30 Years of Icon Publications Ltd

On April 14th 2017, your publishers marked 30 years in business as a limited company. Icon Publications Limited is probably the smallest ‘organisation’ producing photographic magazines you’ll find today. We had two owner-directors only, me (David Kilpatrick) and my wife Shirley, who was taken from us by cancer in July 2019. Since everything is done on one my 2013 iMac 27 and it’s really a one-man operation with freelance help. The office wing of my house has now been made into an AirBnB holiday let. I work like so many do now.

Our long-term clients the Master Photographers Association, who have bought a copy of Master Photography to be mailed to every member for many years, ended our relationship a week before this 30-year marker. Five days later I attended the funeral of our friend Colin Buck, their former chief executive who had engaged me to produce the magazine 22 years earlier.

It’s been an interesting journey I started, as a trainee reporter ex-college in 1970, with The Star in Sheffield.

In 1975 I left a newspaper sub-editing job to freelance as a journalist and photographer. As a journalist member of the NUJ I was unable to be employed and use a camera, but it was photography that drew me into journalism on leaving school. I was earning more from freelance reproduction fees than from my day job and the offer of a guaranteed regular fee as Associate Editor of Photo Technique was my incentive to become self-employed. Back then, this was more of a risk than today. Interest rates were through the roof, unemployment was high, inflation was on the run and late payment or bad debt could leave photographers with entire months of borrowing instead of earning an income.

In 1970 at the age of 17, I won a first prize in Amateur Photographer’s monthly competition with a picture I had taken in 1969. The prize was a Zorki 4 camera. This is a picture I took on the first roll through the Zorki, of the Oxfam charity shop temporarily occupying space in Rotherham. Little changes.

I remember that at about the same time, Geoffrey Crawley decided to close down the tabloid Photo News Weekly which his publishers had aimed at amateurs. Shirley and I had both been regular contributors. The editor was Stuart MacPherson. Geoffrey suggested we should take over the magazine, but we had no money to do so. Stuart departed with one warning – do not work for the photographic press! It will eat your life and you will stop being a photographer. He went on to be the staff photographer for the charity Shelter for a working lifetime and stayed behind the camera instead of a desk.

We moved to an old cottage which had a bedroom supported on pillars and a disused outside loo. One bedroom became a small studio, and we turned the under-space and outhouse into a darkroom just high enough to stand up in, a six foot square mini-office, and a new entrance lobby. My IBM Executive D typewriter took up most of the tiny desk, and a filing cabinet and chair the rest. But I could come back in from an assignment, squeeze into the darkroom, process films and make prints while writing the captions and stories during the washing and drying stages.

Somehow this space was also enough to take on the editorship of The Photographer magazine for the Institute of Incorporated Photographers. It was a different world. Some contributors sent hand-written manuscripts, but that did not matter. As editor, I would mark them up for typesetting, do the same with their photographs whether prints or transparencies, sketch a rough page layout and send it to the printers. Provided I got the word count right and made my instructions clear, the finished page would come back a few days later needing nothing except signing off. The typewriter was only needed for my own articles and rewriting information like diary dates, but it was a design tool in its own right, with near typeset quality ideal to combine with Letraset. I made my own photoleaflets with multiple images and lith-film copied text, and found an adhesive from 3M which could turn them into peel-off backing sticky prints.

I remember one of my often-difficult committee meetings with the IIP editorial board, who did not know that my publisher-employer paid no expenses for me to attend these or any of their many seminars and events. I could never afford the early train so I was always ten minutes late, and they were old-school corporates, forces, police, hospital and government staffers when not independent photographers. No excuses were acceptable! At this meeting, I produced one of my prototype Stick-a-Back photoleafets, keen to tell them about the material I had sourced. Ron Callender slapped me down instantly – “put that thing away, laddie”…

However, this was the start of experiment with impact typesetting and blending design and photography using darkroom processes. I sent my leaflets out, and the chairman of Scope Data Systems Ltd who were the UK distributors for the AM Varityper, Flexiwriter and Justowriter called me in for a meeting. I left with a PR contract for photography, writing and advertising design which was to last six years. They became distributors for CTM Computers.

