As a senior photo editor at the renowned international weekly magazine, The New Yorker, Siobhán Bohnacker commissions original photography for the magazine’s stories, art directs the fiction section, and curates on photography published on the magazine’s website, newyorker.com. Over the course of her career, Bohnacker has worked with The New York Times Magazine, NGOs such as The Human Rights Watch, and various advertising clients—all experiences that contribute to her broad foundation in photo editing and producing.
We’re thrilled that Bohnacker has agreed to be a member of our jury panel for the Portrait Awards 2018. In her tenure at the magazine, she has arranged portrait sittings with some of the world’s most recognizable names—including Barack Obama. Read about that shoot (and much more) in this generous interview.
LensCulture: I’d like to start with one of the portraits of our then-President, Barack Obama, that The New Yorker published in 2014. You’ve produced a number of The New Yorker’s notable photography shoots, including that one. When you went into it, did you have a concept in mind beforehand? Had you planned it all out? What did you want the image to communicate?
Siobhán Bohnacker: So, we’ve actually published two portraits of Barack Obama in recent years, both taken by our staff photographer, Pari Dukovic; one in early 2014, where Obama is seen standing against a pictorial wallpaper, and one in November, 2016, just a few weeks after the election of President Trump, where Obama is seated against a plain blue background.
Both images are from the same, initial photoshoot. It’s rare to be afforded multiple sittings with an incumbent president, and so to get a few different setups from one photoshoot was a gift.
LC: How did you end up shooting two very different portraits on the same day?
SB: We anticipated that we would only have about five minutes to photograph Obama, and prepared accordingly in the days leading up, finalizing a lot of creative decisions and going through the lighting setup, etc. We wanted to achieve a classic, almost regal portrait, on a blue seamless backdrop.
By the time we arrived in D.C, we had a strong notion of what the portrait sitting might yield. Then, the night before the shoot, I heard from the Press Secretary that the shoot would take place in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. Looking at images of the room online, I could see that it was adorned with this incredible wallpaper, produced in France in the early 1800s, that illustrates thirty-two scenes of American history. Knowing that Pari is very inspired by 18th and 19th-century painting—I knew he’d be excited by the space.
LC: What an argument for knowing your photographer!
SB: Certainly, looking at images of the space, it seemed something of a shame not to utilize the decorative setting. So we conspired to try and get some extra time out of the shoot, that might allow for a few frames that incorporated the room itself.
When the photoshoot began, Pari, who was shooting film, was intensely focused. After about two minutes, I think it was Jay Carney (the White House press secretary at the time) who nudged me and said “We’ve got to wrap this up.” I told Pari, “three more frames,” or something to that effect—a sort of code to let him know that it was now or never, if he wanted that extra shot. Despite the push to wrap, Pari, to his credit, said, “Mr. President, would you mind standing for just two more frames over here please,” and he directed him to stand in front of the wallpaper, took out his 35mm camera, and shot a few frames.
The portrait of Obama that we published with David Remnick’s piece was one of the last two or three frames of the shoot. A welcome coincidence, which we actually didn’t note until we had developed the film, is that Obama is framed against a section of the wallpaper that depicts New York’s Hudson Valley.
The other image, of Obama against the plain blue backdrop, was held back, in case of another story. Of course, we would never had anticipated that it would be published after the election of President Trump, two years later.
LC: The profile by David Remnick that came out after the election made up a huge part of that issue. As a text-heavy publication, you must consider each image you choose to publish very carefully. Even though the blue portrait was shot two years earlier, did you still feel that it fit Remnick’s retrospective piece?
SB: It turned out to be especially fitting. Because he’s turning back over his shoulder, it’s a very reflective portrait. In many ways, it worked better for that later piece, which was a look back at his presidency.
LC: When assigning for specific articles, do the photos take their tone from the writing? For example, if the article is somber but the subject of the portrait is generally gregarious and lighthearted, how do you reconcile that difference?
SB: Sometimes we assign the art before a draft of the manuscript comes in. In those cases, we speak with the writers about the piece, to get a sense of the characters, the tone, and so forth. It depends entirely on the nature of the piece. There are no hard and fast rules, but in a lot of cases, the photography takes its cues from the writing.
There’s a lot of nuance involved when editing, and it’s not simply a case of always publishing the “best” photograph. The aim is for the photography and the writing to feel copacetic. The role of a photo editor is to keenly understand the needs of a piece, or a particular issue, and marry that with strong art. The visuals have to feel in line with the general editorial sentiment, and personality, of The New Yorker.
There are also practical considerations, such as real estate in the magazine. For example, Pari Dukovic made some wonderful portraits of Jack White, one of which was an aerial photograph of White lying on the yellow floor of his Third Man Records factory in Detroit. It sort of harked back to classic White Stripes, in the way that their visuals were playful and almost toy-like. I loved it. But the piece ended up running in the front of the magazine, which meant less space for the art. As such, a photograph where Jack White is small in the frame just wasn’t going to work. So we ran a tight headshot of him instead, which—graphically—worked better. It is equally strong, in a different way.
Such decisions come about in the layout phase, during the week of the close, when we pin everything on the wall. Unlike our readers, who experience the pages of the magazine consecutively, we have everything up on the wall. This allows us an immediate overview of the entire issue, which helps us to better resolve the various aesthetics taking shape.
