Edited by Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography, New York Times Magazine
Preface by Gerald Marzorati, Editorial Director emeritus, New York Times Magazine
448 pages; 11.7 x 9.9 x 1.8 inches; $75, currently half off at Amazon U.S.
Published by Aperture
Reviewed for TOP by Geoff Wittig
Gerald Marzorati's preface to this book begins with this sentence: "There never really was a golden age of magazine photography." The Editor of the New York Times Magazine from 2003 to 2010, Marzorati points out that even in the heyday of LIFE and Look magazines, film, and subsequently television, had a much greater hold on popular imagination than print media. Yet the still image has its own unique power, from a capacity to freeze time for prolonged inspection to its own aesthetic beauty. Even as mass media outlets for photography dwindle, still images continue to have a hold on us that video clips don't seem to match.
The New York Times Magazine is essentially the "last man standing" among print media venues for "serious" photography in the United States. Other publications have either folded or (yes, Time and Newsweek, we're looking at you) have reduced their photographic content to a shriveled remnant. The Times Magazine has in contrast become more adventurous and lavish in its photography. As noted in the preface, in the mid-1990s the decision was made to greatly expand the magazine's photographic coverage and to make color available throughout. The relatively antiquated rotogravure process is used for the magazine's photoreproductions, because it cleverly compensates for the thin paper stock and provides rich darks unattainable with more conventional web offset printing. The magazine also has an editorial staff devoted to creatively employing photography to help tell stories, and access to a huge stable of photographers representing a vast range of styles.
The magazine's current photo editor, Kathy Ryan, uses the foreword to describe the process of brainstorming and developing photo essays, from the initial idea to selection of a photographer to interpret it. One of this publication's visual hooks has been "cross-assigning"—sending a landscape photographer to cover a hard news story, say, or a fashion photographer to take portraits of gang members. The editorial staff know that the magazine is competing for readers' time and attention, and thus the photos can't just tell a story; they have to grab us by the mental lapels via the unexpected, the shocking, or the strikingly beautiful.
The book itself is quite large and hefty, with a minimalist cover design. The photo reproductions are very good, varnished on heavy semi-matte stock. Unfortunately, quite a few are printed across the fold; in a few cases only about 20% of the image is on the opposite leaf, apparently an absurd triumph of hipster design over photographic integrity. Typography is good but not great; text is set in an old style digital Garamond lacking text (lining) numerals, but readability is fine.
The first section of the book addresses portaits. Each image is captioned with the date of publication and a note from the photographer. Some of the notes are terse, but many of the photographers discuss the interaction with their subject, or the interpretation they were aiming for, in ways that add further depth to the photographs. Many of the portraits have become iconic—the smoldering intensity of Miles Davis's gaze in Anthony Barboza's photo, the unexpected serenity of the severely burned survivor of a terrorist bombing (Kinneret Bussany) in Gillian Laub's picture. The photographers cover the gamut, from Nan Goldin to Nigel Parry, Dan Winters to Erwin Olaf to Chuck Close; a huge range of interpretive and visual styles. The next section covers documentary work, and serves to emphasize how unique the Times Magazine has become as a venue for photjournalism here in the States. From Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark to Eugene Richards and Sebstião Salgado, from James Natchwey and Gilles Peress to Antonin Kratochvil, the stylistic range, the visual impact, and the storytelling power of the photographs are remarkable. Again, many of the images have become icons, including Salgado's Dante-esque view of hundreds of laboring gold miners and Franco Zecchin and Letizia Battaglia's poetically shocking photo of a Cosa Nostra murder victim and grieving family.
Next comes photo-illustration, once again displaying a huge stylistic range from Joel-Peter Witkin's gothic grotesquery to David LaChapelle's neon confections to Stephen Wilkes' inventive visual Haiku. Some of the images are obviously a long way from traditional photography, but as visually arresting metaphors they serve to emphasize the accompanying text. You can't help but admire the wit behind some of the images.