In 1979, two years after parting with my IIP editorship, we formed a partnership with one of their members, a neighbour and friend who had moved from British Steel to run the Mansfield Chronicle’s commercial photographic unit for only a short time before they closed it down… and offered him the business for the Leeds Camera Centre valuation of its assets. We pitched in with half the investment, I qualified as a Licentiate of IIP, and we set up in Mansfield as a commercial and advertising studio. Steve, Tanya, Shirley and I worked all hours and after a year our partners bought us out with a figure which let us move to a large unconverted farmhouse in Tuxford and create our own studio. During that year we allowed Agfa and Jessop to install a C66 colour print processor in the partnership studio with a through-wall print delivery, in return for which we produced the operational manual for the machine and all the publicity photographs along with providing a demonstration site.

In-pro colour

This was the beginning of widespread use of colour in publications. I was a contributing editor of You and Your Camera and working on many partwork and book projects for Eaglemoss and Marshall Cavendish, as well as commercial catalogues and brochures. At our partnership LKA Visual Communications we specialised in technically demanding work, including exact colour matching in prints made to 0.5mm accuracy for prototypes of metal box packaging where our C-types had to be assembled on to an unprinted tin flawlessly, then rephotographed. We learned to make C-type transparencies and shoot direct E6 transparencies ‘in pro’, then assemble them on acetate sheets for a single drum scan to put all the images for an entire page or spread into position in one go.

This was a more typical page in the 1980s, from The Master Photographer magazine. This is how our LaserWriter Plus proof was sent to the typesetter/repro house – they were able to work from our PageMaker file, but the colour reproductions had to be made as separate scan films and ‘stripped in’ manually. Photographs that were used by Shirley Kilpatrick, below. See the section on Moving to Mac, later.

In pro scanning from pre-positioned originals saved thousands, and could be be charged in hundreds. To give you an idea, each scan (separate photograph) generally cost around £40-100 and assembling a page with a couple of colour pictures and text cost another £150, with a further £100 for a proof often needed just to ensure all the pictures were in the right place and not upside-down (seriously). In the 1970s our magazines had black and white sections and colour sections. A typical 60-page magazine would have just eight colour pages and the cover, which might be colour on the outside only. Advertising would hopefully use half this, leaving four or five colour pages in a fixed position inside the magazine for editorial pictures. Typesetting and reproduction usually came to over half the cost of printing. We had budgets where I was limited to six colour images and twenty black and whites per issue. By assembling many images as a layout and rephotographing it or scanning it as one, these costs and limits could be overcome.

Later, when drum scanners became larger and colour prints improved, my own studio created pages of instruction features which you can still find in old books like The Step-by-Step Darkroom Course. Each page was a large paste-up of 6 x 4 inch gloss prints. As late as 1992 we used the same methods with photographs and artwork to produce The Complete Book of Photography. We didn’t have to cut up small transparencies any more.

If you ever wonder about the skills of the pre-digital age, consider the catalogue work. Using a 5 x 4 camera, cardboard masks would be used to divide a single sheet of film into several rectangles. The groundglass screen would have an acetate sheet taped to it with these areas marked, and a visual of each item to be photographed with its exact size and position. Tests on the film batch and processing ensured exact exposures by working with highly consistent studio flash and a good meter (we used Minolta, which was accurate to 1/10 stop). The Sinar camera had a calculator which worked out the effect of bellows extension. Shots could still be bracketed, using several film holders.

Why did we do this and not just shoot some on 35mm, some on 120 rollfilm and some on 5 x 4? Easy – the film batches and processes varied too much. Even with our packs of CC and LB +5 and +10 strength balancing filters! The sheet film was also on a heavier base, making it easier to cut and assemble for scanning. The largest catalogue studios worked on formats up to 10 x 8 and trained their photographers to work ‘in-pro’ and ‘in-position’ because this work saved so many thousands in outlay and made those early mail order books viable. When colour was not so critical it was easier. We could use mixed formats of film, or prints.

