Put an Eyeball on It.
That’s what one of my first photo bosses called a loupe, an eyeball. His eyeball would normally be sitting on, or near the light table. Occasionally it would go missing, at which point he’d ask the room, “Where’s my eyeball, dad?”
Bob Jarboe was a photojournalist, an Associated Press staff photographer based in Des Moines. He managed the AP’s photo report across the entire states of Iowa and Nebraska. To do so, he depended on a sizable network of AP stringers, mostly college students, to shoot the majority of the AP Laserphotos moved from the region.
It was easier and more productive to ride herd on these youngsters, coach them up to AP standards, and deal with their college age problems, then it was to rely on images from member newspapers.
The stringers got priceless, real world experience. They got to keep the rights to their work. They got paid (a little), and they occasionally got some extra film thrown their way.
Bob, trained an endless stream of these kids. I like to think it kept him young, but it probably had the opposite effect.
He had several roles. He managed his photographers and kept them (mostly) on the straight and narrow. He decided who was going to get the jobs. He figured out the strengths and weakness of his crew. He was a mentor, a coach, and at times, kind of like a parent. He still shot pictures as well, but his main task, after deploying his team, was that of a picture editor.
A true picture editor is a unique creature. They’re worth their weight in gold. Like Bob, they’re the boss. They have a lot to do with a photographer’s success. They decide who’s work gets seen. The good ones bring out the best in the photographers they work with. Their value cannot be overestimated.
Oh, and they’re extinct. Not like full-on Dodo extinct, more like Black Rhino extinct. Pretty much gone, but there’s like a million to one chance that they might be saved (So, yes, I’m saying there’s a chance).
I know they are people out there still sporting the title of picture editor, and they continue to do a lot of the same things that Bob did, but that’s not really what they are. The true picture editors have disappeared and that’s one of the main reason why photography isn’t doing so well these days.
Today’s picture editors still decide who gets hired, though today their choices are limited to those poor souls who passed corporate muster by signing their usury contracts. Meaning the first thing they do is train young photographers to act against their own best interests, not exactly a great foundation on which to build a lasting relationship.
Worse still, is the lack of actual picture editing that’s taking place.
Today’s “picture editor” select from the selects, whereas yesterday’s selected from everything.
In the past, a picture editor would normally see every image the photographer made while they were on assignment. Today’s publishing industry isn’t designed to support this workflow.
Bob put his eyeball on every frame his stringers shot. He did this after souping most of the film, on deadline, with dozens of rural newspapers hungry for shots of their hometown heros. By doing so, he knew which photographers were working smart, knew how to use their equipment, focus their lenses and properly expose their film. He’d quickly discover who made his life easier, not just by shooting good pictures, but by making sure to shoot the numbers on the athlete’s back and the name of their school that was often hiding somewhere else on their uniform.
By seeing everything, he knew how each photographer’s mind worked. Which meant if somebody was having an off day, he’d often know how to help them.
Photography is the craft of observation. The photo editor’s job is to keep an eye on the observer, as well as the pictures they make. Something that’s impossible when you’re only seeing a small portion of a photographer’s take.
It’s not a one way street of course. Opinions are exchanged. There’s give and take. It’s a conversation, which happens on a verbal, as much as a visual level. A photographer who is forced to edit their own work, which is the norm today, is working in an echo chamber of their own thoughts. A place governed by confirmation bias where the photographer is likely to see only what they hope or expect to see. It’s a place where happy accidents and delightful discoveries don’t exist.
Picture editing, regardless of the level one is working at, is crucial to the making of successful pictures and good photographers. A pair of seasoned eyes is likely to recognize something special in the photographer’s work that they don’t see themselves. Something that might just be worth pursuing.
Throughout my career, the workflow remained largely the same. There was always a picture editor who saw everything. A person that I couldn’t hide from. Who would see my hits and misses.
They’d see what ideas I pursued and the ones I abandoned. Eventually they’d learn how I thought (and I them). The photo editor was a person who was allowed to see inside my head. Trying to fool or trick them would make about as much sense as lying to myself.
The picture editor and photographer share a symbiotic relationship.
The photographer working in the field is exposed and vulnerable. The picture editor is their spotter. When the photographer starts to stray, the picture editor guides them back onto the path. If they fall, the picture editor catches them. When it’s time for the picture editor to present the photographer’s work, the roles are reversed. Now it’s the photographer, through their work, who is responsible for the picture editors success and well being.
This is how it was meant to be. A partnership formed and strengthened over time between the photographer and the picture editor, which makes both of them better at doing their jobs.
This is how it started with Annie. Yes, there was a time when a picture editor could (kind of) tell her what to do. There was a time when one went through Sebastiao’s contact sheets as well, and gave him critical feedback. This is when they both did their best work.
Without a picture editor, somebody with both power and skin in the game, a photographer loses their way. Their work suffers and they go downhill. The poor photographer who’s never had a true picture editor will likely never make it up the hill in the first place.
When was the last time you had somebody with a personal stake and a serious eye take a look at your work?
Do you have a partner in the creative process?
Does the picture editor you’re working with today see everything you shot, from the start of the day until the end?
Do they buy you drinks? If the answer is yes, do they buy you those drinks before trying to convince you to sign a work for hire agreement?
Do they give you advice that will help you to become a better photographer, and not just better at fulfilling their needs?
Do they ever give you advice that will help you become a better person?
Do you ever feel like your picture editor would toss you overboard if you became difficult?
Would you abandon your picture editor if they became difficult?
As a photographer, do you realize that all true picture editors are difficult?
Lots of questions, I know. Questions that the modern publishing world doesn’t have answers for.
I don’t have these answers myself.
Most picture editors working today work at harvesting ready-made pictures from multiple sources. They don’t have the time or the bandwidth to look at everything you shoot. It’s not part of their job description.
For the most part, they’re only looking at your toned selects. Not a whole lot of teaching or understanding can come out of just seeing only those. How can they give you meaningful feedback if they aren’t seeing your failures?
I suppose hiring a freelance picture editor is a type of solution. There are certainly plenty of good ones out there who’ve been forced into early retirement. People who have tremendous experience, and have helped many photographers produce their best work over the years. It just feels less romantic to me than forming a partnership over time. Kind of like an arranged marriage I suppose.
Still, it’s better than working with a picture editor who might not have your best interests at heart.
I’m open to the possibility that, eventually, today’s picture researcher can become like yesterday’s picture editor.
There’s always that hope. I’m sure it occasionally does still happen, at least at a couple of publications. It’s certainly worth going after a relationship like this if there’s any hint of one being available to you.
I don’t see it happening across the industry. Picture editors are tasked with sourcing images today, not developing talent. That’s something that takes time and money, and once talent is developed, it has a way of becoming expensive.
Right now, we need mentors, not manipulators, as we live in a world where every photographer is an island and every publication is filled with pirates looking for plunder.
Our collective eyeball has gone missing. Those in power have no interest in finding it. Not because they don’t know better, they do. It has more to do with the system they’re working in. They don’t want to make waves or sound like some old guy talking smack, as these days that’s exactly the kind of thing that can cause one’s own extinction.