- COURTESY PCNW
- MATT EICH Fire Hose Baptism, Newport News, VA, taken in 2013. All images in this post were selected by Whitney C. Johnson for an exhibition up right now at the Photographic Center Northwest.
The New Yorker magazine is a house of words.
It didn’t publish a full-page photograph until 1992. It only began printing pictures in the fiction section in 1996. Those two changes were brought on by the woman who was director of photography for 15 years, Elisabeth Biondi. She left in 2011, and another new era rushed in: The New Yorker joined Instagram. It took on video. It developed an extensive, steadily moving website and a photo-specific blog Photo Booth, which has its own Facebook page and Twitter account.
Whitney C. Johnson, a Seattle native, is the woman behind this era.
If you look for interviews—or even more information than this—about Johnson on the internet, you're not going to find them. But she talked with me by phone about photography, her own career, and how pictures work at The New Yorker these days. Johnson is back in Seattle tomorrow giving a lecture on documentary photography at Seattle Art Museum, in conjunction with the group exhibition she’s juried at the Photographic Center Northwest.
When Johnson took the New Yorker job three years ago, her mother asked her, “Uh, a photo editor at The New Yorker? Don’t you want to be doing that at National Geographic?” Here’s the story of her peculiar career, job, and the changing world of editorial photography.
- COURTESY PCNW
- CHRIS BARRETT Untitled, from Icons of Rhetoric, taken from a North Korean TV broadcast in 2013.
Let’s start big-picture. What’s The New Yorker’s photo philosophy, and what’s your style?
In some ways, we’re probably more old-school than other magazines—just in terms of our influences, and in terms of the number of photographs that we publish. We don’t publish that many pictures, but we try to take great care with the ones that we do. In that sense, the pictures really matter, both in the pages and to the photographers.
Elisabeth [Biondi] had a more formal approach, and my background’s in documentary, so that’s made my approach a little looser. I’ve worked with our creative director here to try to hone a looser look as well. The major thing for us in the past few years is how much the digital presence has started to play a role in photography, even for The New Yorker. When I visualize a story, I’m not only thinking of the single image for print. Before, you had to get the perfect double truck. It’s a much different story when you can rely on several images. Now, I need to get that perfect image for the magazine, and then also visualize it online. In some cases that means we don’t do anything else, in some cases we do a slideshow, in some cases we add video.
I have to think about, “How can the photographers we work with also work with moving images?” Is that a requirement? No. I think we’re at the point where I still make decisions about who to assign because I’m most concerned about what that picture will look like in print, but I think very soon I’ll be very influenced about, “Can this person make a video too?” I think that’s one way photography is changing.
How else do you see it changing?
You can’t make a living being an editorial photographer. There’s just not enough editorial work to go around. Even if you’re contributing regularly to this magazine, that might be three or four times a year. Photographers are having to think about, “How do I create a much more well-crafted career? How do I do the editorial assignments that are able to reflect my work, that are almost able to serve as promotion for a gallery show or a book?” There are a fortunate few who can work that way, but for those few, when it works, it does work.
I try to assign photographers assignments that can contribute to a person’s body of work. Thomas Struth had a show in New York recently, and one of the images he shot on assignment for us. Moises Saman was recently showing me the book dummy for his work from the Middle East over the last five years or so, and I’d say about 20 percent of the pictures he’s shot on assignment for us. Those aren’t necessarily the pictures that we run; the ones for the book may be too subtle, or it doesn’t tell the whole story. So it’s about, how can the assignment be more than what it is. It’s about more than the picture that gets published.
That sounds like the role of an old-fashioned art dealer, providing a net for artists that’s broader than just funneling funds their direction.
We do that more than some publications. At the same time, I want them to be working for the space—the photographer has to remember that for the picture that’s published, they are working for us. Sometimes that creates a bit of sensitivity. I think a photographer always wants their favorite picture published in the magazine, and maybe I can run it. But maybe it’s running at such a size that I can’t see that favorite moment. Or maybe the main figure falls in the gutter, so it doesn’t work for a print publication. Maybe what works on the gallery wall doesn’t work in print. The best photographers realize that, but it can create hurt feelings. And that’s particularly challenging with fine artists. We have to direct the photographers to a certain degree, so that they understand the parameters that we need, so that we don’t come back with something that just doesn’t work, but I don’t want to overly art-direct them. I want them to still produce an image that they feel is theirs. And that can be a little trickier with a fine artist, because they want to just work within their parameters and create a piece of work that is just a piece of work for them, because their career depends on it.