Moving to Mac

At the time of our move to Tuxford and the creation of A1 Studios in 1980, Minolta UK Ltd was formed to take over distribution of Minolta cameras from Japanese Cameras Ltd. We had been using Minolta for several years and featured twice in the prestige Minolta Mirror annual, along with a series in the quarterly magazine of the Minolta Club of Great Britain. At photokina 1980, Rick Kutani of Minolta had a brief meeting with myself and Shirley and agreed that we should take over the Minolta Club.

This is where it all converged – we needed to run the database and mailing, with real ambitions to expand from a mere 800 members to thousands. My clients at Scope Data set up the deal to lease a CTM micro and we were on target publish the new Minolta Photoworld in 1981 (it became Minolta Image by readership name vote shortly afterwards). Then Scope, with their impact-typesetting machines and ‘micro’ computers built in to beautiful complete desks, were hit by a tsunami of early word processors and desktop microcomputers. Apple, BBC Acorn, Commodore, Amstrad and similar affordable kit took over the market. They went out of business unable to pay many creditors. One of their former directors arranged an Adler Bitsy system for us using the same components and processor as CTM (‘Bitsy’ sounds small but it filled a 3 x 4m office with the 5MB hard disc drive and massive dot-matrix printer).

We were already working on PR and brochures for Apple dealers DMS Electronics and had been using Apple II machines with MacPuter accounting software, daisy-wheel printer, a colour ImageWriter and Robographics. That software had a confusing name, as it pre-dated the Macintosh system. It was developed by Lorne Computing in Scotland and that’s how it got the Mac bit. Some idea of how durable software can be is that forty years later we still use Mamut AccountEdge, now Swedish-owned, which was developed from those beginnings.

Three years later in 1984, when the Adler lease with its expensive software and technical support ended, we bought the first Apple Mac network to be installed in the UK – two Mac 128K machines, a 20MB hard disc, the LaserWriter (the first north of London) and large ImageWriter. I learned to program and maintain an Omnis database, and the saving on software support alone paid for the whole thing. A year later, Minolta introduced the first autofocus SLR system.

In 1986, Letraset launched ReadySetGo! as the first true desktop publishing program (something capable of writing PostScript files compatible with newspapers, magazines, litho printers and also desktop devices). We were producing The Master Photographer, Minolta Image and Ilford Photo and took the big jump of creating a complete edition using the new software. Then, on a Thursday afternoon, Briarwood Graphics in Nottingham announced that it didn’t work. Through our Mac dealer friends we got a beta test copy of PageMaker and over the weekend re-created the entire thing. It worked. That was when we decided to move into publishing, invest in technology and swap huge print bills for ownership of the systems.

In April 1987, we formed Icon Publications Ltd. We entered The Master Photographer and Ilford Photo into the first ever Printing Industries Research Association Desktop Publishing Awards and Icon Publications Ltd won the category for Best Newspaper or Magazine (equal first for the two titles). We had the first commercial periodical ever produced using PageMaker, on the Mac. Everything else done was either a desktop printed newsletter, or a sponsored experiment in using the software.

Producing ILFORD PHOTO magazine was a privilege, working with the company’s corporate identity under very tight control. It also involved proper assignments, such as visiting the former Lumière factory and museum in Lyons to interview staff and produce editorial photographs. Below, emulsion chemists in the Lyons lab, © David Kilpatrick 1987.

This was a time when we had visits from National Magazine Co., EMAP, and several other large publishers who wanted to see how this worked. We were featured in Apple’s international marketing literature, and became sales agents for Gestetner who offered complete Mac-based DTP installations. On the Polaroid ‘barge’ at photokina I sat down for a few drinks and a chat one evening with two young guys who wanted to start a publishing company. I told them all about the Mac systems. They went on to form Future Publishing, created MacUser magazine, and subsequently a series of photographic and other magazines.

