The Last Mag Standing
While the content is inspired by the world’s churning creative class, Ali Ghanbarian of SF’s SOMA remains the supreme arbiter of the magazine’s aesthetic. Polarr sat down with him to learn more.
SOMA, an independent art magazine with global reach and few real peers, is the project of engineer-turned-restaurateur-turned-Editor-in-Chief Ali Ghanbarian. For nearly thirty years, SOMA has served as a vehicle for new talent and an extension of Ali’s style, embodied in a serial art mag unconcerned with reinvention. While the content is inspired by the world’s churning creative class, Ali remains the supreme arbiter of the magazine’s aesthetic, maintaining remarkable consistency over the years since its inception.
What’s exceptional about the publication, to hear him tell it, is that Ali got there first. This look, all bright whites and hooded eyes, is the thread running through three decades of SOMA. Despite upheavals in the city, in fashion, in media, and in the economy more broadly, Ali Ghanbarian’s rule over his empire of taste is unchanged.
Every issue of SOMA is themed, pieced together from over one thousand pitches sent by subscribers, whom Ali affectionately describes as “the trendy, sophisticated, young people.” Fittingly, this issue’s Street Style portion centers on San Francisco: Thin, multiracial pedestrians fill the pages in black, white, and faded blue summer hues. Asked about their favorite films and musicians, the answers range from pat to weird. It’s an odd sidewalk where Harold & Maude, The Hobbit 2, and Leon: the Professional converge.
Roughly twenty percent of every issue is devoted to fashion, SOMA’s deepest well for original content. Ali idolizes his readers, mostly urban women in their 20s and 30s, whose great taste is reflected in their subscription to his. Several longer features connect each issue: The recurring I-Pose feature shows the winners of a competition in which young luminaries pose as cultural giants of their choice.
Their choices, as one can imagine, range considerably. Musician Kaythan Golkar as Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou; artist Naomi Edmonson as Frida Kahlo. As always, Ali tells us, “The issue contains stunning visuals, minimal, never cheesy, sensual but never sexual.” These high-quality images of people posing as their favorite icons, legends, and mentors serve as a platform for people with a little talent and charisma to post better images world wide, and to compete, with the winners getting scholarships, internships, products, and more. All in all, Ali’s dictation of the magazine is more emotive than objective; he works to preserve a mood most obvious to himself.
When he first arrived in the San Francisco neighborhood south of Market Street in the 80s, Ali felt like an intruder: He opened several high-end clubs and restaurants in stretches dense with artist studios and live-work spaces. SoMa is populated with mixed-use warehouses that comprised the sexual center of the city for a certain leather-loving crowd in decades prior. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake devastated the area and drove out most locals, whose return was prevented by newly minted dot com workers moving into pricey developments. The city instated 21 affordable housing projects that slowly opened the area back up to displaced low-income residents, though they were suddenly a minority in the transfigured SoMa they inherited.
The sanctity of talent is vital to SOMA’s project.
Observing changes in the ecosystem of the place — particularly when his “yuppie disco friends” imported themselves — Ali resolved to make it a little easier for creative types to keep their perches. He launched SOMA, and joined the tradition of arts patronage in its purest form. It is clear that the will to enable others to create beautiful things still animates Ali now. He could not speak in great technical detail about what makes a compelling photograph, but exclaimed at the talent of a photographer who, for an upcoming feature, took sparse direction and interpreted it wildly beyond Ali’s concept. “His photos were in motion. A great photographer can take something ordinary and turn it into something with a soul.”
The sanctity of talent is vital to SOMA’s project: Ali insists that, despite the new ubiquity of devices that harbor images, real photographers are no less rare than when film was king. He’s unconvinced that study or practice have anything to do with it. He shrugs simply, “Not everyone has talent.” Despite the finality of the sentiment, Ali spends a great deal of time mentoring young people and providing space for them to grow creatively. He’s aware of how this approach costs him: “I find the best creative new people, they put SOMA on their resume and now within three or four weeks, they are gone. On to big publications, as creative directors, writers, or doing public relations for big fashion houses.” One of his greatest discoveries: Photographer Karen Collins. “I discovered Karen in a Kinkos, and now everything she works on becomes a collector’s piece,” he chuckles contentedly. “She’s my favorite artist.” When we asked about his regrets, he offered up the memory of a time when heroin chic was beginning to emerge as an aesthetic. Uninterested in anything so grungy, he says he turned away several early practitioners of the style who would become influential figures in the arts landscape.
SOMA’s website broadly covers fashion, design, music, and art, although it also has dedicated channels for nightlife, street style and horoscopes. You won’t find that last one in many other places — its exact origin story is unknown, but an eclectic bunch including David Bowie (Ali’s favorite musician), Wayne Coyne, Derek Lam, Gerd Ludwig, and SOMA alumnus Alexander Wang have taken high-def images of their hands and submitted them to the expert scrutiny of Lena, the magazine’s resident palm reader. “We even got Richard Branson to send us a scan,” Ali recalls.
The readings are performed anonymously, the identities of the scans’ donors revealed to Lena only after the fact. The blurb accompanying Jeff Koons’ horoscope, written before his release of the 17th BMW art car, described him as “one of the greatest contemporary artists of our generation, [whose every piece] whether perceived as kitsch or avant-garde [leaves] a lasting impression upon viewers.” In Jeff Koons’ palm Lena saw a sexually adventurous risk taker, one who is attracted to the eccentric in all forms, one who sets ambitious goals, and one who will retire early. Koons, now 60, may not fulfill her last prediction, but the others sound plausible to the casual Koons voyeur.
While the print magazine has always been Ali’s primary passion, his ambitions for SOMA include its maturation into a lifestyle brand. He has plans for SOMA wearables, including a headset for women who might prefer a listening device more akin to jewelry than the clunky variety on the market today. Despite these aspirations, Ali insists, “This magazine is not a business. It’s mine…my baby. It’s only a labor of love.” Given his appreciation of high art, we were surprised by his admission regarding the most common art of the age: “Selfies are okay,” he allows, “as long as they are executed with some personality, some attitude.” You can join the ranks of SOMA’s creative community here.
All images courtesy of SOMA Magazine & Ali Ghanbarian
This piece was written by Emily von Hoffmann and produced by Karissa Paddie on behalf of Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow us on twitter and try our products when our startup is still alive : ).