In a talk at PhotoPlus Expo + Conference this past Friday evening, New York Times Magazine Director of Photography Kathy Ryan spoke about the magazine’s creative process and recent experiments in design and new media, and offered her views on the future of photography and VR.
During the conversation, which was hosted by curator W.M. Hunt, Ryan told the audience that she believes it’s important for magazine editors to “think big” in their work if they can. People will remember the successes, not the efforts that fall flat. “If it doesn’t work, there is a new magazine next week,” she said. She offered this advice after recalling the work that went into the 2016 “New York Issue,” which looked at the city as it exists at 800 feet. The cover was photographed by Jimmy Chin, who scaled the spire of 1 World Trade Center and spent hours hanging there while shooting. Those who saw that issue will recall that it was designed vertically, which was a first for the magazine and required getting custom ads from all the advertisers. It exemplified the idea that there’s “always something new you can do,” Ryan said.
That issue also included a VR story that took readers using the NYT VR app behind-the-scenes of Chin’s climb to the top of the 1 World Trade Center spire. Ryan said The New York Times is “very committed” to VR, adding that she felt it had “a lot of potential for our storytelling.” She pointed out, however, that despite the excitement around VR and video, she didn’t see those media eclipsing still photography. “I never worry that photography will lose ground,” she said.
Instead, Ryan pointed out that “it would be smart for any photographer who wants to do magazine assignments” to become versed in video and VR, and to think about pitching for video assignments. “I get a lot of emails from people who want to shoot photos, but not many from people who want to shoot video,” she said.
Ryan also told the story of Nico Young, the 11th grader who shot a photo essay on assignment for the magazine earlier this year. Young’s teacher reached out to Ryan, believing his student’s work was remarkable. Ryan agreed, and noted that Young’s images never looked posed, and his subjects never appeared awkward in front of the camera. His essay, “Inside Santa Monica High,” appeared in the magazine and online in September. The fact that they are open to work like Young’s “defines us as a magazine,” Ryan said.
Another of the projects Ryan highlighted was the “Foot Soldiers” photo essay, a series of still-life photographs of the hands of New York City shoe shiners. Photo editor Stacey Baker came up with the idea for the project, which was photographed by Christopher Griffiths and appeared in the magazine and online in September 2015. The project illustrated, Ryan said, that “some of the best ideas” can be found close to home.
Given Ryan’s well-known ability to “cross-assign” by matching fine-art photographers with subjects that capitalize on their unique abilities, a story she told stood out. It was about her choice to give Katy Grannan—with whom she’s worked for several years—the assignment to photograph President Obama for a March 2016 cover story about the economic legacy of Obama’s presidency. When President Obama showed up to the shoot in the White House and greeted the crew, he noted that the people in Grannan’s fine-art work appear “sad,” Ryan recalled. “I’m not sad,” he told Grannan. He said it twice. Ryan laughed as she recalled the anxiety that ensued. Of course the shoot turned out well. Obama looks serious and dignified, but not sad.
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