Dog-Eared Wisdom for Photo Editors

I learned the finer points of photo editing from one of the best in the business. He’s a mentor I’ve never met, but he’s with me every day.

When Arizona Highways hired me more than two decades ago, I thought myself the luckiest man on Earth. I’d made the leap from newspapers to the greatest landscape photography magazine in the world. The weight of carrying on the magazine’s celebrated photographic legacy was not lost on me. These were my salad days. And this was my big moment.

So I read voraciously on the subject of magazine publishing, and I picked the brain of any photo editor who would talk to me. I even visited National Geographic’s offices to pry into its standards and practices, never fearing that my naïveté was showing. My new path was illuminated by many influential sources.

Years later, one of my sources resurfaced as I was purging old files. I rediscovered the dog-eared pages of a magazine article titled “Notes for a Picture Editor” torn from a long-forgotten issue of Folio magazine. In it, John Loengard, the esteemed photographer and picture editor for Life magazine, articulated the role of a magazine photography editor. His penetrating perspectives held sway over my growth as a young editor.

Without his knowing, Loengard became my mentor. His guidance helped me long ago as I established myself in the magazine business, but it’s as fresh and pertinent today as it was then. It’s a primer for green neophytes and grizzled veterans alike. Here are a few excerpts:

Nothing is more important than the trust of photographers. Since they are not employees, but freelancers, photographers often operate from a disadvantaged position. Remember that you are the photographers’ advocate. No one else will be; you are the photographers’ counselor, explaining the magazine to them and them to the magazine.

Treat all photographers equally –- those with whom you become close friends as well as those with whom you do not. Remember:

  • React promptly to pictures you like when photographers call; don’t wait days or weeks to satisfy their curiosity. Be an audience without flattery. Photographers rarely get informed reactions to their work.
  • Don’t assure photographers that their pictures will be published if they may not be.
  • Be clear about what expenses you will pay. Pay promptly. Photographers are usually one-person operations — hardly businesses. They have to pay the airline and rental car bills next month.
  • If you must assign two photographers to the same subject, make sure the reasons are known to everyone.
  • Don’t hold on to a photographer’s work just to keep it from the competition.

Do all this, and when the time comes for you to hold a photographer’s feet to the fire — to urge him to continue to press a difficult subject or try a fresh approach–your mutual trust will be gold.

Other editors, with the story’s text in hand, may judge photographs by what they have read. Don’t join them. The reader sees before he ever reads, and may never read if there’s nothing to see.

You must spot young talent and encourage it, giving these tyros more than occasional assignments. Give those you select enough work to allow them to develop, but remember that when photographers start out, they often imitate one famous photographer or another. Challenge them to be themselves. When a photographer makes his reputation in your publication, everyone, including the reader, benefits.

Don’t try to tell a photographer how to take a picture. You want the photographer to follow his own instincts. You should however, let the photographer climb upon your shoulders for a better view. That is, explain your thinking about the story. Talk about what might happen. Raise possibilities without demanding to see them. Instead, expect to see something better.

Encourage good photographers to work for themselves, for posterity, for their grandchildren — not just for you. A photograph that solves a magazine’s problem is more interesting when the solution is something you remember after the problem is forgotten.

In my dealings with photographers over the years, I’ve relied on these tenets on a daily basis. Selecting the best images to publish is the grand finale of a process that begins many months prior.

A lot goes into the making of a magazine story. And as John Loengard pointed out, it all starts with mutual trust between photographer and photo editor.

[tags]Peter Ensenberger, magazine photography, photography editors, photojournalism [/tags]

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