Inside the Mind of a Master Photo Editor

4 minute read

Assigning a shoot is in many ways, the most important aspect of what photo editors do. Pairing the right photographer with the story is what yields the surprise and delight when the pictures come in.

Kathy Ryan, the Director of Photography at The New York Times Magazine, is famous for cross-assigning—hiring a war photographer to shoot celebrities, or commissioning a large-format landscape photographer to capture news close up. In 2008, Ryan asked photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin to create the Times Magazine’s annual Great Performances portfolio, which offered an intimate look at celebrities who are often highly controlled by publicists. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Kathy’s news instincts led her to look into a larger, more global view of refugee camps. She sent Simon Norfolk, a large format, landscape photographer, to record displaced people in three different countries with his 8×10 camera. Any number of photojournalists could have executed that assignment, but Simon’s unique eye found incredible detail in each of those scenes, and distinguished the work from other news pictures.

There’s always a risk in cross-assigning that way, and Kathy’s success in getting provocative but thoughtful pictures is a testament to her remarkable vision. But she’s still a journalist at heart, and aims to portray the world in a surprising way for the viewer. Which is why her more straight-forward, documentary-style commissions are equally as remarkable. Lynsey Addario’s timeless picture of soldiers carrying out their dead comrade after an ambush in Afghanistan in 2008, James Nachtwey’s image of a screaming Romanian child in a dilapidated crib from 1990, Sebastian Salgado’s photograph of Kuwaiti workers installing a new wellhead in 1991—these all stand as some of the greatest photojournalistic work in magazine history.

Kathy’s editing style is impeccable. Her nuanced eye leads her to always find the heartbeat in each frame, pulling out incredible compositions and revealing dramatic tension in the image. One of her great strengths—and what I learned most from her during my 11 years at The Magazine—is how thoroughly she edits. I recall her once going through 50-some odd rolls of photojournalist Gilles Peress’ contact sheets. There are 36 frames per roll, which would mean 1,800 frames. I’ve always been impressed by her ability to handle that kind of volume and cut right to the chase by editing to the 10 or 15 best frames, which would eventually get boiled down into an even tighter edit for the magazine.

This book is a window into all aspects of Kathy’s vision. Almost every photograph has a backstory from the photographer, and often from other editors and Kathy herself, where she so thoughtfully articulates the story behind each picture. At the end of the book are all the tearsheets, so you can see the original context in which the pictures ran.

A lot of editors on Kathy’s level have a vision that evolves to a certain point and then stays there. Kathy continues to evolve. She’s gone through different phases of what inspires her, and she constantly grows as an editor. On September 26, The New York Times Magazine was awarded a News and Documentary Emmy for her incredible production with Sølve Sundsbø, “Fourteen Actors Acting”— a first for the Magazine and a fitting tribute to her ever expanding repertoire.

The New York Times Magazine Photographs, edited by Kathy Ryan is published by Aperture. It features more than four hundred images, organized into five sections: Portraits, Documentary, Photo-Illustration, Style and Projects published in The Magazine over the last three decades.

A spread showing original layouts as published in the forthcoming book The New York Times Magazine Photographs, a retrospective of the last three decades, edited by Kathy Ryan and published by Aperture. Courtesy of Aperture Books
Children at a psychiatric hospital in Sacsa, Romania. From "Romania's Lost Children." Published June 24, 1990. James Nachtwey for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Musician Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A), New York City, NY. From "Maya Takes to the Streets." Published May 30, 2010. Ryan McGinley for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Model James King backstage at a Karl Lagerfeld show. From "At 16, A Model's Life." Published February 4, 1996 (cover image). Nan Goldin for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Charlize Theron, from The Magazine's Best Performances Portfolio. Published February 29, 2004. Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
New York City, September 11, 2001, near Ground Zero. From "Windows on the World." Published September 23, 2001. Jeff Mermelstein for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Michaela Ruperts (far right), siblings and friends wait out a storm in their trailer, Covington, Louisiana. From "Children of the Storm: Where Hurricane Katrina, and We, Have Left the Kids." Published August 27, 2006. Brenda Ann Kenneally for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Moro Camp, Chad. From "Displaced Places: Where Refugees Try to Make a Home." Published September 21, 2003. Simon Norfolk for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Julianne Moore from the series Dream House. Published November 10, 2002. Gregory Crewdson for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Author Joan Didion, in her home. From "After Life, by Joan Didion." Published September 25, 2005 (cover image). Eugene Richards for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Robert Downey Jr. in London after a day of shooting Sherlock Holmes. From The Magazine's Best Performances Portfolio. Published February 8, 2009. Paolo Pellegrin for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
U.S. troops carry the body of Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, who was killed when insurgents ambushed their squad in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. From "Battle Company is Out There." Published February 24, 2008.Lynsey Addario for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Workers installing a new wellhead in Kuwait, which enabled them to inject a mixture into the well and "kill" it. Published June 9, 1991 (cover image). Sebastiao Salgado for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books
Women at a pro-Khomeini demonstration in Tabriz, Iran. An armed revolutionary guard (right) provides security. Published June 1, 1980. Gilles Peress for The New York Times, courtesy Aperture Books

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