In 1988, we sold the photographic studio and moved from Nottinghamshire to Kelso in Scotland. The capital freed up enabled us to buy a Linotype 200P for setting page type, along with large screen Macintosh II systems. We imported them from the USA and even supplied a system to the graphics department of the regional council. Our first magazine with all the black and white repro via a Microtek 300ZS scanner went out in Spring 1991. To make the Linotype produce colour separations we invested in Hi-Line Screening, giving our publications the 200 lines per inch quality which you take for granted today. In 1992 it was a big step beyond other photo magazines.

By 1993 we had moved up to owning a Hasselblad/Siemens MacSIE 35mm film scanner and the Linotype was replaced by an AM Varityper 2400 (no connection with the typewriter-based technology I first promoted fifteen years earlier). By 1996 we had a Linotype T45 Leaf scanner, then added a Leaf Lumina digital still studio camera, colour laser printing, ISDN data transmission and more.

Posing for a PR shot with the Varityper 2400, Microtek 300ZS and ScanMaker 35, LaserWriter and Ikegami 20″ CRT monitor – with copies of The Photographer, PHOTOpro, and Minolta Image (taken probably February 1992)

But the industry continued to change. Much larger imagesetters producing four pages at a time, imposed for platemaking, were on the way. AM Varityper was wound up leaving us with a £25,000 machine and no engineering support. The firm planning to take over the maintenance contracts was already known to us for their high pricing. So, I nipped round to the bank and arranged an overdraft, and the next day two of our team took vans from Scotland to Hemel Hempstead where the liquidated company’s inventory was being auctioned. We successfully bid for an upgraded and much faster machine, along with two similar to the one we already owned. Then, at the end of the day, bids were invited for the contents of the former service department stores. We got the lot for £500. The maintenance company which had presumed to take over many lucrative contracts was furious; they tried to get a court order preventing the removal of what we had bought. They failed, but our editor Andy Aitken could only fit half of it in the van, so they may have ended up with some good stuff that we simply left behind.

What we got was enough to refurbish two machines, which we sold to two of the printing companies we worked with, and upgrade the best one to keep, with plenty of spare circuit boards, motors and lasers. Those kept our little A3+ imagesetter running as a busy bureau until around 2003, when technology took another huge leap. We had been buying thousands of feet of Kodak, DuPont, 3M or Agfa pagesetting film every month along with dev and fix. It was this business – reprographic film – which along with other fields like medical and industrial X-Ray helped keep the big colour and mono photographic film brands viable.

Then overnight it all went even more digital and the need for silver-based wet processed separation films disappeared. Even proofs disappeared. The industry switched to PDF page delivery by broadband/FTP, soft proofing on screen, and CTP (Computer to Plate).

Almost retiring

We had started testing digital colour repro in 1990. In 1991, the British Institute of Professional Photography awarded me a voted Fellowship for the pioneering work done in collaboration with their President at the time, former BBC lighting cameraman John Henshall, whose ‘Chip Shop’ column allowed exploration of every aspect of the new technology. In 1995, Shirley gained her MSc in Colour Science for a one-year study of colour reproduction, perception and print matching on inkjet, dye-sub and thermal wax printers using an early version of Photoshop.

During the 1990s we launched several magazines and changed our main magazine title. Starting in 1989, it was the quarterly PHOTOpro. By 1991, we were producing four titles. PHOTOpro became Photon, alongside a matching website, in 1995. Both the magazine title and website were sold to Photoshot in 1999 when we launched Freelance Photographer. In the meantime we had tried the market with 35mm Photographer, Paterson PhotoExpert, and Photo Club News. We had produced many Hove-Fountain photobooks, travel guides, Arabian Wildlife magazine, natural history books, industry catalogues and brochures. We had helped produce New Cyclist, the Guild of Wedding and Portrait Photographers news, the Surrey Photo Salon annual exhibition catalogues and the indie music magazine Sun Zoom Spark. The first Gulf War and changes of client ownership ended much of this but at the height of activity we reached a half-million turnover – it was something we never expected with the two of us, our son Richard, a part-time secretary, one full time editor and a school-leaver trainee placement as our normal staffing.