Are you a photographer?
I’m not a photographer. I did take photo classes like everybody in high school. Then I studied American literature here in New York [at Barnard College] and thought I wanted to work in magazines. I had interned for Interview magazine for a year while I was in college, and enjoyed that and could have seen a path as more of an editorial assistant, so I was considering that when I got this job offer from the Open Society [Foundations], which is George Soros’s philanthropic organization that does work around the world. I was doing communications for the website, and I’d been there for maybe half a year, and Susan Meiselas, the documentary photographer for Magnum, curated an exhibition there. She’d been a longtime friend of the president, and he’d wanted to create an exhibition in the space that spoke to the work that the foundation was trying to do around the world with this idea that, what if we have this show in a place where people are actually working on theses issues, whether they’re foundation people or economists or academics.
So Susan worked on that show, and I started working with her. She had me start editing the statements for the photographers, and was asking me why someone who had studied journalism and art was not interested in photojournalism, and I didn’t have a good answer—so she took me under her wing and taught me how to look at pictures and talk about pictures. And then the foundation launched a documentary photography project and I insisted that i work on that. I was sort of involved in the documentary photography community in New York City through that, and got to know a photo editor here [at The New Yorker], and when she left, she suggested I speak with Elisabeth Biondi, who took a chance on me because I had never worked as a photo editor at a publication. I’ve taken an unlikely path to my current role.
It’s an interesting aspect of your role that you choose photographs not only for news stories, but also for fiction. When I see an image with a short story, sometimes I get the connection and sometimes it feels far more oblique, like an added piece of fiction.
When I started [as a New Yorker photo editor in 2007], when Elisabeth was here, it was the one place in the magazine where we had a space to publish fine art photography, and it was a page where the image was unaltered.
We had this way to think a little less literally about the pictures, so I think in the cases where you see something that’s a bit more oblique, that’s a case where we kind of got away with something. It’s hard—we’re not a newsweekly, but we’re still a weekly magazine grounded in the news and what’s happening, and there’s a tendency in that field to move toward more literal imagery, whether for a news piece or a fiction piece. So we’re always trying to move away from that when we can, to recognize that images can be more subtle, that they can be complementary, not just illustrative. You win some battles, you lose some battles.
There’s a lot of voices involved. I mean, a magazine is a collaboration. And if in the fiction stories, we’ve had a bunch of murders or depressed divorcees, we can’t show another dark shadowy woman in a hallway from behind; sometimes those decisions are dictated by what’s happened in another story recently, sometimes what else is in the magazine that week. The magazine tends to include a lot of profiles of men, so the fiction place, if we could show a picture of a woman, that would be a good thing. It would be nice to think it was always only about the story, but there are a lot of components to a magazine, and that’s maybe where some of the surprising choices come up.
Do you keep artist portfolios on hand to consult?
We do have photo files that we keep. I look at a lot of portfolios—maybe there’s a picture in this body of work that would be of use for a fiction story down the line. Now things have changed a little bit with the fiction section. We’ve decided to take a more design approach, meaning we’re treating each fiction art piece more like it’s a book cover. So you’ll see the image and the title are much more integrated. Sometimes they’re illustrations, sometimes photographs, sometimes treated photographs, sometimes only type. I think there are some fine artists who are upset that we’ve changed gears there, but I think it’s a place where design and photo get to work together in a way that we haven’t always collaborated so closely.
The New Yorker has never had a photograph on its cover. Are you asked to take a position on that as a representative of the photo side of the magazine?
No. It’s always been assumed that the cover will always be an illustration. Our covers editor [Françoise Mouly] has been here a long time, and she’s married to Art Spiegelman, who is one of our cover artists. It’s very much part of the history of The New Yorker to have this illustration. We have a new creative director who started a couple of years ago [Wyatt Mitchell], and it was discussed when he came on board whether he would be able to redesign the cover, and that was sort of territory that was not granted to him. So it’s an undiscussed policy here. (Laughs.)
Got it. How many photo editors does The New Yorker have?
There’s three who work primarily in print, one who works mainly on cultural and art stories, one who works more on the political and journalistic stories, and a junior editor, then two who work on the web site. There’s myself. We oversee all the images on print and on newyorker.com and on the tablet. Then we have one [photo editor] who floats and does special projects related to both print and web.
When Elisabeth left, photographers praised her for allowing them to stay on assignment until they got the pictures, even if that was far longer than planned. Do you do that?
