Kathy Ryan has been the Director of Photography at The New York Times Magazine since 1987. She is known for her impeccable eye and for taking risks by assigning photographers to cover themes outside of their usual realm.
Kathy is also widely known for her book Office Romance, which began as a personal project photographing her colleagues and others inside of The New York Times building. She edited The New York Times Magazine Photographs — a collection of the magazine’s important stories from the last 30 years, accompanied by a behind-the-scenes look into the purpose and process of many of these assignments.
During her time as Director of Photography, Kathy has been twice recognized by the National Magazine Awards. She has also received the Royal Photographic Society's annual award for Outstanding Service to Photography.
Kathy shares editorial insights, why her photography is simply about a love for light, and five photo books that inspire her.
by Alexey Brodovitch
“I love the fact he had a day job as an art director, but he also had the desire to make photos. I just love that there is so much mood, sensuality, drama, sweat, and dynamism in these pictures. He carved out a subject and he was able to make a wonderful set of pictures. It is just one more example that shows that photographs are waiting to happen everywhere.
Even if you don't dedicate yourself to photography full-time, you have a chance to do something significant. It can be your journal. It can be your way of framing the world and commenting on something. There are certain subjects that are familiar and demand to be reinvented. Ballet is an extremely familiar subject in photography, because it's exquisitely beautiful, therefore photographers are drawn to it, and yet he still managed to make original pictures.
Another thing that I like is the signature aspect of film and that wonderful grain. He used that to his advantage. You literally couldn't make these pictures now with a digital camera — it's a different feel. The fact that they're so grainy, and a little soft, and all those things that are hallmarks of this body of work. That’s great. Photography captures a moment in time, and this is very much of that time period. It was a reminder to me that it's imperative to make pictures that feel contemporary.
by Lars Tunbjörk
“Lars' book is a journey through a life. He's drawn to moments of bright, vivid, almost childlike color. This gives a kind of joyfulness to his pictures. They were often a kind of societal critique. Then, towards the end of the book, it takes quite a turn, because Lars dealt with depression.
He happened to come to the office one day. This was years before and he showed me a new body of work, from the Vinter book. He sat there as I went through the book. I turned to him and asked, "Lars… is everything okay?” It suddenly went from being a professional engagement — looking at his work, which you're judging in terms of photography, as well as emotion — and it just became something else. He said, "I've been depressed.” [The Vinter book] is the most vivid manifestation of depression in imagery that I've ever seen.
I find Lars Tunbjörk to be an astounding book, because it has his earliest work, and we see his eye developing. It has the explosion of colorful, vivid, funny, wry, comic, and sad moments of contemporary life. It has the office series, which clearly speaks to me, because I like the idea that he found so much. They are pictures I could never make or even want to make in my life, yet I love the idea that we were, in some ways, working similar terrain. At the end, [the book] has a deeply personal statement. I think this book is a classic and that people will realize that. People aren't aware of it enough, and I think it’s because it's from Sweden, a small country.
Lars was unique in that he had a dry sense of humor that was unlike anyone else's in the world. He had a deep appreciation for the kookiness of people. His pictures tapped into the absurdity of everyday life and the situations we find ourselves in. He's basically laughing with them, never at them. I feel like there was a gentleness to his work that always lent a kind of, "Hey, we're in this together.”
by Paolo Pellegrin
“Everything about this book is extraordinary. It is the monograph of his life's work, and it even starts when he was a child. This book is exquisite. The photography is incredible. The layout and the approach is amazing, and when you get a little further it is so ambitious. It still boggles my mind that it succeeds. When you start to get into Paolo's work, you’ll see this timeline that places it in context with highlights of what was happening in the world in that period, as well as highlights of what was happening in the photography world. I love that. All the people looking at this book who didn't live through this era, will recognize the context in which those picture made and published.
I love that [this book] is rich in texture and it has contact sheets that are marked up. You'll see it has sketches from the albums and journals that Paolo had in the field. Paolo would come back from a shoot in a crisis zone, and, from memory, sketch storyboards of what he thought were his best pictures that day. How fabulous is that?
There is no more inspiring book for a young photographer starting in the field. It is rich in history, it is rich in extraordinary photographs, and it is generous. Paolo shares so much in the beginning, like who his influences were.”
Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness,
by Zanele Muholi
“I am blown away by the fierceness of her work. Self-portraiture is a classic subject in photography, and she completely came up with something highly original, powerful, and strong. It has historic references; it has an enormous amount to do with who she is as a person; it's a statement about empowerment. I find these portraits to be riveting.
I look at this book a lot in terms of being inspired by fearlessness. To do something good in art, whether it's photography or any other discipline, you have to shed a lot of inhibition. You have to be fearless. You have to try to embark on some path that you don't know where it's going to take you. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it is that. Every portrait she makes, she's pushing further and further into something new. Something dramatic. Something that's just going to have an incredible power that says, "We are here."
