For men who love men, Headmaster may be the most interesting publication devoted to art, culture, and what it’s like to take a bottle of vodka on a day trip to Brighton Beach. If you think dick pics are ugly, it means you haven’t seen this magazine’s tasteful nudes or aesthetic photos of the body in nature.
Started by four Providence transplants in 2010, the magazine “for man lovers” is now distributed internationally and sold in over 18 different cities. It’s almost stubborn in its insistence on being exclusive and unique—it’s only available in print runs of 1,000 copies, and rather than accepting submissions it assigns “homework” to contributors. For the most recent issue, which was “field trip” themed, editors sent writers and photographers on journeys to everywhere from a whaling museum to a wastewater treatment plant in Van Nuys, California. No one is placed on a pedestal, and all the work is made specifically for the magazine, creating a unified feel.
VICE sat down with Headmaster editors and founders Jason Tranchida and Matthew Lawrence, longtime friends and collaborators, to discuss the homework, how selling out the first issue felt like sending a kid off to college, and the story of the magazine developing after a weekly show-and-tell party.
VICE: Can you tell me about how the magazine came to be?
Jason Tranchida: At the beginning there were four of us, all designers and artists. Matthew is a writer, another friend of ours is a photographer, and one is a professor. We were all book and magazine lovers, and our one friend was basically like, “Hey would you guys be interested in starting a magazine?” but he didn’t really have a concept; he just knew he wanted to do something, and we wanted to do something that was exclusively print. So we committed to meeting every night with some beer and wine at one of our homes and having show and tell with our favorite books and magazines.
Matthew Lawrence: It was every Monday night. We kept talking about [the magazine], and we knew we wanted it to be on the arty side, and a little bit on the dirty side. Then the name Headmaster came about at the same time we had the idea of giving out assignments to contributors—it was one of those aha moments. From there, we started giving assignments to each other to generate content and decided that was going to be the concept of our magazine.
Is this the only thing that the two of you do?
Jason: I also own a graphic design firm called LLAMA Product, and I am an artist as well. Matthew does writing and editing, runs an arts and culture newsletter in Providence, and throws crazy events here all the time.
What’s the process like when deciding what goes into each issue?
Matthew: We have a mix of stuff. For the first issue, we had to go out and ask people to contribute to us and we didn’t have anything to show them, so that issue was mostly about people living in Providence, including Jason, who did his own project for that issue. And then once we had something to show, we started getting people who were interested in contributing. For the last couple of issues, we’ve had people who we knew [create work], people who we didn’t know but liked, and people who found us.
Jason: We try and maintain a mixture of different types of people in each issue, the youngest person that we have had [do something for Headmaster] was actually about 18 and living in Russia. She sent us a lot of pictures of naked boys. We have had a lot of really established artists like Ross Bleckner and Alex Chee in the magazine, so we like to go about this in three different ways: types of work that they do, the medium they work in, where they are geographically. There are some people right out of school, and then some really established artists, and it makes for a really nice contrast of content.
How do you feel when people say that print is dying, especially because all of your issues are published in limited runs?
Matthew: We’ve been sold out of our first issue for a while, and when we were packing for the Independent Art Book Fair, we broke into the last box of our second issue, so those probably won’t be around for too much longer. It’s funny because when we were selling out of our first issue I was really happy and Jason was really sad.
Jason: It’s like sending your last kid off to college.
That must be so exciting when you realize that you only have one issue left.
Matthew: With print it becomes a storage issue after a certain point. People have been saying that print has been dying since we started, and certain types of print are dying, but I think people still appreciate smaller niche art magazines. We are very careful about paper selection, and making sure it’s something people will love to read.
Jason: Headmaster is somewhere between a magazine and a small art book, so people are really into collecting it and making sure that they have all of the issues. We were just talking to a friend the other day and he was like, “I keep all of my Headmasters in with my cookbooks.”
How do you think your magazine has changed since you first started it?
Jason: It’s changed in terms of how many of us were working on it. It’s a completely different dynamic with two people, especially two people who know each other so well. For the last two issues and our issue coming up, we changed our approach. Two issues ago we sent everyone non-written assignments. We sent Alexander Chee the Patrick Cowley score to an early-80s porn movie called School Daze and asked him to do something with it. Our last issue was our field trip issue, so we sent everyone on a field trip close to where they live. For example, we sent someone a bottle of vodka and they had to take it to Brighton Beach. We had to do a lot of research for that issue, so I think that has sort of evolved. I don’t necessarily think that we have changed the types of projects in each issue, but it has definitely changed how we shape it.
If you could describe your magazine to somebody who had not ever seen it before how would you describe it?
Jason: We sort of have a tagline mantra. It’s a “smart and sexy art publication for man lovers.”
Matthew: Depending on how formally we are describing it, we always say we are a project-based contemporary print publication. We have nine or ten original projects for each issue that have a mix of photo, writing, and other visual projects. We’ve done stuff with textiles, video, and sculpture, so it’s not just photo and illustration or stuff that you automatically associate with print.
Jason: We can also stress that we write these assignments for people, and then we never know what we are going to get back. Sometimes it’s sort of what we expected and sometimes we are just like, “Whoa, we did not even see that one coming.” For instance, in our last issue we thought that J.R. Uretsky, one of our contributors who does a lot of performance, would send us something really performative, but she sent us photographs of a project that she did with her family. We asked her to write us an email explaining what she did so we could contextualize it. She sent back this amazing piece of writing, and the writing became the crux of the piece, and it changed in this really wonderful way. There are definitely great moments like that, and as editors it has been really fun to take all of this stuff, and figure out how to put it into the magazine.