I think budgets have only gotten tighter, and we have to be sure we remain efficient. I spend a lot of time getting to know the writers and how they work. So I know that certain writers are going to go to a place, and they’ll tell me they’re going to stay two weeks but they’re going to stay for five, so I should not send a photographer until later, when the writer knows more of what he’s writing about.
Some writers will go to a place and the story will be very reflective of what they saw specifically. Other writers will do much more pulled back social-theoretical-political piece. So it’s about when we send the photographer. I have been extending some assignments in cases where in the past maybe I just needed to get a portrait, but now I need a photographer to get a photo essay or to come back with a video. It’s not like I’m just talking to the writers to shrink the assignments; in some cases I’m expanding the material. It’s a case-by-case basis, but we’re not like National Geographic. We can’t send someone for six weeks or three months, but we can send someone for two weeks.
How many photographers do you typically have out on assignment at one time?
That’s a good question. I’m shooting a couple of things this week for next week, but I’m also shooting things that I don’t know when they’ll be published. So we’re often juggling, I don’t know, 10 shoots a week. Some might be a theater shoot down the street and others might be a shoot in Kurdistan. Even though there are only maybe seven pictures in the magazine each week, probably five of those have been assignments. The historical pictures we’re researching, but for the most part we’re commissioning all the pictures that you see. Fiction’s a little different, but for the most part we’re not picking up researched images.
In your talk Friday, how are you framing your subject: documentary?
I’m not actually sure. SAM wants me to speak to something that’s going to be in an upcoming show of contemporary work from India, primarily photography. Then I’ll talk a little bit about how we work with the photographers for the magazine. I’ll also talk about jurying the competition at the Photo Center.
I love jurying these competitions because it gives you a chance to really see a lot of work that you might just not come across. I’m always encouraging younger photographers to apply to as many of these competitions as they can, because even if the work is not selected, the jurors are always people involved in the industry and getting your work seen by them is so important. Once a person starts to see your work a couple times, you can blow up.
It’s interesting in documentary, because there’s a lot of people that are really off pursuing long-term personal projects where they have the space and the time to get pictures that really work for that body of work. I think the challenge is that, all of a sudden, their work will get exposed, but they can’t actually translate something they’ve made over a long time into an assignment. Some photographers can navigate both worlds and some cannot. When they only have a couple of hours, maybe they can’t make the same kind of images they can when they have all the time in the world, or that greater level of intimacy.
Photography repeats itself over and over. It’s so important to know who has come before you, who has made this before. You have to know why you’re doing it again, and there has to be a good reason. Documentary photography, of course, can still be conceptual. That’s the thing that always stands out for me. It’s not enough for photographers to have just several good single images. They really have to have that cohesive body of work that is both visually strong, something I haven’t seen before, and gives you insight into how they think, that they’re doing a well-crafted, thought-out project. Everyone is a photographer now, so what separates someone who’s a professional or an artist or journalist from someone who’s not? A lot of it has to do with what’s valued by people who are consuming this journalism, and how do we save journalistic integrity? We have to support the professionals who are doing it.
Who are you looking at now?
I can’t look at anything right now without thinking, "Will it work for the magazine?" Of course, it’s been really great to watch Pari Dukovic grow over the last year. He was working at Platon’s studio, who was another photographer for us for a while. [Dukovic] was working on personal projects while working for Platon and showing us these projects, and then he went out and did some work for New York magazine and then us—and now he’s made probably 30 pictures for us in the last year, from burlesque dancers to the President of the United States. He’s always turning to Beaton and Avedon and Penn, but yet his pictures are not old-school. He looks to old film for color inspiration, and he’s always looking for a freshness and new ways to shoot old subjects.
Then on the journalistic side, Moises Saman is a terrific photographer, and it’s been fun to see him grow over the years. He used to work for Newsday and The New York Times, and he’s such a fierce photographer, getting these front-page pictures, and now he’s been exploring how to build a body of work over time, where you end up seeing a little bit more of photographer in the work. That’s what I’m looking for, even in journalists, that thing that separates them. They can’t be swayed too far in one direction or the other, but they have to have a voice.
Jehad Nga is another photographer who just does amazing things with color and light, and he’s been a great person to work with, too, because I can send him into difficult situations. He’s half Libyan himself; I can send him to various places, to [REDACTED]. When we come out with a story on [REDACTED], it’s several months after The New York Times has been covering it, and the pictures they get are much more in the moment, so I have to think about our readers: What have they already seen? Do they need to see that again? What will match our story? Our story will be more contemplative and look back at the history as we try to understand what’s happening there currently. I end up not sending photographers who are amazing news photographers, because that’s not what we need.
