Filling the space inside its iconic red borders, cover editors for TIME magazine have a monumental task of sourcing artists and commissioning photography that pushes the boundaries of portraiture. They do this every single week as part of a continuous quest to present fresh imagery of the most-photographed personalities on the planet.
Thea Traff, Senior Photo Editor at TIME, enjoys the challenge. A graduate from Colgate University, she entered into a mentorship program at Getty Reportage before officially launching her career at The New Yorker. Starting as a Web Photo Editor, she quickly elevated to an Associate Editor position, collecting several years of experience to prepare her for the current role as a high-stakes photo editor.
We’re thrilled to welcome Traff as one of the jurors for this year’s LensCulture Black and White Awards. A photographer in her own right, we reached out for her insight as both an image-maker and an in-demand photo editor. In this interview for LensCulture, she opens up to Amy Parrish with actionable advice for anyone trying to break into the industry.
Amy Parrish: You work for the second-largest weekly magazine in the US. I can’t imagine the sheer quantity of powerful photographs you must absorb on a regular basis: that’s such an immersive experience with the medium. Where did your love of photography begin?
Thea Traff: My dad gave me a camera when I was in 5th grade. It became my tool to express creativity and have a voice in my childhood. He always encouraged me to apply to City Hall contests in our small hometown in Minnesota and always made sure that I had the latest camera model (which, of course, is completely unnecessary when it comes to learning photography). But he really pushed me in an amazing way.
I shot a bit through high school and attended Colgate University in Upstate New York to study Philosophy and Studio Art. It had a tiny, tiny Studio Art program: within that program there were just two photo students, myself included. Since it wasn’t a typical photo program, I didn’t interact with other photographers. The focus leaned more towards Art History and Contemporary Art.
While I was still shooting during that time, I didn’t feel like my art was going anywhere. I wanted to stay connected to photography but I didn’t feel confident in my art at that point in my life. I landed a mentorship with a Colgate graduate, Christina Cahill, who was working as Getty Reportage. This was how I got introduced to the world of photo editing. Until then, I had no idea that sort of position even existed. From there I was introduced to Whitney Johnson who was the head of The New Yorker’s photo department at the time. I dove into photo editing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
AP: That’s an impressive start.
TT: I felt so unbelievably lucky; like the stars were aligned.
AP: I think there are a lot of people out there who can relate to what you said about feeling like your art wasn’t going anywhere. What advice do you have for someone who might be making decent work, but feels like something is missing?
TT: In becoming a photo editor, spending every day looking at powerful photography and working with some of the top talent in the world, I developed such a strong eye. When photographers ask me for advice on improving their work, I firmly believe that photography can be learned. You don’t have to be born with a gift. Learning all the technical things can come second. First you have to develop a sophisticated eye by familiarizing yourself with the good work that already exists.
AP: Has this influenced your own photography?
TT: When I joined TIME two years ago, the majority of my assignments were portraits for the cover. My job became about trying to reinvent the portrait every week or two, and trying to come up with something refreshing and original. That’s such a hard thing to do with portraiture: it became a fun task to come up with original ways to light and pose someone that felt different from the week before, and different from the way that person had been portrayed in all of their previous shoots.
For my own photography, I found myself leaning more towards portraiture for that reason. I found it fulfilling to brainstorm; thinking how to pose or light in a way that felt truly unique. I’m going to be leaning even more into my own work in the coming months; specifically towards black and white portraiture.
AP: That’s really interesting that you’ve specifically focused on making black and white photographs part of your overall focus. What is it about monochromatic images that appeals to you?
TT: Black and white is so much more about shape and form to me. I just love the timeless quality of it. I’m also a huge reference puller. I know that if I have a portrait of Harry Styles coming up, I’m going to look at how other singers had been photographed in the 40s and 50s, or pull Avedon and Penn references and try to bring those references from the past decades into this moment.
I think sometimes color—especially the trend of super-intense gels—can take you out of reality. It can be a bit too much. Even though it can be argued that black and white is also outside of reality, to me, it feels more aligned for some reason.
I also like shooting in black and white because it offers a constraint to work on an otherwise blank canvas. Photography can be intimidating with so many variables at play, with an infinite amount of things at which to point your camera, and when you take away the world of color, it’s a limitation that can be a bit of a relief: you get to just consider form, shape, and light.
AP: You just touched upon a great point: passing trends versus timeless qualities of a photograph. Both play important roles in the medium and have their own pros and cons. Are there any trends on your radar right now as a photo editor?
