About the Cover: Labor Days

An interview with the creator of Topic’s cinematic September cover art.

Our September cover artist, Lake Buckley, is a New York–based designer and creative director who describes her best work as “an evocative form of ordinary magic that blurs the divide between mundane and bizarre.” An alumna of the Rhode Island School of Design, Buckley says the “fun and treacherous part” of the assignment we gave her, to create a cinemagraph of costumed characters depicting different occupations, was that it felt like it offered an almost infinite number of possibilities.

“I doubled the number of characters in the scene from the original brief, because I kept thinking of more vignettes to include,” she explains. “With more time and budget I would have liked to build on the surreal nature of everything, with more layering and depth in the scene and odd things happening. But everything came together in about ten days, so all things considered, I’m happy with where we landed.”

We spoke to Buckley right after she had put the finishing touches on her cover art, and right before she headed off to Nevada for this year’s Burning Man.

Lake Buckley in her studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

“Uniforms are interesting because they act as professional drag, pointing out the different ways we understand the performance of certain types of work.”

The cover art—what is it? A cinemagraph? A video?

I’ve never created or seen something in this exact format, so it’s a bit new to me, but it’s a giant moving cinemagraph, something in between a video and a still image. Essentially, it’s many pieces of looping video on top of a static image. I like the dissonance between movement and something that is trapped in time; it creates a surreal and eerie tension that I find odd and delightful.

Were you inspired by anything or anyone in particular?

When I was told the September issue theme was labor and work, I focused on various concepts that would encapsulate the concept of labor to a broad audience in succinct terms. The idea of a uniform stood out to me because of its cultural relevancy, ability to communicate in immediate graphic terms, and wide breadth of options.

I’ve always been drawn to uniforms: they highlight how much we are drawn to systems and labeling and defining ourselves. Uniforms are interesting because they act as professional drag in some sense, pointing out the different ways we understand the performance of certain types of work: the artist archetype, the doctor archetype. We have all these cultural mythologies around various professions, and I wanted to play on those and tweak them as well.

I liked this format because it highlights many different, interdependent roles and gives viewers a chance to think about their interactions with these various professions. I might have played up the costumes a bit here for graphic purposes—the work was partially inspired by Alex Prager, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, and Maurizio Cattelan—but ultimately, I want this cover to be something that is relatable and makes people aware of their own professional performativity.

How did you choose the sorts of characters you wanted to represent?

I made a long list of different professions, everything from a lion tamer to a cobbler and an astronaut. I chose characters based on how colors and uniforms would work together—for example, a doctor next to an astronaut next to a chef would be a boring, white blob, so I thought about how colors and props could work together to create some emergent property.

Buckley and her cast and crew on set in her studio.

Any favorites?

Each persona was a labor of love. I don’t think I can choose one, because what I love most is the contrast of colors, facial expressions, and characters together. (It was the cinematographer’s idea to bring in the spotlights, which helps to make the “Help Wanted” sign a character with much more presence.) The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in this case.

Some of my favorite elements are the Easter eggs hidden throughout. I hope people notice the hair rollers made from dollar bills and that the waiter is handcuffed to his wineglass, for example.

Who did you cast in each role?

The best part of putting this piece together was witnessing the power of community and generosity of family, friends, and complete strangers. There was no budget to pay for talent for this piece, so everyone who showed up did so out of kindness and generosity (and, if they were family, because of minor threats). Some people called in sick to their real jobs, and others put their own life and work on hold for a day. My brother always helps out with my work and is in the piece, as well as several of my close friends. I was truly blown away by the tremendous generosity that made this piece possible. Witnessing the connections that were made was really uplifting as well; I think many people left with new friends. I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and terrific group of people. And the shoot happened to fall on my birthday—it was the best gift.

Buckley (kneeling) began searching for volunteers by posting a handwritten note on Instagram.
Among the more unusual props on set was this pear, which had an unfortunate fate as a resting place for medical instruments.
The cover art is a composite of several portrait-oriented images stitched together to create an enormous digital file.

Take us through the production process, including what happened after shooting stopped and how the cover itself was built.

Generally I would break it up into three parts: wardrobe and prop collection (and coordinating talent), staging and production, and then editing. The first part of the process required a lot of running around and hot-glue dalliances.

The second part, the production, was a bit ambitious. I needed to know what I wanted the final composition to look like while staging and shooting two characters at a time down the row. In order to create a long image that would have enough resolution to crop in on, we shot two characters at a time, making sure to avoid putting faces in the seam of the segments, or else distortion from the lens edge would make stitching the final image together very difficult. The piece is composed of 12 vertically shot segments, so the final image that I worked with was about 25,000 pixels wide, which is huge.

In the editing phase, I started at the beginning of the row and slowly worked my way down, selecting the desired still frame from the film we shot, and selecting the corresponding action that could pair with that still. I would isolate movements on top of the still image. Once everything was lined up, I could move the background into Photoshop to make it all work together. Then I panned across the massive image to create a loop animation of the whole piece.

I should also mention that we shot this in my studio in Gowanus, which was not the ideal location: the wall we were shooting against only had enough room for seven people to stand at a time, the floor was very far from being level, and we tripped the circuit on two walls of the studio, which meant the incredible team that was working on lighting had to compensate for all these things with 20 people watching them. Again, their attitudes were so positive, despite the shortcomings of the space and other technical difficulties.

“The production was a bit ambitious: I needed to know what I wanted the final composition to look like while staging and shooting two characters at a time down the row.”

What do the ideas of “work” and “labor” mean to you personally, professionally, and politically?

My parents always said that finding work you love is a state of grace, so I’ve been pursuing making a living from creativity for quite a while now. Unfortunately, at times, my work is really personal to me, and because I work for myself, it’s hard for me to “leave it at the office.” My personal and professional world becomes increasingly enmeshed as I learn how to express myself and get more of my own ideas out into the world. It brings me joy, stress, curiosity, and fulfillment, plus some existential questions here and there.

In terms of the context of labor in the US right now, I often find myself questioning the dominant dogma about the importance of work. We are culturally capitalistic, so I try to reflect constantly on what I’m buying into. I’ve mostly been thinking about the looming change in the labor force due to automatization. So many jobs are going to drastically change in the next five years, and it doesn’t seem like government or business is doing very much to plan for this massive cut of the blue-collar workforce.

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