When I took this job my mother said to me, “Uh, a photo editor at The New Yorker? Don’t you want to be doing that at National Geographic?” In many ways that sums it up. National Geographic is probably the only publication where photos come first and words come second. But look, my degree is in American literature. I love the writers we work with. It’s so interesting to see the editorial process. Do I wish that we could have more pictures published? Yeah, sure, and not just for the sake of having more pictures published—I think we live in a more visual world, I think to be relevant it’s important to have visuals, and I think there are things we could do that other publications could not do: photo essays, essays that are not just photographs.
Time this week has, like, five double trucks of pictures from Burma, but we’re in a place where if we had five double trucks and we also had 5,000 words by a writer, we could have something different. We’re not doing that. Maybe something will change. And I think, again, the website has been a place where we’ve been able to expand and do more visually. We have the Photo Booth blog, and that’s a place where we post nearly every day—the editors post things of personal interest, and connected to things going on in the world. If not the first, we were one of the first to commission photographers to guest-contribute to our Instagram feed, so that’s another place where photographers are able to contribute something different. They have a lot of freedom there, they can tell a story more journalistically, or it can be off-the-cuff moments, it can be highly visual. And that’s a place where we can work with people we haven’t had the right assignment for in print.
Why do you think it took you so long to link visuals and journalism?
So, my history in art—I had taken some art history classes and architectural classes, art history classes tied to my American studies work, like the history of the American landscape kind of thing. I was interested in this weird territory of the built landscape and philosophy. It was by accident that I’d gotten interested in journalism.
I’d been more of a jock in high school, and I rowed at Columbia [University, during graduate school]. When I got tired of getting up in the morning and quit crew, my roommates were like, “You’re always editing our papers, why don’t you go edit the newspaper?” And I was like, “The newspaper—those are such nerds,” but I went to the Columbia Spectator meeting, and I thought, “Oh, this is really amazing.” I wrote for every section and became the assistant managing editor, and I edited everything but photography.
In some ways, I never knew that the role of photo editor existed. I didn’t know that these jobs existed in photography. Even at Interview—I’m not sure how it is at The Stranger, but—the art department and the editorial department are quite separated. I was working closely with the deputy editor there, sitting in my cubicle editing pieces, transcribing interviews, and I never had any interaction with anyone on the art side of things. I’d been so close to all of this for a long time, but hadn’t made the connection.
Maybe that’s also why this particular job is so well-suited for me, because so much of being a good photo editor at this magazine has to do with reading a piece and talking to a writer and figuring out what’s the nutshell of that piece—what is the thing we’re going to visualize, and what would work best. A lot of people are really good readers and good editors, but they can’t visualize what would work well as a picture, whether for logistical or visual reasons. When you’re reporting a piece, it’s possible to go back in time and interview people about what happened in the past. I can’t make that picture. Writers forget that, editors forget that.
You talked about the magazine as a collaboration where you have to pick battles. What’s something you’ve taken a stand for?
I feel like we wage battles here on a daily basis. Last week, we had a piece on the Chilean miners, and it was one of those cases where I wanted to send a photographer even though it’s been three and a half years, and someone else insists we do illustrations. After a time, I went back and said, “I really think we’re making a mistake,” and now it’s total last minute and we sent Moises [Saman] and he made these great pictures and the story turned out the better for it, i think.
When Platon was our staff photographer, there were a couple projects I got to work on with him. He’s a portrait photographer and told us he wanted to go to Iraq, and I said, “You’re not really equipped to go to Iraq, we should do some other project.” So he spent three months photographing different aspects of the military here in the US, looking at deployments and returns. He went down to Arlington [National] Cemetery and photographed a mother who was at the grave of her son. You can tell from the name on the grave that it’s a Muslim family. She was clearly upset. Just to remember all the people who were going to fight for this country was... Things had begun to polarize and there was so much hatred after September 11. I loved that visual reminder of his.
We published it in a portfolio of maybe 12 or 15 images, and I turned on the TV on Sunday morning and was watching Meet the Press, and Colin Powell was on there announcing he was going to endorse Barack Obama, which was a big thing. And he referenced that particular image on Meet the Press. He did not actually mention that he’d seen it in The New Yorker—he described the image, said he saw it in a magazine that came out that week, and we think he was not mentioning the name because it’s such a[n] ... institution—but that’s a moment when photography became important and changed something.