TT: Speaking to trends as an idea, I’m concerned about the direction things are going with Instagram. On one hand, it provides an amazing community, especially right now while the world is shut down and no one can travel to events. But it feels as though Instagram is making everyone shoot the same way because we’re all seeing what’s working for other photographers. People are then leaning into the way everyone else is shooting and it leads to a one-dimensional approach—at least in editorial photography, the world I’m immersed in.
AP: I can see how that would compound issues surrounding saturation of the medium. When there are so many photographs being made each moment and so much of the work becomes homogenized as a side-effect of social media, what can someone do to stand out and make an impression on a photo editor such as yourself?
TT: One thing I learned from Whitney Johnson when I started at The New Yorker is that the best photos have an ‘off’ moment to them. That’s what I’m always looking for as an editor and that’s what I try to encourage photographers to find. Something that feels unexpected. It could be an awkward gesture, facial expression or an unexpected setting. I think that’s crucial to taking a memorable photo now.
AP: And for someone who manages to do that—let’s say an emerging photographer making black and white photographs—how do you discover that work?
TT: Touching now on the positive aspects of Instagram, it’s been such a valuable resource in discovering new artists. It opens the door for so many people who don’t have the access to a portfolio review or have the personal connections to make their way into the industry. It levels the playing field for everyone.
And then, for me, it’s also looking outside of the editorial realm. While at The New Yorker I commissioned the ‘Tables for Two’ restaurant reviews. I would be traveling in Japan and pick up a cookbook to see if there was something within the pages to bring into the editorial world. I was always thinking beyond those shooting editorial work in New York and stretching globally. Right now, in an effort to diversify the photo world, there have been great efforts to make databases to introduce editors to new photographers. It’s really made my job a lot easier. I also accept the invitation to be on juries for this very reason! It’s a fantastic way to discover new talent.
AP: Can you tell me a little more about the database? Is this something maintained by Time or are you talking about external services where photographers can list their portfolios?
TT: A good example is Diversify Photo. They put together a spreadsheet with over one thousand photographers searchable by region and sent it out to different editors like myself. At Time, we assess those databases and pull it into our own spreadsheet internally. We keep track of who we have worked with, where they’re based, their genre of photography, as well as other notes.
AP: LensCulture published an article about Elinor Carucci’s photograph for ‘Cat Person’ in The New Yorker. You were a commissioning editor for that shoot: the piece went viral. What does it feel like knowing that the editorial decisions you’re making create a space for iconic photographs to be made? This is a photograph that would not have existed had it not been for the assignment.
TT: It’s such a wild thought. And it’s so easy to lose sight of that. My day-to-day job is talking with ten people internally, looking at a PDF of what a spread will look like on the screen and, especially nowadays, not having as much interaction with the outside world, it’s really hard to grasp the impact that editors can have in that way. It’s very surreal.
But that was a really special one and it was so cool to see how the photo played a large part in why that story took off. It really speaks to the power of images. There’s so much photography out there, but it’s still so essential. It’s everything.
AP: Were there any lessons learned or unexpected surprises about what it means to be a photo editor?
TT: A few years ago I realized there’s a surprising and endearing dynamic between photographers and photo editors. Both think of each other as the genius. I noticed that photographers came into portfolio meetings in the office, super nervous and often very sweaty… anxious about making a good impression about their work. But the irony, in my experience, is that it’s the photo editor who places the photographer on the pedestal. The editor thinks of the photographer as the talent in the room, and vice versa. I find this to be so endearing. And I think it explains the mutual respect that really solidifies the relationship between photographers and editors.
AP: Yet, at the end of the day, there’s serious work to be done on a weekly deadline. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
TT: So often I feel like photographers just play it safe when it comes to editorial assignments. This is part of what has driven me to get behind the camera more myself. It’s been hard to work with a photographer, pouring so much time and effort into a commission, just to feel like they’re holding back. And I get it—stakes are high, you don’t have much time, you go into it not knowing what the subject’s going to bring you, what the environment is like—but portraits can sometimes fall flat because the photographer doesn’t want to take risks during the assignment.
Yet, as an editor, creative risks are the most rewarding edits to receive; when it’s clear that a photographer pushed the boundaries to make an original portrait that will strike people in a different way. These boundaries can be pushed more than they are right now. I can recognize why photographers play it safe, but I know more can be done with portraiture right now.
AP: That’s a great reminder for photographers of any genre. Are you learning from them as well?
TT: Oh, I learn so much. Every single shoot, even the tiniest shoots I go on, I always walk away learning something new.
I love how every photographer has their own approach. Some aren’t as technically-focused. I’ve worked with some photographers (I won’t name names) that have said, “I don’t know that much about how to work a camera.” But then there are other photographers who are total geeks about the technical part. I just love the range.
There are so many approaches to being a photographer. And your atypical approach is what makes you an interesting one. Don’t hold back.