The New York Times Magazine – Magazine of the Year

Photography is in the blood at The New York Times Magazine. Its debut issue of September 6, 1896 contained the newspaper’s first published images; seven months later it featured a 16-page series of halftone pictures of the Jubilee procession of Queen Victoria, one for every 50 years of her reign. The Magazine continues to use photography to document the world, to bring its readers closer to the issues of the day and to fire the imagination. That it still manages to achieve all these things while making each Sunday edition feel like something fresh is testament to how it blends the familiarity of a weekly publication – its regular format, sections and quality long-form journalism – with the excitement, ambition and surprise that visual imagery can bring to print.

New York Times High Rise cover
Pages from The New York Times Magazine’s ‘New York’ issue from June 5 this year. Its subtitle was ‘High Rise – The City Above 800 Feet’ and the decision to rotate the entire issue enabled the photographers to work to a vertical format. While this meant that some of the city’s tallest buildings could be given their due, portraiture could also run in this format, in some cases almost life-size. Image shot by Christopher Anderson.

In the last two years the Magazine has changed significantly – and not least in its pursuit of how it exists outside of print as well, from explorations online and on social media, to mobile and VR. In 2014, Jake Silverstein was appointed Editor, Andy Wright its new Publisher, while in February of 2015 a complete multi-platform redesign took place under the steer of Design Director Gail Bichler and recently appointed Art Director Matt Willey, with designer Anton Ioukhnovets and type designer Henrik Kubel contributing to a new-look issue that debuted with four different front covers. Amid all this was the continuing presence of the Magazine’s Director of Photography, Kathy Ryan, who first started working for the title in 1985 and has since shaped and defined the imagery within. (We’ve chosen Ryan for our Outstanding Contribution to Photography award)

Earlier this month, Bichler, who was Art Director for ten years before moving on to her current role, delivered a talk at the Modern Magazine conference in London and divulged some of the processes behind several of the publication’s significant recent issues, its relationship to the New York Times (and its resources), alongside references to the wider scope of storytelling in which it now operates. The Magazine is based on the sixth floor of the Times’ building and shares this space with T Magazine, the NYT’s style and fashion title. “The Magazine features often have a really different take,” says Bichler of how the Sunday title sits within the NYT family when we meet the day before her talk. “One of the main distinctions is really about attitude and the kinds of pieces we’ll publish – personal essays, things that aren’t necessarily considered news but are more philosophical.”

“When you do it in-camera there is an authenticity, there’s something else – you feel it, even if you don’t consciously think it” Kathy Ryan

The Magazine undoubtedly enjoys a unique position. It has the freedom of a non-newsstand title with 3.2m readers (it’s free to cover up its logo, or run an unconventional cover image), yet all the imagery is beholden to the same extensive journalistic standards as the writing that appears throughout the Times. Take retouching, for example. Bichler says that in its treatment of photography the Magazine will only employ the kinds of manipulation that can be carried out in the darkroom. If they use an image which has been altered beyond this point it must be captioned as a ‘photo illustration’. “The reason why those standards are there is because we do publish important news stories and these photos have to be sound journalistically,” she says, before imagining a reader’s voice – “‘If you retouched this actress, did you then retouch this reportage photo?’ I guess the standards have to be held across all subjects.”

The July 17 issue featuring a portrait of US artist Chuck Close by Christopher Anderson.

This rigorous approach to referencing the provenance of each image in the Magazine might sound restrictive but in fact puts the photography on the same plane as the written journalism, while also advocating that as much of the visual imagery as possible is created ‘in-camera’. “The standards for us basically mean that the photo editors have every opportunity to contribute on the same level as all the editors of the magazine,” says Ryan on the phone from Los Angeles. “Many of the best photographic things we’ve done started with a photo editor. What’s fabulous about it [is] they’re expected to contribute and, of course, that’s thrilling if you have an idea and it ends up going all the way.”

