite Internet sites offer good starting points to ponder. Blue Nudes (bluenudes.com) is a showcase for the work of innovative photographers Tom Ruddock and Arturo Jauregui; their pictures are not only beautiful, but also highly creative in design and concept and of obvious technical quality. This suggests opportunities to add to PLAYBOY's pool of talent by recruiting new photographers, and to deliberately exploit the photographer's creativity toward the end of diversifying PLAYBOY's style. Mac & Bumble (macandbumble.com) showcases beautiful models in beautiful settings, and while image quality is not their forte, they do offer a large quantity of material in daily updates, and the occasional high quality photo set can be impressive. They also feature a wide array of models, from first timers to professional glamour models to even a few porn stars. This diversity leads to a wide appeal. Their pictures suggest opportunities for diversifying the model pool and updating settings by moving out of the studio and utilizing natural light; and their business model of large batch daily updates would please many a Cyber Club member. Their organization by model photo sets, each offering many poses of a model in the same setting, also offers a new model to consider for the Cyber Club that I think would be very well received. Mystique (mystique-magazine.com) is a growing online and print publication that features Mark Daughn's photography and is well worth a look.
My point in mentioning these outside sites (and there are of course many others to consider) is not to suggest directly imitating them, but rather to consider using outside sources for inspiration in diversifying PLAYBOY's style and considering new ways of organizing and presenting content. It is also important to keep track of current practices to make sure that PLAYBOY doesn't fall behind in its online presentations: web content evolves at a fast rate and warrants a close watch for this reason. As one example, PLAYBOY is one of the last sites on the Internet to adopt higher resolution images in response to customers having broadband Internet access and higher resolution displays.
I wouldn't recommend a huge departure from PLAYBOY's stylized photography, which has unquestionably been very successful and valuable for the brand, but diversifying it through careful integration of new ideas could have very positive results.