Interview with New York Times Magazine photo editor Kathy Ryan

Interview with New York Times Magazine photo editor Kathy Ryan

Mar 29, 2012 |  by  |  Art, Event
About the author
Art director, designer and photographer in the virtual world. What's in a name.

I was given the opportunity to interview Kathy Ryan, the award-winning Director of Photography of the New York Times Magazine. She has worked with the publication for more than twenty-five years; in that time, the Magazine has been recognized with numerous photography awards. Ryan turned out to be such a kind and interesting person. The interview goes quite deep into the ways of portraying “truth” through photography.


Who do you consider the new Robert Frank or Stephen Shore?
“Making meaningful pictures with a very graceful eye telling us something about contemporary American life. I would say: Damon Winter, NY times staff photographer, does beautiful documentary photography that tells you a lot about this moment in time.Todd Heisler also from the Times staff. Again and again making great records of the moment we are living in. Eugene Richards again and again sharp, clear eyed images but his are distinctly coloured by an intensity of vision. He has a dark view of humanity. Further more Ryan Mc Ginley, because in terms of an extremely original vision, that surfaced at a moment in time in the way Robert Franks did or Stephen Shore. There is something to his picture making that didn’t exist in the culture before him. And that’s a huge thing to accomplish. And is now greatly influencing photographers. But it is not revelatory of American life as we are living it. Because it is more inventive more playful. He intervenes. He takes people into a landscape. Its more fiction, telling his own story. The last one: Palo Pallegreen. Working in conflict zones always presenting deeply nuanced pictures and they are singularly his.”

We concluded that Robert Frank and Stephen Shore’s work is good because they have their own vision built upon their own subjectivity and personality. To be good enough to qualify to walk in the footsteps of Robert and Stephen you’d have to have such a distinct own vision, but it will also have to make you very distinctive from Robert and Stephen.

Your images are for a world wide audience. How do you deal with the subjectivity of photography. For example if you look at the next image. If you are christian/aetheist/muslim you experience a different image. 
How do you deal with that? 

Or is that inherent to photography. In other words. Can documentary photography be totally objective? – can you portray a truth?
“You can aim to tell to portray a truth. To be as true as possible to something as it was in that moment. Everything is subjective. The minute you have a given photographer with a certain set of eyes, heart and knowledge, a certain magazine. All of that defines who we are. There is nothing purely objective. As a journalist you aim at the best possible way to tell a story. You need to aim to get as true and factual as possible”

I showed a picture of Israeli and Palestinians talking about the same case. While Israeli people portray themselves in front of bookcases with famous politicians and speak fluid English, the Palestinian woman speaks her own language and is portrayed in a shittier backdrop. Something we can relate to less. It is like comparing apples to pears or pears to apples. Depending on where you’re from. (Het midden oosten gedecodeerd afl 2, tegenlicht, Joris Luyendijk)

“One of the great things about photography, [is that] it’s an international language, having a diversity in point of view is necessary. Making use of photographers all around the globe (or country) gives us this possibility.”

We concluded that the digital age in a way gives us a broader more clear view of the world because we can get photographs from all over the country or world. Everything is more accessible.

Do you think photography will ever loose its power to portray the truth (all be it subjective)
I showed the non-existing picture of Osama Bin Laden being shot because I found it strange that during the attack on Bin Laden, the White House stated they had a photograph of the dead body. The media reported like crazy about this possible photo and everyone was waiting for it. But is a photograph really proof? Especially coming form the government? On the other hand when I open my newspaper, I still think “it must have been like that”, will that ever change?

“With digital photography the challenge is greater, and therefore everything is context. If a person sees a documentary photo in the NY times, you have to maintain a certain trust with the readers. This is documentary or this is altered. Clearly there is a worry with so much imagery, readers themselves Photoshop each other in photos. It is becoming so second nature that they might not recognize it themselves. We hope that people will always be able to accept that a photo in a newspaper is a document. The spectrum of photography is expanded there is a pure documentary, and edited photography. You hope news organizations maintain an iron clad, keep there feet in the sand.”

The decisive moment (Cartier Bresson), was a leading theme in photography but now you have a new breed of artists operating in the digital world. How do they fit in with photography?
Take for an example John Rafman’s work portrayed above, who takes photographs in Google Streetview. Which is a static world, where a decisive moment no longer plays a role. My own work was also mentioned, I was really humbled by the appreciation of it.

“So this raw material is no longer outside, it just exists in the virtual world. I consider a part of the point of artists, that they see things outside the normal. All subject matter is legitimate subject matter, since a huge part of our lives is lived in the virtual world now, clearly it is a legitimate world to pursue. There is no surprise that people take this upon them to instead of going into the real world going into the virtual world for their raw material. It’s the same with sound sampling/mixing etc. We live in a culture where it is a big part of our world, it’s normal to use. – Appropriation is not a thing any more. It should be happening.

Did you see our London issue with Idris Khan? Its magnificent, why would I send someone to photograph the London eye from the ground. It’s not that somebody could do something great but, a better way to do it because it’s photographed by a zillion tourists. Is to take all these images and melt them together. Its a deeply resonate image. Khan said, I want to do something with these famous landmarks. New York times magazine can be a catalyst for an artist to do something terrific.”

- like with Gregory Crewdson.

Now after reading this, go see the show at FOAM. The exhibition is quite amazing. You will be not only shown amazing photography from portraiture, to documentary to staged but you will also be given a look behind the scenes of the magazine. The process of selection and communication between the magazine and the artists. It’s a must see. For more info.

If you are interested in the discussed themes of the interview. I’d advice you to read: On photography by Susan Sontag, Basic critical theory of photographers by Ashley La Grange, Fotografie en Werkelijkheid by Oscar van Alphen, Ways of seeing by John Berger. De Journalist en de Macht van het Beeld by Hans Goslinga. Or watch Het Midden Oosten gedecodeerd afl 2 tegenlicht by Joris Luyendijk.

Thanks Kathy Ryan and FOAM for the opportunity and Jacques Koeweiden for the help.

The New York Times Magazine Photographs

When: March 23 – May 30
Where: Foam, Keizersgracht 609

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