“We think about making a magazine that, as an experience, is a great thing in print; an object that people would covet” Gail Bichler

Thrilling for the readers is the notion that the most ambitious photographic projects that the Magazine undertakes place unaltered imagery front and centre. “That also just gets at the thing we all love the most in the end,” adds Ryan. “When you do it in-camera there is an authenticity, there’s something else – you feel it, even if you don’t consciously think it. Readers feel it – [that] they’re seeing life unfolding, that they’re witnessing something.” Last year, for the cover for its ‘Walking New York’ issue, for example, artist JR created a 150ft paste-up of an image of 20 year-old waiter Elmar Aliyev, a recent immigrant to New York, on the city’s Flatiron Plaza. The picture, composed of 62 individual sheets, was then shot from a helicopter before being scrubbed from the ground the same evening. A VR film also mapped the journey from JR’s studio, onto the streets and into the air.

With work like this in mind it’s clear that digital has begun to have more of an influence on the way the Magazine’s readers engage with its photography, rather than on the images themselves. “It used to be that you’d think, ‘Am I going to get those five or six shots that I need for this story?’” says Bichler. “[But] one of the main goals of our redesign in 2015 was to really make the magazine much more suited to be multi-platform, so we maximised the use of our photography.” Bichler and the team can rely on using full-bleed images as opening spreads or in special projects “because we have fantastic photography that we know can hold up to that kind of treatment. One of the things we really wanted to do was to flesh out our stories, which can be pretty b long, or a long scroll online, with additional photography. So we often think about getting many more images to tell a story and how that can work as a narrative.”

“There’s no magazine or great magazine feature that exists because of one person. It just doesn’t happen” Kathy Ryan

One of the Magazine’s most ambitious projects to date embodied this new way of thinking about the life of a photo series, while demonstrating how print can still work as a radical format alongside a digital offering. Its 2016 ‘New York’ issue, subtitled ‘High Life – The City Above 800 Feet’ came from an idea Ryan had after being prompted by the building work going on in the city. Associate Photo Editor Christine Walsh began researching the concept – initially, 1,000ft was to be the cut-off point but dropping the measure by 200ft meant suddenly “we had a lot going on,” says Ryan. “The workmen on top of the roofs, some of the apartments that were built at that height. Christine was instrumental – any idea’s only as good as the execution and she got access to everything, it was incredible.”

The issue would feature contributions from a range of great photographers and writers, yet what made it one of the publishing highlights of the year was the design department’s vision to rotate the entire magazine for this one special edition. Bichler says that over lunch with Willey she’d initially suggested they run sidebars containing statistics about some of the buildings along the longest edge of the magazine. “And then Matt said, ‘We should turn the whole thing sideways’.” This then became “an idea that could carry an issue,” she says. “It was a really smart idea that made sense in terms of something that we think about a lot, which is making a magazine that, as an experience, is a great thing in print; an object that people would covet and that’s doing something interesting and challenging.”

A spread from Voyages
A spread from Voyages

Remarkably, all the advertising in the issue was also redesigned for the new format with Willey producing 18 different mock-ups to give to the sales team. “Matt and I realised that we were going to have to present this in a really concrete way for people to understand the idea and to understand that this was not a stunt, that it was going to provide all kinds of opportunities for vertical-format photography,” says Bichler. As the person responsible for distributing the briefs, Ryan sees the ‘High Life’ issue as indicative of what happens when “a creative idea gets another creative idea. It all came together and one after another we all brought our best to it. I love the typography in that issue; I kind of feel like everybody was inspiring everybody else to just do their best work. Jake is a totally adventurous editor and always wants something new and exciting, so he was game and up for it.”

Cover and full-bleed spreads from the Magazine’s ‘Food’ issue of October 9. The cover features a photo illustration by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari; the photographs, which accompanied the series of features on ‘Can Big Food Change?’, are by George Steinmetz. 

It comes back to teamwork. Both Bichler and Ryan are emphatic about how the collaborative nature of putting the Magazine together is key to its success. Pick up any issue and it’s clear that there’s a synchronicity between editorial, design, typography and imagery that continues to delight. “There’s no magazine [or] great magazine feature that exists because of one person. It just doesn’t happen,” says Ryan. “By definition it’s an incredibly collaborative process. I just think what happens is sometimes you have a moment in time in the life of a magazine where something gels, the team just get along, they have a shared passion for what the magazine should be – and they’re speaking the same visual language.”

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