Love is that powerful force that has always intrigued people, regardless of time, space and place. Musicians berime it in songs, artists immortalise it in paintings and the editors of The New York Times masterfully channel it in the column Modern Love, which has been captivating millions of readers worldwide for 12 years now.
We catch up with two of the main figures behind it – editor Daniel Jones and illustrator Brian Rea whose visuals have become an inseparable part of the column.
> How did you get started drawing? Do you remember if you loved to draw as a child? Where did you study? What was your first job?
Brian Rea: I recall drawing as a child- mostly coloring. Seemed to be something I was constantly doing. My parents were not very artistic, but they were incredibly supportive. I studied illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art. My first “job” was in high school- I did drawings on kids jeans jackets- mostly rock band logos. Def Leppard was my specialty.
> Was there a particular moment when you realised you’d “made it”? What were you doing at the time?
Brian Rea: It was more panic than pride- When I was hired as an art director at the New York Times, I remember my first day of work repeating to myself “holy hell…can I do this?” Resting at the top of the trail is not something I do. I’m too afraid I’ll fall off the mountain.
> What’s your proudest project to date? And why?
Brian Rea: The Malcolm Gladwell Collected art box set is a project that helped take my work in a new direction. Some of the recent animation collaborations I’ve worked on with the great designer Pablo Delcan have also allowed me to explore storytelling in new visual ways.
> What do you find the most challenging aspects of your work? And the industry you work in?
Brian Rea: I’m incredibly lucky to be able to paint and draw for a living- so whatever challenges I may find in my daily work, they’re pretty insignificant.
> How did you get involved with NY Times Modern Love column? When was that and what were you doing at the moment? Do you recall your first essay and illustration accompanying it?
Brian Rea: I received an email from the art director Corinne Myler. She was interested in taking the art for the Modern Love column in a new direction and asked if I’d be interested in working on it. We discussed how best to approach the column visually and how I might tackle a long term series on love. We agreed to 3 things: no hearts in the work, no relying on hand lettering in the images and treat each image as a parallel story to the essay. The first one I worked on I believe was about a father and daughter- I don’t recall the specifics of the essay, but I do remember the art having a young girl looking on from a doorway as her father played an accordion. It was about 6 years ago.
> What is the hook / the idea that you look for when reading an essay in order to make one illustration out of it?
Brian Rea: My approach has always been to match the tone and emotion of each writer’s essay with the story in my image. If I can elicit the same emotional level in the image as the essay, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
> Have you received complaints from the authors that the drawing does not correspond to their story? If yes, on what occasions?
Brian Rea: Most writers have been very supportive and are more curious about how I will portray them in the illustrations. I did receive a lengthy email from a very committed reader who critiqued my illustrations since the beginning of my time on the column. She described in detail how my work had evolved over the 5-6 years. The takeaway was that she preferred my earlier work. I love anyone that passionate about anything.
> What is your favourite love story so far and which one would you recommend to our readers?
Brian Rea: Each essay has the chance to touch us in different ways- I’ve had pieces that made me laugh, made me think, made me change my own behaviour and certainly have made me cry. I’ve met some of the writers and chatted about how my illustrations have affected them and how their essays affected me. I’ve laughed at a story about a woman who REALLY loved her pet turtle and shared emails with an 80 something year old essayist who wrote a loving column about marrying her now deceased 90 year old marathon running sweet heart. That’s what the column is about really- making us think about our own relationships and our own lives and how important we are to each other. At least, that’s what I take away from reading the column each week.
> Have you thought of contributing your own Modern Love story to the column with a pseudonym – what would it be about?
Brian Rea: I have thought about it, but I’m not a very skilled writer. If I did, it would be the story of meeting my wife- you’ll have to wait to read it.
> Is there one thing that really motivates and assures you to keep doing what you do?
Brian Rea: Three things: Passion, emotions and an audience that hopefully connects to the work.
> When did the Modern Love column start? What prompted it? Who was behind the idea? Do you recall what was the first published essay?
Daniel Jones: The first Modern Love column appeared on October 31, 2004, and it was the idea of Trip Gabriel, who then edited Sunday Styles in the New York Times. He had read essay anthologies that my wife, Cathi Hanauer, and I had edited: his and hers tell-all books about the stresses of modern marriage. Hers was called “The Bitch in the House”; mine, “The Bastard on the Couch.” He wanted stories like ours in his section on a weekly basis, so he hired us, as a couple to create “Modern Love” (named after David Bowie’s song). The first essay was by a writer named Steve Friedman who kept getting turned down by women – his life story!
> How did the column evolve? What is the one thing that never changed?
Daniel Jones: What never changes is how it is to find and build lasting relationships. What also never seems to change is our expectation that true love should feel natural and be easy. There will be problems. Life is messy.
> How many submissions do you receive in a month? Do you track how many people read the column and in how many countries?
Daniel Jones: We receive about 600 submissions a month for 4 spots. We do track how many people read the column and how much time they spend reading it but we don’t release such figures. I can tell you that the most popular column we have ever run – “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” – reached more than 10 million readers, and that essay, combined with its sidebar (a list of questions) reached more than 16 million readers who collectively spent more than 160 years of time reading those two pages. It was the most popular article to appear in the New York Times in 2015.
> How many people are involved in the NY Times team working on the realisation of the Modern Love section? I notices that you have launched also a podcast – is there anything else new in your plans for the near future?
Daniel Jones:The column has one editor, me, and a deputy Styles editor who oversees my work. The column is then read by two copy editors, an online editor and an art director. We have an illustrator. For the podcast, which is brand new and quite successful, remaining in the Top 5 on iTunes since its launch three weeks ago, we have three producers, two hosts, and many technical people. I may be biased, but I think the podcast is phenomenal.
> On the visual part: why did you choose to work with Brian Rea? How do you realise the videos – how do you choose which story is for a video project and which not, how do you select/invite the artists for the videos?
Daniel Jones:I didn’t choose Brian – the art director did. But his smart, playful and beautiful illustrations have come to define and identify the column as much as anything else. The video animation project has come to an end. It was gorgeous and nominated for an Emmy but we can only do so much for so long.