We talk with photographer Steve Shaw, founder and publisher of "Treats!," a modern gentleman’s magazine that has developed something of a cult following.
"Treats!" is one of those magazines you stumble upon and then somehow make a permanent part of your personal library. At least that's what happened with singer Robin Thicke, who not only went on to be featured on a "Treats!" cover, but also used the publication as a personal casting agency for his wildly popular (and legally cumbersome) smash hit, "Blurred Lines."
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the magazine's founder and publisher, Steve Shaw. Our editor Jeff Carvalho was already a longtime "Treats!" reader, but I had only recently begun testing its waters. After taking some time to really get acquainted with the publication, I found myself admiring its glossy editorials, luxuriously thick pages and of course, the artistic nudity — thankfully, it's the kind that didn’t have that skin-crawling undertone of exploitation.
After seeing Shaw’s careful consideration of the naked body, I was curious to have a chat with him. Chalk it up to my age, Midwestern upbringing or gender, but I didn’t know much about “gentleman's magazines.” Aside from nuggets of pop culture regarding the history of "Playboy" and having occasionally flipped through a few of the most standard of men’s publications, I had little else to go on. And, considering the Hugh Hefner of more recent times is a far cry from the man at the helm during the "Playboy" heyday — which was before my time — the knowledge I did have was far from illuminating. Sure, I wasn’t naïve enough to expect some white-haired cad bedecked in a robe and smoking slippers to enter trailed by a gaggle of leggy pseudo models, but it was nevertheless refreshing to see the utter normalcy of Steve Shaw. He appeared as a soft-spoken man with a charming English accent and a proclivity for dark neutrals -- with the exception of his gold Rolex watch. As we settled in, the artist and photographer in him emerged, sharing with us his world views and thoughts on what the perfect magazine should represent.
Today, Shaw has a definitive vision for "Treats!," one that reflects his notion of what an ideal modern publication should aspire to be. As with anything, the idea didn’t simply develop overnight. It was years in the making, and only fully realized after experiencing the ups and downs of working as a very in-demand freelance photographer.
Before his first “Vogue” cover, and before he’d fixed his camera on the long list of celebrities and models he would go on to shoot, Shaw was just a kid in Northern England; more so, he was a kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I kind of picked up photography because I wasn’t much good at anything else,” Shaw says with a self-deprecating laugh.
After deciding to leave school early, Shaw promptly found himself a job at a photography studio in Manchester, where, though grossly underpaid and required to brew copious amounts of tea, he says he learned a lot. However, most of the real lessons took place after hours — Shaw consistently worked overtime in order to learn the tricks of the trade. He would go on to shoot aerial photographs from small private planes before finally relocating to California. Once in the US, he landed a photography gig at Glamour Shots in Santa Anna Mall. After an encounter with a transgender customer who requested to be made over in the image of Barbara Streisand, Shaw became fascinated with the transformative power of fashion, and so began to concentrate his efforts on fashion photography.
In more recent times, Shaw says his personal photography has taken a backseat to helping develop the talent of other photographers, many of whom he gives a platform through "Treats!" In fact, he launched the magazine partly for this reason. “'Treats!' was pretty much born out of frustration,” he admits. “I’m a pretty open photographer with other photographers. I have a lot of photographer friends, and I’m really proud of them when they get a lot of work. I love to encourage creativity and I wanted to give others an opportunity to be creative.”
Having worked at some of the most well-known publications on the market, Shaw was intimately familiar with the difficulty of expressing a personal point of view while working with a paying client. If there was one thing he learned from these experiences, it was that where money and creative vision cross, the latter is very often compromised.
“I was frustrated with working with magazines like “FHM” and “Maxim” where as a creative person, the process wasn’t natural. I felt like I was doing something I didn’t want to do, and I also felt like I was being forced to make someone else do what they didn’t want to do. I’d be photographing an actress and the Art Director for the magazine would be like, ‘Try and get her bikini down a bit more,’ and I’m thinking, 'This is just fucking awful.'” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Shaw says there are women’s magazines that exemplify beautifully done, artistic nudity — but, with the aim of selling fashion. “My guy friends aren’t buying those magazines," he exclaims, "They’re not picking up “Italian Vogue.”
Thus he turned to "Treats!," hoping to establish a space for creatives to create, but also a space for the models who were featured to feel genuinely comfortable and involved in the process. “I think posing nude can be incredibly empowering,” Shaw says after a moment of pause. “Although I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go out and do a bunch of nude photo shoots either, unless it’s for the right reason. It’s something you want to do with a photographer you really trust, someone you’ve built a relationship with.”
This point of view has led Shaw to develop a rather strict vetting process for both his models and photographers. He receives a staggering amount of unsolicited submissions, many of which he feels misunderstand the "Treats!" ethos. “It’s not about gratuitous nudity,” Shaw explains. “I always try to portray my models artistically; I’m not looking at them physically or sexually, it’s more creatively. You have to remember that people are already nervous when they have their picture taken, and it’s worse when they’re naked. So, it’s kind of a challenge for me to make them feel comfortable and beautiful. Sometimes something happens when these models sit for me; they start off so shy, but if you do things right they become really comfortable and forget they’re naked. I love to see that change in people. For women especially, I think it can almost make them feel stronger. It affirms there's nothing shameful about being naked.”
Shaw also makes it clear he works strictly with professional models, refusing to go the route of magazine's that pluck eager hopefuls -- who will likely never model again -- from small towns across the country for one-off photo shoots. He quite rightfully sees "Treats!" as creative visual artistry rather than a mere flesh mag. That, coupled with its strong fashion angle makes professional experience a necessity. Using Kate Moss as a reference, Shaw explains that part of being a model is understanding how the body works on camera, and how clothes should be worn — skills an amateur may not possess. Even still, Shaw admits he looks for freshness, stating he’s not likely to choose a model or photographer that has done a lot of similar work in the past.
“I’m always trying to find new, young, amazing photographers that would never be given a chance by a regular magazine. As far as models… I try to pick women with some level of culture and sophistication. I also like to think if you’re going to do 'Treats!' you’re not going to do anything else. You do 'Treats!' because of how you’re presented. I mean, take Emily [Ratajkowski]; we shot her in black and white with no makeup, and it’s stunning. I was literally blown away." Ratajkowski, who has gone on to grace the silver screen in films like "Gone Girl," reached mainstream success after gracing several issues of "Treats!" -- the most iconic being her black and white feature. Shaw was also instrumental in placing her in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, which went on to become one of the biggest songs of 2013. It's not exactly your typical Cinderella story, but it's one that makes an odd kind of sense in our current culture. Then again, so does a magazine like "Treats!"