Portraits are one of our earliest art forms. From cave paintings to canvas to film to digital files, we have always sought some bit of the soul in the way we look and are seen. Samantha Cooper, senior photo editor at WIRED, has been heavily involved in how we use and think about photography in contemporary life, with a special interest in portraits.
Before joining the innovative publication—which focuses on how technology is changing every aspect of our lives—she was previously a photo and video curator at Instagram and a creative producer at Airbnb. While her career has spanned many different roles, it’s photo editing that has really captured her imagination.
We’re delighted that Cooper is a juror for this year’s LensCulture Portrait Awards. In this interview, Cooper talks to W. Scott Olsen about what makes a portrait art, the relationship between photographer and subject and her love for photo editing.
WSO: How does your own photographic history and background influence your vision as an editor and judge?
SC: I’d say my photographic history and background has provided me with a wide range in terms of my vision as an editor and judge. Generally speaking, I want the photography to have a strong purpose. I want to see some honesty. So maybe I prefer something that’s less perfect. Sometimes it’s more honest to see an off moment that’s caught, but it’s more natural. I love when art is clever. And it’s lovely when it’s surprisingly clever.
But there are also times when I think my vision might be about being less serious and more playful and hoping to find something exceptionally weird or abstract. I might say my time working at Instagram definitely made me appreciate more light-hearted art—super weird, playful content. I’m probably also finding myself drawn to it because the world feels so heavy and we spend so much time searching for truth and what’s real on social media and in the news, so it feels especially relevant right now to have more light-hearted art.
WSO: You say you love photo editing the most. Why?
SC: If I had to choose any career, any role, any position, I would choose to be a photo editor. I’ve been an assistant and a photographer. I’ve done some art direction, I’ve been a producer. A photography instructor. When I’ve occupied other roles, I always knew I wanted to get back to being a photo editor. I can stare at images 24/7, dissecting and over-analyzing them. It’s really special when you’re constantly being exposed to all these new stories and everything’s changing every day, and you’re learning a lot, and then trying to think about the right photographer for a story.
The most special thing for me is collaborating with the photographer and thinking about the story together. We both have ideas, and I love hearing the photographer’s vision and trying to work on the story together. Or maybe just going all in their direction. That collaboration with the photographer is really special. Seeing their eye and their vision and their visual interpretation of the story. When you get the images, it’s such a gift. It’s always exciting. Especially when they deviate from the shot list. Even if you were on-site, you don’t always see what they saw through their lens.
But even as an editor I get attached to certain images. And editing can be like cutting off an arm sometimes. I may think I’ve found my favorite image, but another one tells the story better. Having to edit it down to five or three or sometimes a single image is tough. When you see everything that was shot, sometimes that’s challenging, but it’s a fun challenge to have. I sometimes joke around about photographers making my day really hard by submitting too many good images.
WSO: Are there qualities that range over the whole breadth of what we might call portraiture?
SC: Definitely. It really depends on the purpose of the image. Does the photographer want you to empathize or connect with a subject? Maybe it’s more of a fleeting moment or something disturbing is happening. It can be anything from calming to chaotic. Or neutral. Formal or casual. Some portraits might be warm and inviting while others might be cold and distant. As a viewer you might be guessing what’s the story behind the image, and maybe you’re having to put some of your own experience into that story. You’re drawing a relationship from your own life experience, and maybe you’re projecting something onto that image.
WSO: When people talk about photography, a common topic is the relationship between the photographer and the subject. This is true for conflict photography as well as street photography. And it seems especially true for portraits, which is perhaps the most formal of these relationships. Do you see something unique in this relationship for portraits?
SC: It varies. It depends on what’s being shot and what the purpose is. If it isn’t just a quick shoot—or even if it is—the photographer has a lot of power in that relationship in how they’re treating the subject. The photographer can even be like this puppet-master in this weird way. Other times, there might not be as much time to develop a strong relationship. Particularly with well-known public figures and celebrities, you might get just two to ten minutes with this person.
The photographer needs to be super on it. Have everything ready. Have everything tested. And you’re hoping that the celebrity or public figure will know how to pose. They’re bringing it. They know their favorite angles and we have a groomer and a stylist on set. Then it becomes more about making a quick connection and seeing something new. How do you tell their story differently when it’s been photographed a thousand times? How do you make this portrait stand out? Making that quick connection is really important. I also like the stories when it’s someone less known. They can often be more generous with their time. When a photographer can spend a day with someone or several hours, it’s really special.
For example, at a recent shoot I was working with photographer Cayce Clifford and we did a story on Cliff Stoll. We went to his home in Berkeley and he is so amazingly quirky and weird and just such a lovely person. We spent so much time in his home, going into every different room and playing with all of these different items. We were in his backyard and his garden. It was really wonderful watching their relationship, just watching the back and forth. He had some ideas and she had some ideas. “Let’s go here and let’s relax here.” It was lovely to see their connection. And it really showed in the images.
WSO: So many people talk about portraits as a way to see deeply into a subject. And it strikes me that a deeper look is a way to generate empathy. Is developing empathy a compass heading for portrait work?
SC: I don’t think you’re always supposed to empathize with the subject. Maybe the subject is really controversial. Maybe the story is talking about that. Maybe the purpose is not to empathize with the subject but just to see them. I don’t always think it’s about empathy.
WSO: Then what are we doing? Beyond the simple documentary function of selfies and wedding pictures and stuff like that, what makes a portrait art? What is the line between the very good and the excellent?
SC: For me, I would say a portrait is excellent if it either drives curiosity or makes me feel connected to the subject whether I want to be or not. And whether the feeling created is so powerful or moving that you’re almost forced to connect to the subject. For better or worse, that image is engrained in you and you can’t really un-see the image or the moment captured. Tons of photographers can take pretty portraits that are well-executed, even perfectly executed, with perfect lighting—everything, but as a viewer it’s important to think about how the image made you feel. Is it so perfect it’s almost sterile? If it’s a really excellent portrait, it will make you feel something.
WSO: Would you say there is a particular style to portraits at WIRED?
SC I would say it varies, but overall I would say WIRED has a unique style. There’s often sophisticated lighting. There might be hard flash. I talk to a lot of photographers who say they would like to shoot for WIRED but they don’t shoot in that style. Maybe they use mostly natural light, etc. Even though we do commission photographers that shoot with varied styles, overall it’s very bold, sharp, clean and precise.
WSO: Is that what you’re hoping to see in the LensCulture Portrait Awards?
SC: I’m hoping to see new approaches. It can be really hard to reinvent the wheel. So when you see something that’s new and different it’s really exciting. I’m also hoping to see some interesting conceptual portraits. I’m really honored to be a juror. I’m so excited to see the work. Hopefully we’ll see some new lighting techniques and more interesting ways to approach portraiture. A different take on something we’ve been doing forever.