This year's annual publication by Light Work, Contact Sheet, features the work of artist-in-residence Maija Tammi, together with my essay on her work. It covers a dead rabbit, living cancer cells, and immortal creatures.
Insight on the Role of a Photography Editor
Katherine Oktober Matthews is a photography writer, editor and mentor. She works independently and as Chief Editor for GUP Magazine – an international print publication and web resource on photography, connecting its communities with the sharpest conceptual photography, the latest photo books, and compelling writings about the contemporary world of art.
A good editor is someone who almost disappears. When I’ve done my work well, whether I’m editing text or photo series, the result looks effortless and invisible. A well-edited work, much like a well-designed product, doesn’t just look natural – it feels inevitable.
Because of this, it can be hard to perceive from a completed publication what an editor has done. The sign of an editor’s hand is often found in all the problems that aren’t there.
I work as GUP Magazine’s Chief Editor, and also edit independently. Each publication, and each editor, works a little differently, so there’s not necessarily a specific role implied by the name. For some publications, an editor is someone who commissions work, or helps create and develop the story. At GUP, our role is a bit different because we don’t collaborate with artists on creating projects, we select and publish art photography series that are already complete. As an independent editor, I work directly with artists who are in the process of making a body of work, and collaborate with them to sharpen the meaning of their work and materialize this in the selection or series of images. The bottom-line of an editor’s job though is to help draw out the strengths in any given body of work.
When selecting works for GUP – whether that’s print or online – I’m editing in multiple layers. It’s my goal to bring out the best of each series, but also, I’m looking to create a publication in which multiple series talk to and build upon each other. So, I’m editing series and editing a publication. I’m also editing text, but let’s leave that for another conversation and focus here on what’s happening with the images.
Let’s start with the print publication, because that’s a little more concrete: it has a finite number of pages, so as an editor I’m working with hard limits. There are some flexibilities in terms of how that space is used – on articles, portfolios, or books, for example – but all the puzzle pieces ultimately have to fit together within the limitations of the printed magazine. Overall, it needs to have a good flow, and feel like the right mixture of text, space and images. Each issue starts with a theme, and I begin the search for a couple of anchor projects that I know I want to include; from there, I can find complementary work. There has to be a good mixture in the magazine of different types of projects, in terms of concept and genre and aesthetic style. We couldn’t have a magazine full of high contrast black and white, for example, or portraits, unless that’s exactly the thing we wanted to draw people’s attention to.
This is the type of thing that I think is so important for people who aren’t in publishing to understand: it may be that you’re producing perfectly great work, but if we’ve recently published a series on the same topic, or using a familiar aesthetic, we’re simply not going to show something that’s so similar. We’re looking to be fresh and diverse. That doesn’t mean that your work isn’t suitable for other outlets, for example to be exhibited, or published as a book, or to win a prize; it simply means it isn’t what’s needed for GUP, which is recognized as an avant-garde publication. And my responsibility as Chief Editor is to preserve that integrity.
When it comes to GUP’s online platform, I take a similar mind-set when selecting works but, obviously, we’re no longer limited by page count. We’re still focused on showcasing thoughtful series in the realm of conceptual fine art photography. It’s ultimately our goal to be a source of inspiration for the visually informed, so I’m always on the lookout for series that are leaping into uncharted territory, whether that means through a unique story, technique, or aesthetic. Somehow it has to be really original. And, as I always say, it’s got to be something that makes me think and feel at the same time.
To be an effective editor, you have to be constantly consuming what’s out there – and doing so in a mindful, critical way. When I see something that works, I deconstruct how and why. When I see something that falls short, I pay attention to where its faults are. I’m constantly hunting, looking through blogs and books and events and also submissions. But I also find inspiration and insight outside of photography – you end up with a very limited perspective if you just focus on what’s coming out of photography, because there’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas in the world now. It’s basically through this bombardment of resources that I start to identify what stands out, and can kind of discern what’s signal and what’s noise. It’s easy to get lost among so much information, and I see a lot of editors working with a lot of insecurity – they only pick something up once it’s already been acknowledged by others as worthy. I work instead by relentlessly honing my instincts and then surrendering to them my full faith.
When I’m working together with an artist, whether it’s during an editing session, a portfolio review or a mentoring meeting, I consider it my job to get to the core of the artwork’s intention. I ask a lot of questions, I probe hard, I listen and feel. I map what an artist is saying against what I’m seeing, and how that fits in with the world of art photography as it is now. It’s irrelevant to me what my opinion of the work is – I’m not trying to get the artist to produce art that pleases me – but the dialogue reveals to the artist how well the work is achieving its goals.
I meet artists at all stages in their practice. Of course, it’s wonderful to come upon work that’s profoundly actualized and just publish it, but it’s also incredible to enter into a collaborative interrogation with an artist and take a seedling idea and grow it into something magnificent. The outcome of that isn’t something you would ever see – and that’s OK with me. It’s how I know I’ve done my job well.
This article on the role of a photo editor was published on Life Framer.