I find this book to be very empowering as a woman. Also, the cover is mesmerizing. It has the power of a Rembrandt. You can't take your eyes off of it.”
by Rinko Kawauchi
“I love Illuminance, because I love that Rinko is photographing the banalities of life. She clearly has that gift as an artist of seeing, and feeling, the ecstatic in the ordinary. I find this book to be one that I return to for that reason. There's something deeply meditative about it. There's also something reassuring about it — that the world can be so beautiful.
It's a visual prayer book, a constant reminder that life is extraordinarily beautiful. It's full of secrets and gifts, if you just stop and look for a second.
Photography is always about light. In every one of these pictures, the light is crucial. Just looking at it reminds me that, yes, it is a legitimate pursuit to keep chasing the light.
In terms of bookmaking and the architecture of this book — I love the paper quality. I believe that's to the credit of Lesley Martin at Aperture, who is a brilliant bookmaker. She was the editor on this book with Rinko. Every decision in this book is spot on.”
Kathy, many photographers are naturally drawn to New York City—the chaos, chance encounters, fleeting moments. What are your thoughts on NYC and photography?
I consider New York to be the greatest subject in the world for photographers. I'll say it. New York is endlessly giving.
The idea that [Lars Tunbjörk] could make a wildly original photo of the corner of 42nd and 8th is also a wonderful tribute and homage, even if it's subconsciously done, to painters like Mondrian who would organize a canvas like Broadway Boogie-Woogie in a similar way in which Lars’ eye did.
Often the best photos happen when somebody's photographing something on the cusp of change. Transition is very good for photography.
New York is a walking city. The lesson I learned is that you got to get out there and pound the pavement to see something great. As Robert Frank once said: "Keep your eyes open.”
You have to keep your eyes open, because you've got to have your eyes wide open to see that yellow, orange, purple, magenta, and that blue, and that gray, and that brown, and those rectangles, and those squares, all intersecting, all of which are part of the visual cacophony of New York.
When commissioning photographers for the magazine, do you seek a contemporary style?
When I'm commissioning people, it's a little bit different, because commissioning people for our magazine with the varied subject matter that we have requires me and the photo editors to be very versatile. I think we need an expansive vision. The photography should feel of this moment, but I also feel like there needs to be a wider range of what that means.
For example, I feel the work of Mamadi Doumbouya is very contemporary. He's the first one in a big way that started doing work with colored gels and strobe. There's a vivid, highly saturated kind of almost electrified, amped up quality to his color that I think is spectacular. It's totally him, and it feels totally of this moment. The sort of hyper-vigilance of the color feels right to me in this digital age that we're living in, whereas sometimes it's a little bit hard when you're working with black and white photography in the magazine.
I don't want to get too much into a certain kind of wonderful, 35 millimeter black and white documentary reportage that's grainy. That also signifies the past. On the other hand, I don't want to ignore that kind of photography either, because it has a power and strength. It's a case-by-case challenge.
In its simplest terms, there are two things you have to keep in mind when assigning the photos. One, what is the emotional resonance that you want to evoke in the reader? And two, graphic strength, like the formal qualities.
In other words, what are that photographer's compositional strengths like? What is that photographer's palette like? Are they someone who can make a picture that will make people fall in love with the subject? Can they make a picture that will demand someone's attention and provoke change?
A photographer's mission is to frame. When a photographer goes out into the world, he or she is seeking to impose some kind of order in the chaos. Even if somebody is making a chaotic picture. Let's say they're in a war zone making the kind of picture like Paolo Pellegrin would make when he was working where there is a tremendous amount of activity going on in the frame. Even if they're making that kind of picture, it has its own strange sense of order.
You have to always think, "How will people frame this?" It's one of the reasons why I was such a big believer in not cropping photos too much. There are exceptions. If you're going to crop, there has to be a really good reason to do it.
What are some good reasons for cropping?
The best photographers are composing things in the camera beautifully, because that's a huge part of what they're actually doing. It's the same as a writer, a huge part of the talents of a writer is choosing the right word to define something. Photographers are basically composing and framing in just the right way to define something.
But I don’t want to be ultra conservative. Often, there can be an art moment when the photos are being cropped purposefully, and there's some other kind of thing happening. We wouldn't do that without the photographer somehow being engaged in that creative dialogue.
Is there anything outside of light and photography that brings you a feeling of awe?
Standing in front of a magnificent painting. My heart beats faster if I'm looking at a painting that I just think is incredible. Off the top of my head, Lucian Freud's portraits. Alberto Giacometti's portraits, where he was drawing over and over on the face, and removing it, and doing it again, and rejecting it, and doing it again. That kind of obsessive quality is awe-inspiring to me. When I stand in front of a Basquiat, you know the skull one? Standing in front of [Edward] Hopper's Early Sunday Morning [or] Las Meninas [by Diego Velázquez] is awe-inspiring. It's not so much the portraiture, it's more the breaking up of the frame.