LC: Personally, how did you become interested in photography? How did you know you wanted to work with the medium?
SB: I went to art school—Central Saint Martins, in London, so I have an arts background. But working at the confluence of journalism and art is most interesting to me at this time in my life. I love collaborating with the many different artists, writers and editors that my job affords me the privilege of working with. It’s fascinating to see how people experience the world differently from one another, and working together on interpreting those experiences feels exciting.
LC: The New Yorker has a particular relationship with photography—although you commission some of the best photographers for the inside of the magazine, it has never had a photograph on the cover. Do you think that decision partly defines the aesthetic/personality of the magazine?
SB: Since 1925, we’ve never run a photograph on the cover. The illustrated covers are a key part of The New Yorker’s personality, and even speaking as a photo editor, I hope that doesn’t change. It’s one of many things that makes the magazine unique.
When I worked with other magazines, as an editor or producer, I occasionally worked on stories that wound up making the cover, or were shot with the cover specifically in mind. The aim of a cover photo is manifold; it has to work on so many different levels and in the case of some magazines, has the power to greatly influence the sales of a particular issue. It is a thrill to work on cover art, but it’s also nice to be spared that pressure.
LC: Last year, I interviewed a photographer who shoots a lot of the covers for Vanity Fair. He mentioned that he initially found that idea challenging—that so much of his image would be covered with text. There is a fine balance between the artistry of the photograph and the demands of the sales department.
SB: I think many photographers share that sentiment. If you want to work as an editorial photographer, you have to be willing to work with the needs of the magazine. If you are too precious about your photography, you’ll probably find the experience to be quite stressful.
I should underscore that photo editors champion photography—and in a sense, represent the artist at the magazine, in discussions about art or layouts, where they themselves cannot be present. But we are making a magazine, not curating a gallery show, so certain concessions are inevitable. Every element in a magazine needs to be responsive.
LC: Can you tell me about how you commission photographers? Do you ever use pre-existing work, or is everything shot especially for the magazine?
SB: Most everything in the magazine is commissioned—meaning, photographed specifically for us. But we also use archival photography or contemporary work by an artist that already exists and happens to be absolutely perfect for a story. You’ll see that happen in the fiction section every once in a while, and this is when a broader knowledge of someone’s work is so helpful.
LC: But in the case of a commission, the photographers receive the story in advance?
SB: If a photographer is assigned to a fiction story, they always read the manuscript in advance. It’s imperative that they have a deep understanding of the narrative construct of the story, character details, setting and so forth, as well as the overall tone. Sometimes we’ll propose a specific idea and at other times we’ll leave it open, and ask the photographer to pitch some ideas. I’ve never worked with anyone that didn’t enjoy responding to a fiction story—how could you not!
Our fiction section is designed to look a little like a book cover. It should catch your eye and intrigue you enough to read the story, but the idea isn’t to be illustrative. We try to be careful not to show too much, as the intention is not to insist on any one depiction.
The beauty of reading fiction is the powerful use of imagination that it incites. The art ought only to be impressionistic.
LC: What stands out to me about the photography in The New Yorker is how it retains the individual style of each photographer while illuminating pockets of reality. The images both reveal the photographers’ point of view as well as a new perspective on the world around us. A beautiful balance.
SB: [This balance] is about trusting everyone to do their best work.
We recently published a photo essay by Phillip Montgomery on the opioid crisis in Ohio. He made these incredibly arresting photographs that tell of an epidemic fraught with emotional complexity. Not everyone could have come back with those types of images. Philip is very sensitive to the people he’s working with and the environment he’s in. He doesn’t antagonize to get a strong picture, he just remains open and responsive. Being so keenly astute is the reason he was readily absorbed into a close-knit community, which proved crucial to telling that story. That was all down to Phil.
You have to recognize a photographer’s established strengths, as well as their potential. Their best work will be drawn out when you support and encourage both.
LC: Speaking of strength vs. potential, do you think that any photographer can make a good portrait?
SB: No, I don’t. Portraiture is difficult. Interacting closely with someone, especially if that person is someone you don’t know, can be a nerve-wracking and confrontative experience, on both sides of the lens.
As the photographer, you have to be a quick reader of people, and be able to pick up on small details that individuate the subject: the way they gesticulate, and so on. It’s all about chemistry, whether it be good or bad. Interesting things can come out of both kinds.
All portrait shoots are unpredictable, to a large degree. And it’s OK if not everything in the edit is a hit. Even the most experienced photographers encounter situations that are challenging, under which it’s hard for them to do their best work.
LC: Finally, how do you find work that inspires you?
SB: In terms of how I discover work and find inspiration, it’s a mix of portfolio meetings, studio visits, going to exhibitions, attending photo fairs, meeting with curators, critics, and so on.
I also like to connect with people who work outside of the field of photography. The exchange of ideas, and a cross-pollination of interests, is vital to my work.
—Siobhán Bohnacker, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Bohnacker is on the jury for the The Portrait Awards 2018, which are now open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our distinguished jury panel and for a chance to exhibit your work at Photo London and in Arles!