Photographers who might have aspired to see their work published on the glossy pages of a magazine can now opt for the glossy screen of an iPad.

Once Magazine, a “visual storytelling” app for the iPad, is a new showcase for photographers’ work and related multimedia. The app provides three cohesive photo essays, each with an array of high-resolution photos that are united by narrative text and supplemented by other features, such as infographics and audio clips.

Once’s free pilot issue was released in August. Its next issue — which will cost $2.99 and offer subscription options — will likely be released in October with the debut of Apple’s iOS 5 and its new Newsstand feature. Once is yet another magazine app that challenges our understanding of what magazines are — and might be. Its founders think it might also represent an important path into the future of photography.

Once’s Editorial Concept

Once’s strategy is to assemble “stories worth touching,” said publisher Andrew Jones, in order to make the most of the iPad’s interface and its ability to display high-quality images.

The app’s focus on quality visuals means that its editorial process begins with the photography. The editorial team identifies photographers with intriguing work and asks them to participate. After about 20 photos on one theme are selected, the Once editorial team identifies a journalist with relevant knowledge and experience, and commissions text that wraps a compelling story around the photo sequence. Additional interactive elements and audio clips are added to the photos to enrich the reading experience.

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The title page of one of the photo essays in Once’s pilot issue.

The three photo essays included in Once’s pilot edition cover a lot of territory, and each depict life in different regions: the far reaches of Greenland; Abkhazia, a region of the country of Georgia; and Sun City, Ariz., a retirement community near Phoenix.

While photographers whose work is used in Once may have taken these photos while working on other projects, the text used with them is newly developed.

“It’s a unique editorial model in that the stories are built retroactively. It fits well with our budget and our business model,” said Nick Hiebert, Once’s communications director. “We don’t have to pay journalists upfront to go to these countries. We find journalists who are already in these areas or already have expertise in the area, which makes reporting much easier for them and more cost-effective.”

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One of Andrea Gjestvang’s photos from her contribution to Once.

Photographer Andrea Gjestvang, whose photographs of life in Greenland are included in the pilot issue, appreciated the opportunity for a different selection of her images to tell a new story in Once.

“I like the idea that they brought in the journalist who wrote the independent text. [It was] her words, her story, but it went very well with my pictures,” said Gjestvang, a freelance photographer who is based in Norway. “Normally, when I have been presenting this project, I’ve been focusing more on the daily life and social life, whereas they focused more on the hunting side. The selection of pictures was a bit different than what I normally use, but it was nice that one big project can have different stories within the project.”

The Audience for Photography

Once’s high-end visual concept is based on its founders’ observation that the public is increasingly interested in and sensitive about photography, but so far it’s been difficult to make photography lucrative.

“Once is addressing a number of problems, we like to think, one of them being that photography is not paying very well,” Jones said. Yet DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras and cell phone photography have helped more people take higher-quality photos and in greater quantities, he observed.

“It seems like a real disconnect. More people know more and are exposed to really high-quality photography. Once is trying to leverage that whole shift in consumer habits, toward thinking about photographs being really valuable,” Jones said.

Starting with the next issue, photographers published in Once will receive a cut of the magazine’s revenues. The $2.99 charge for each issue first will be reduced by Apple’s standard 30 percent cut, then the remainder is split: half to the magazine and half divided among the three published photographers. So far, the magazine’s writers have received a flat fee, but Once is exploring ways to include them in the revenue-sharing model as well.

Hiebert noted that this isn’t usually how photographers are paid for their work. “Typically, photographers are contracted with a set amount of money. Because we have this new data that Apple gives us through iTunes, we’re allowed to see how many downloads are coming — and how much money the magazine is making — much more accurately than publications in the past that were relying on traditional sales data,” he said.

Photographer Gjestvang is hopeful that this model will appeal to a wider audience.

“Many photographers hope that it will bring a new way of publishing work in the future which will also pay for what you are doing,” she said. “Of course, you need the audience to pay for the project that you spend so much time on … It’s also important that if you want to have a broad audience, to not only make a magazine for other photographers, but for all kinds of people, to make the audience curious about what’s going on in the world.”

Once Looks Ahead

The Once concept is likely to evolve to include additional multimedia — though photography will always play a major role — and to be available on new platforms.

“We’re trying to push a new type of storytelling experience that is only available on the iPad, kind of a tactile experience,” Jones said. “That learning experience, that entertainment experience is so much richer when we can bring in the reader through physically touching.”

Today’s photographers shooting with DSLRs often capture audio and video that can be incorporated into Once. Infographics are also now easier to create with new online tools. The complexity of the app as a whole, though, is still somewhat limited by technical considerations.

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One of the infographics included in Once’s pilot issue.

“We would love to include as much video and audio in every essay [as we could], but the truth of the matter is that it increases file size and that maybe affects download numbers,” Hiebert said. “We also don’t want to … distract from the narrative focus.”

The magazine plans to move next to the iPhone, then to explore opportunities on Android platforms, including the new Kindle Fire tablet, which require more development than the shift to the iPhone. The potential for the forthcoming iPad 3 to include a higher-resolution “retina display,” similar to that already used for the iPhone 4, would also be an ideal match for Once’s content, Jones said.

The new platforms will likely lead to still more innovations.

“The iPad has allowed us to develop a pretty unique product in Once. You don’t envision a magazine as a three-essay package,” Hiebert said. “But we can reconceptualize what the magazine is, now that there are different platforms for delivering them.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.