The irony of this is that the entire profit margin lay in the technology which was about to be wiped out – cameras with real film, darkroom printing, scanning, typesetting, separation-making, ISDN data transmission, websites with plain HTML and colour images compressed using hardware for delivery over 300 and later on 1200 baud modems! The photographic magazines themselves were barely profitable and at that time we spent all the margin paying fees to contributors. The contributors’ budget for a typical issue around 1992 was more than the entire cost of printing a far superior magazine in 2017 (in actual pounds, not relative).

In the late 1990s we produced the catalgues for IMPRESS group – Paterson Photographic, Lowepro, Benbo and other brands. Here is Shirley, with Lowepro backback and Benbo tripod, trying out a new Contax SLR in a very cold river near Wanlockhead. © David Kilpatrick 1996. 

Although Master Photography (which we took over for the Master Photographers Association 22 years ago, when they published The Master Photographer which we continued under license for many years) and the original Freelance Photographer could have been viable for a conventional publisher into the early 2000s, digital photography really hit the ground running around 2003. It happened at exactly the same time silver film was eliminated from newspaper and magazine printing, along with conventional separation-making, page assembly (stripping in) and imposition (making the pages into sets of 4, 8 or 16 to match paper sizes). Old friends in the print industry simply lost their jobs or moved into another skill when CTP came along with faster broadband and Adobe’s refinement of the PDF document format for pre-press. Before this, our son Richard (who started working in the business at 17) had driven hundreds of miles a week, taking film to printers or catching the Red Star rail parcel deadlines. His other work had included scanning all the slides and prints for our magazines and clients, again, hundreds every month. He switched to taking over advertising sales and never enjoyed that one bit, as this was when the already established decline in the value of print advertising really hit.

The repercussions were great; the end of the Kodak and Fuji wedding and portrait awards, all film advertising, all darkroom product and much photo lab advertising. We changed our titles, to Master Photo>Digital and f2 Freelance+Digital, mainly because some companies would not advertise unless it had digital in the name.

Hanging in there

In the early 1990s, Icon Publications Limited was paid thousands to make page films from the manuals for Aldus PageMaker because the software team had written them using Microsoft Word (you could not make this up) and their printers, the former Aldus distributors McQueens, could not turn Word files into colour separations. We could. The new PDF/CTP/broadband technology less than fifteen years later meant that anyone with a word processor of decent pedigree, or a low-grade layout program like Microsoft Publisher, could send a document to a publisher or printer and if would probably be fine.

The same applied to images. Since 2004 or so, no printer or publisher has ever need an image converting to CMYK. In fact it’s about the worst thing you can do, unless you have the exact profile of the printer it is destined for and understand the rest of the workflow. We can reproduce everyday RGB JPEGs straight out of a phone or a consumer camera perfectly now, and it’s been that way for almost twenty years.

A bad purchasing decision landed us with a Canon CLC 800 colour copier and RIP around that time. We had regular colour laser printing business and used to run off sets of proofs for the ad agency over the road, and do runs of promotional posters for events. Then, almost overnight, everyone had a high quality inkjet colour printer of their own. The colour laser printers stopped working well; the CLC 800 needed a £700 service and was earning zero. In the end I broke it up with my grandson Ed’s help and we took it kilo by kilo (all 250kg of it!) to the recycling centre, rather than pay £500 to have it uplifted and scrapped commercially.

From 1990 to 2017 we must have spent a fortune on film and print scanners, which always became obsolete in a few years. They were the only way to digitise slides and prints. Now, there’s rarely any need to do this – but an old copy stand, kept from the 1970s, and an even older set of macro bellows with a slide duplicator can handle it all.  A high resolution camera shot taking 1/1000s is a match for anything scanners could do in 15 minutes.

