Talking over some of the recent standout issues of The New York Times Magazine from a shoot in LA, Director of Photography Kathy Ryan touches on an approach to work that has served her well over the years. While the Magazine can call on the talents of any number of well-established artists and photographers, from Thomas Struth to Lauren Greenfield, Ryan has form in pairing younger, lesser-known imagemakers with big commissions. She’s on the west coast with British photographer Jack Davison who is taking portraits of actors for the Magazine’s forthcoming ‘Great Performers’ issue. The previous day, Natalie Portman was in the frame.
“I hadn’t even really thought about it that much, but he hasn’t really photographed celebrities,” says Ryan. “I think he’s a brilliant photographer, one of the most interesting portraitists working today. There’s something he’s doing with incredibly strong light, the dark darks and white whites and the contrast. He’s doing a kind of soulful portrait-making that just feels alive – and I love the idea of that for these actors. But it’s interesting because it’s definitely something new. New for him and new for us.”
Ryan says the shoot with Portman saw Davison using coils of thin wire to cast circular shadows on the actor’s face – “lots of neat things that I can imagine she doesn’t normally do in a photoshoot” – and the results of which she won’t necessarily see for a while. “I have no idea what it will look like, even though I was there watching the shoot in the bright Los Angeles sunlight,” she says. “That’s what I like – we’re very adventurous because who knows what he’s going to get from it. But one thing I know, it’ll be interesting. It is not going to look like other celebrity portraits that have been done of her.”
Ryan’s commitment to the Magazine over three decades has resulted in countless photographic stories that have challenged what readers might expect to find in a magazine and the sheer breadth of work over the last year alone is revealing. “At first we did just the photography, then [we] did the photography and the videos, now we’re doing the photography and the VR,” Ryan explains. “It’s all part of that evolution or figuring out new ways to deliver our magazine journalism.” VR, another string to the Magazine’s bow, is a good indicator of how Ryan and the photo department see the life of each issue’s assembled images existing beyond the printed page.
In fact, while the Magazine’s most celebrated recent ‘New York’ edition, ‘High Life – The City Above 800 Feet’, made a case for innovation in print – the entire issue was rotated – it also contributed to its digital offering in the form of a spectacular VR film. “A year before I’d seen the documentary Meru [about an attempt to climb the ‘Shark’s Fin’ on Mount Meru in the Himalayas] and it features Jimmy Chin, the great mountaineer and photographer. I asked him to come in.” The resulting project for the Magazine is a stunning piece of film, co-directed by Chin and Ben C Solomon and produced by Jenna Pirog and Christine Walsh. Housed on the Magazine’s website it shows Chin ascending to the vertiginous heights of One World Trade Center.
If the digital component to the Magazine is where much of Ryan’s thinking is currently focused, has its ubiquity changed how she uses photography? “The rise of digital photography hasn’t affected the stories, what it’s affected is what happens in the end, [the] practical realities,” she says. “The print magazine has a finite number of pages [and] one of the big upsides of digital is you can run a lot more pictures and tell bigger stories.” Online enables the photography to work differently, too, to function as “moving stills” as Ryan has it. “On each and every assignment we make, I feel that we have a responsibility and a desire to figure out what the ‘movement’ in this [is] as a digital treatment. Now, when we send a photographer on a shoot we will sometimes ask them to shoot short video clips. [If] you look online you’ll see the top image [to the ‘High Rise’ feature] come to life for a few seconds – it’s a video clip.”
In relating these adventures in VR and filmmaking, Ryan talks of how this approach to imagery that can “move and come to life” has the potential to “enliven the journalism that we’re presenting”. But what’s interesting about her work for the Magazine is that this is exactly what she’s been doing for years with ‘traditional’ stills photography. And that’s not to say that this is done without an element of risk. Take the ‘Education’ issue from September this year. Back in March, Ryan received an email from Martin Ledford, a photography teacher at Santa Monica High. Ledford explained that he had a particularly promising student in his class called Nico Young and wondered whether Ryan would be interested in seeing his work. “That was it, I was blown away,” she recalls. “I thought this work is so fresh, it’s alive, it’s natural, it feels authentic in a way that just felt different. There was a kind of sophistication to it that was so interesting to me because he was only in 11th grade.”
When Ryan showed Editor Jake Silverstein the photographs he suggested Young do something for the upcoming ‘Education’ issue. “I’ll tell you, it’s hard to make [that issue] visually exciting,” Ryan admits – so she asked Young to document his time at school. The results not only made for what Ryan says is one of her favourite projects she’s ever worked on but formed an unprecedented insight into teenage life – depicting everything from Young’s friends and classmates, to the football team and band practicing over the summer. “There was just a purity to it,” says Ryan. “I could feel vicariously that feeling you have when you first fall in love with photography. Nico is at that point, he is just discovering that he’s got special eyes, he sees and feels something and he’s got the ability to really make it. It was just wonderful to be part of that.”
This ability to trust the photographer’s eye no matter how established they are is perhaps one of Ryan’s greatest talents. “She’s very thoughtful about the way she assigns things,” says the Magazine’s Design Director Gail Bichler. “She’s been amazing [at] finding new talent, starting projects for people they maybe have such an interest in that they continue them on and make it a calling for their work. So she’s both really good [at] pulling in very well-known artists and also discovering new talent – and that’s like a hallmark of the Magazine’s photography.” Ryan’s thinking of how work will read in the current moment and also serve as a historic document in the future has led to an expression which is occasionally heard in the office, Bichler says. “‘One for the ages!’ – that’s how you know you’ve hit it with her.”
The ‘Inside Santa Monica High’ photo series featured images taken by 11th grade student, Nico Young. Prior to the project, Young’s photography teacher had emailed Ryan some images of his work. This resulted in a commission for the Magazine’s ‘Education’ issue and a brilliant series of pictures documenting a Californian high school. “Nico is an immensely talented young photographer,” says Ryan. “It was thrilling to commission him to show us what high school life is like from the point of view of an insider”
For Ryan, the support of her department and her work with Silverstein, Bichler and Art Director Matt Willey has resulted in a stream of great projects, covers and features alike. “When we brainstorm, we’re all on the same wavelength,” she says. “And the same with the photo department. It’s not like we can’t surprise each other – we do – but we don’t have to waste any time explaining anything, we know each other’s aesthetic, we have a shared visual sensibility. It’s challenging enough to figure out on a weekly basis how to pull off something special … [but] they’re just amazing, coming up with ideas, never taking no for an answer, pulling off this epic stuff that sounds crazy when it first comes up in an ideas meeting – ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do that?’ I love it and then embrace it. It’s good fortune.”
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