The New Yorker is one of the most highly respected magazines in the United States, publishing a mix of journalism, literary writing, art criticism and, of course, its infamous one-panel cartoons. But despite its beloved illustrations, it is definitely a magazine of the written word—46 years passed before it published its first photograph, and it was not until 1992 (nearly 70 years after its founding) that the magazine published its first full-page photograph. It was in that same year that the magazine brought in its first staff photographer: Richard Avedon.
Today, the magazine’s dedication to writing is no less strong, but photography has been marking its pages with increasing frequency. In 2010, the website launched a blog dedicated exclusively to photography—The Photo Booth. Curious to learn more about photography’s role at this venerable publishing institution, we reached out to the magazine’s senior photo editor, Genevieve Fussell, to learn more about her commissioning philosophy and more:
LC: What makes a powerful portrait? What do you look for when trying to convey (or commission someone else to convey) a subject in an original, memorable way?
GF: Many photographers can make a perfectly executed portrait. I am most interested in photographers who elevate their subject in some way or capture the essence/soul of a person. For me, emotional impact is critical; in portraiture, so much of that is conveyed through the eyes. I think it boils down to the connection between photographer and subject. The photographer needs to bring something additional to the table beyond technical skill.
LC: My understanding of your position is that you both commission new work for the magazine and seek out photographers and their existing projects to feature in the Photo Booth. Can you say more about the two roles and how one feeds into the other? Many photo editors seem on one side of that divide or the other—how do you feel balancing between the two?
GF: I enjoy the balance and am grateful for the opportunity to do both, though most of my attention is focussed on assigning photographers for the magazine and on managing those assignments. Often times, multiple people are involved in deciding who we hire; it can become complicated. There is a lot of pressure to get it right, so assignments occupy a lot of my attention.
With the blog, however, I have much more freedom to pitch lesser-known or brand-new photographers—people who I wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to work with, but who are making fantastic work. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to be considered for an assignment after we publish their work on the blog. It’s a nice testing ground.
LC: I’m sure many of our readers will be interested in your career path. Can you give us a quick overview of how you got to where you are now? Did you have any mentors that made a lasting impression on you as a student or employee?
GF: I studied journalism and photography and, initially, I hoped to be a photographer myself. I began by assisting a few Bay Area-based fine art photographers and shooting events and personal projects.
However, as soon as photography became a stressor—something I needed to succeed at in order to make a living—it lost much of its appeal.
In 2008, I moved to New York, which turned out to be a real game-changer. I had the opportunity to intern at VII Photo, which introduced me to the various ways I could be involved with photography without actually working as a photographer. It was there that I got an up-close look at a photo editor’s work, and soon I realized that I enjoyed working behind the scenes. VII was really critical in my education, so I feel a lot of gratitude for the group of photographers and the team who worked there at that time.
LC: Photography has played an increasingly important role at The New Yorker in recent years, but the magazine is still most renowned for its words (and cartoons!). How do you create space for photographs in a publication still so dedicated to the written word? An especially interesting position given how communication in our world seems to be getting more and more picture-based—Instagram, Snapchat, emojis etc—so the magazine is, perhaps, holding out against the tide…
GF: Although I sometimes wish we had more space for photography in the magazine, I very much respect that The New Yorker is a literary magazine, first and foremost, which I think presents a unique challenge for us in the visuals department. Oftentimes we have space for just one photograph per written piece, which of course puts a lot of weight on that image. The magazine is very simple—not a lot of design tricks—which puts even more pressure on the visuals that do run.
All of this means we really have to nail it. We can’t rely on multiple images or graphics, and I like that challenge. Given that the world is inundated by imagery on a day-to-day basis, I actually enjoy working somewhere where the visuals are thoroughly considered, even restrained. We also have the website, digital edition and social media, which are fantastic homes for photography. We’re always running extended presentations online.
LC: When commissioning work, you interact with a wide range of photographers—from the well-established to the up-and-coming. Reflecting on the photographers that you enjoy working with, what would you generalize as useful rules for photographers to keep in mind as they build up a rapport with their photo editors? Something like a “short field guide to getting along with your editor?”
GF: The typical characteristics like promptness and professionalism are a must. We’re often working really quickly, so a photographer who is ultra-responsive is a great asset. Someone who can adjust on the fly is also important, as things can change rapidly at a weekly magazine. Mutual respect and trust is also huge.
And it’s important to work with people who do their homework—who learn as much as they can about a subject in advance of any given shoot.
LC: At both VII and The New Yorker, you’ve had the chance to interact with some of the great photographers working today. What are some of the common traits you have noticed when working with these individuals? Did you learn things from them or observe qualities that you think would be valuable for aspiring photographers to emulate?
GF: Artistic talent aside, I think personality, charisma and empathy are so important. The ability to connect—sometimes rather quickly—with a subject is key. To disarm them so that the photograph can be as authentic as possible.
I also think it’s critical to develop a distinctive style—a visual stamp of sorts. Many of the great photographers working today (and throughout the history of the medium) have very distinctive styles. You immediately know their photographs when you see them—they have a particular “look.” When I’m considering an assignment, I usually think about someone’s style more than anything. Then I consider whether it’s appropriate for the assignment and whether they can translate their style to produce something memorable.
—Genevieve Fussell, interviewed by Alexander Strecker