The Varityper Panther imagesetter went for £850 to a clothing firm from the Midlands who planned to modify it to produce masters for clothes label printing. Both the printers we sold other imagesetters to eventually replaced them with computer to plate… and Kodak or Agfa lost more turnover. Both printers are now gone. Hi-Tec Printers, the small South Yorkshire firm one of whose founders I met the first year I went freelance, printed nearly all our magazines for over a quarter of a century – thanks, Dave, Paul and Mick! My darkroom sold (which I now regret) for a similar amount, all-in, to a photography graduate setting out in business. It would cost several thousand to set up now.

Back in the 1980s we had monthly costs for film and processing in the thousands. Our computer system in 1981 cost the same as a three-bed semi-detached house. Today, the hard truth is that to produce this magazine I don’t even need my ageing iMac 27. It’s perfectly practical to work on a 15 inch MacBook Pro. There’s no need for offices, and although some paperwork does still clutter up my desk, that is only because it is paper. It’s all in the computer and the only reason it gets printed and kept is because the revenue insists. As for the outlay, a little over £40 a month subscribed to Adobe Creative Cloud covers everything we need and much more.

In 2007, we let f2 Freelance+Digital go to EC1 Publishing, as there was some hope that Sony would create a new UK user group and take over Minolta Photoworld, with some need for a commitment of time and new ideas. But we closed Photoworld in 2011 as this never went further. We had kept it going for five years after their takeover but when membership fell to 800 readers – the same we started with in 1981 – it was time to go. In 2012, we launched Cameracraft as quarterly to fill that slot with a much broader interest, and Gary Friedman as US associate editor. Then in 2014 EC1 closed down and f2 Freelance Photographer as they renamed it was to end. So we took it back, and when Cameracraft had completed 12 issues in 2015, merged the two. The magazine is now Cameracraft officially, but we put f2 on the cover for  while as everyone was familiar with that.

Where now?

When I wrote ‘almost retiring’ it is as much about all the equipment, supplies and processes we use as about our working lives. I don’t earn much, because circulations and advertising revenues today are a quarter of what they were and falling, but I also don’t spend much. Apart from printing and mailing, my largest bills now are keeping up with the latest gear, heat and light, rates, and running one modest car. If I took the decision to stop printing and become an electronic app and web only publisher I would stop using consumables and services entirely. If everyone did that, and no-one bought a physical magazine or book, or a framed wall print, or a wedding album, would photography still have any kind of UK industry behind it?

Sometimes I think my decision in 1984 to invest in Apple Mac systems was a big factor in making my own skills, very highly paid and valued at the time, worth so little now. Shirley learned to use the systems to design and edit a whole range of books for other publishers, a new career phase she loved even when it meant reworking a translated German A to Z of Video into English (think about it!). But there’s no work of that kind now for experienced editors, and if there was, it would be paid so little that insufficient time and attention could be paid to the job. We are always trying to do a month’s work in a week these days, and it shows.

In 1991 Keith Cogman published a freelancing motivational book called My Mamiya Made Me a Million (I just ordered a new copy for £8.50 from Amazon – there it is, above). One day I should write a book called My Mac Lost Me a Million – and you’ve probably just read an entire chapter.

– David Kilpatrick

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One Response to 30 Years of Icon Publications Ltd

  1. Phil Flowers says:

    Thank you David the old to new has unlocked words, phrases and physical things that ring many bells for me, My starting my business and Haynes publishing my first client, that spanned years and set me up, then to Top-it all the Cogman book that I have a signed copy off and that I met and spoke to him in Bristol. As I look forward to my retirement in July what you wrote brings back so many memories.
    Thank you for the stimulation and …..bugger the MPA muppetess. That is all fluff and mirrors.
    Regards and Thanx again Phil Flowers

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