The style chapter delves into fashion photography in the broadest sense, from clothing and design to architecture and food. Once again there are numerous images by well-known photographers from Lillian Bassman to Martin Parr. I'm about as ignorant of fashion as one can be, and I find in-you-face opulence tacky, but there's no denying how striking most of the photographs are.
The penultimate section covers a number of extended photographic projects, from Giles Peress's "A Vision of Iran" to Gregory Crewdson's "Dream House" to Nadav Kander's series of portraits of members of the Obama administration. It's difficult to imagine another mass media magazine publishing something like Crewdson's cinematic fantasy, or a composite portrait of what it's like to be 13 years old from the perspective of multiple different photographers.
The final chapter is a large selection of tearsheets from the magazine reproduced at reduced size. The intent is to put the photographs back into the context in which they were published—complete with text, headings, juxtaposed smaller images and overall page layout. The result is sort of like Errata Editions' facsimile series of photobooks; the reproductions aren't large enough to study the photographs per se, but it shows you the designer's intent.
It would be hard to imagine a better showcase in book form for where contemporary photography is today in the United States.
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ADDENDUM: Here's a full alphabetical list of the photographers whose work appears in The New York Times Magazine Photographs: Lynsey Addario, Ruven Afanador, Peter van Agtmael, Christopher Anderson, Kenji Aoki, Marc Asnin, Josef Astor, Roger Ballen, Anthony Barboza, Richard Barnes, Lillian Bassman, Letizia Battaglia and Franco Zecchin, Andrew Bettles, Jodi Bieber, Ellen Binder, Olaf Blecker, Richard Burbridge, James Casebere, Barron Claiborne, Chuck Close, Fred Conrad, Gregory Crewdson, Carlton Davis, Thomas Demand, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Rineke Dijkstra, Jillian Edelstein, Mitch Epstein, Donna Ferrato, Larry Fink, Lendon Flanagan, Leonard Freed, Lee Friedlander, Sally Gall, Tierney Gearon, Ashley Gilbertson, Nan Goldin, Katy Grannan, Stanley Greene, Lauren Greenfield, Thomas Hannich, Charles Harbutt, Lyle Ashton Harris, Alexei Hay, Todd Heisler, Lizzie Himmel, David Hockney, Reinhard Hunger and Sarah Illenberger, Nadav Kander, Edward Keating, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Hendrik Kerstens, Martin Klimas, Jeff Koons, Mikako Koyama, Antonin Kratochvil, Karen Kuehn, David LaChapelle, Brigitte Lacombe, Joachim Ladefoged, Jean-Pierre Laffont, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Gillian Laub, Annie Leibovitz, Laura Letinsky, Ettore Malanca, Kurt Markus, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Matuschka, Robert Maxwell, Gareth McConnell, Ryan McGinley, Hellen van Meene, Raymond Meier, Susan Meiselas, Jeff Mermelstein, Sheila Metzner, David Montgomery, Sarah Moon, Abelardo Morell, Vik Muniz, James Nachtwey, Dewey Nicks, Simon Norfolk, Erwin Olaf, Michael O'Neill, Martin Parr, Nigel Parry, Paolo Pellegrin, Gilles Peress, Mark Peterson, Jack Pierson, Matthew Pillsbury, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Platon, Reza, Eugene Richards, Jeff Riedel, Matthew Rolston, Paolo Roversi, Sebastião Salgado, Horacio Salinas, Tom Schierlitz, Gary Schneider, Collier Schorr, Zachary Scott, Stéphane Sednaoui, David Seidner, Alfred Seiland, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Malick Sidibé, Laurie Simmons, Taryn Simon, Stephanie Sinclair, Rodney Smith, Sage Sohier, Mike and Doug Starn, Laurent van der Stockt, Thomas Struth, Sam Taylor-Wood, Joyce Tenneson, Scott Thode, Larry Towell, Lars Tunbjörk, Deborah Turbeville, Paolo Ventura, Massimo Vitali, Bruce Weber, Stephen Wilkes, Damon Winter, Dan Winters, Joel-Peter Witkin, Katherine Wolkoff, and Harf Zimmerman.