Also, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the MET. I don't care about fashion, I'm not particularly stylish. His work was pure art. It transcended fashion. It was so deeply emotional. I walked through that exhibit and there was a little hologram of Kate Moss in a flowy gown. I burst into tears. I just found it so upsetting — if that fits the definition of awe-inspiring.
There are certain moments just being in New York City when I see something that is awe-inspiring. When I come back from a trip and make that dreaded ride in the cab coming out of JFK. You're desperate to get home, and your stomach's turning a little bit from traveling for so many hours. When the skyline comes into view, I find it awe-inspiring. I literally want to break out into song, because I think it's the greatest place on earth.
What defines the pulse of a good story, and which elements do you look for in a photograph?
Finding a good story is, in some ways, the most challenging part of what we do as editors. Let's say we're talking mainly photojournalism stories — coming up with a new idea for a photo essay, or a fresh idea that's timely. It's hard, because a lot of stories repeat themselves.
Thinking of a great photographer is not so hard, because there's an enormous amount of talent out there. We give a lot of thought to it, and I want to credit the other photo editors in the magazine. We have lots of group brainstorming where we'll have an idea, bounce it off our colleagues, and talk it through. Figuring out how to tell a familiar story in a new way — and that’s the part of finding the right photographer — is hugely challenging, and figuring out a story that hasn't been told is even more challenging. Trying to come up with great ideas is something I still struggle with as an editor.
How would you describe tension in a frame?
Tension is a geometric compositional element. With great pictures, there's some kind of dance going on. When we were talking about Lars Tunbjörk’s picture, the corner of 42nd and Eighth, the dance going on there with all of those rectangles, and squares, and elements of color, there's lots of tension and motion, you know? And yet, there's a tremendous amount of movement in it.
I often look for movement in a picture, and that could be movement in the classic sense, life unfolding, or it could be movement in a picture like the one by Lars, where the photographer's vision and ability to frame the world causes something to dance and move in front of our eyes in the frame, which gives it a liveliness. I look for liveliness.
When we're doing portraits, I look for something that feels genuine, or soulful. Portraiture is a tricky one. There's an inherent power play every time, so who's in power? Is it the sitter, or is it the photographer? That's an interesting one, because sometimes the portrait that I'm drawn to is a great one, because the photographer is in total control, and doing exactly what he or she does, and seeks in a subject, and is getting it.
I'm thinking of Jack Davison's work, because he has such a strong drive to find a kind of high contrast and light, that make it obvious they are very much his pictures. And somebody like Nadav Kander. His pictures are his pictures, you know? You recognize them immediately upon sight, and they're really great for that reason.
Somebody who's really in command of their craft—like Irving Penn or Richard Avedon— they are in total, full command of their craft. Incredible, memorable, astonishing portraits, and the best ones are the ones where I'd say the sitter himself, whether it's Truman Capote or whoever else, ends up fighting back, ends up owning the picture also.
The best portraits are the ones where the craft doesn't outweigh the character of the sitter. At the same time, the character of the sitter isn't going to really come across and be powerful enough, unless the craft of the photographer or the portraitist is strong enough. I like when I look at portraits that live between the two. It's like a high-wire act sometimes. Really great photographers have to walk that, where they bring all of their facility with making pictures to the task.
Dan Winters is another great example. Extraordinary portrait maker, full command of his craft. Everything he does is 100% him. I'm looking to make sure I'm not just drawn to the picture that has incredible formal elements, but also drawn to the picture that evokes something about the sitter; their feelings, their mood, their temperament, their character, and he does that. But I think that's the challenge for all of us, whereas sometimes you might have a photographer that does a wonderful job of evoking the sitter, but maybe there's a little bit of a sloppiness to the framing or something.
I like that you can go back and forth on that. But also, the best photographers are fortunate enough, they're blessed with an obsession. So Ryan McGinley, wonderful portraits. Drawn to beauty, lightheartedness, innocence, youth, sexuality. All the things that he sees, he just saw them from day one, and he's figured out a way to work with his palette, setting the scene, taking them into the bucolic countryside, or wherever. The great photographers have something driving them, that they can't not respond to that siren call.
Your role at the magazine has evolved throughout your three-decade career. Are there any specific habits or processes that helped you grow?
I was first hired as the deputy photo editor, and then I was made photo editor. The difference is going from being a number two to the person in charge. As the years went on, I took on more responsibilities, like the Times Square photo issue. That was the first time I was put in charge of an issue, which has happened periodically in the years since, so that was something extra.
My role shifted with the introduction of video, so when we do the Great Performers, I oversee that. I actually initiated that in the beginning to ask the actors to act in these videos. That was a big expansion of my role, because I had to do a quick study and figure out who to commission to direct and also who could shoot the still photos.
I would also say the introduction of VR (virtual reality); we were doing that for a while. This year, we did AR (augmented reality) with Lakeith Stanfield for the Great Performers.
The cool thing about being at the New York Times is you're always learning. I'm sure people probably think, "Oh man, she's been in that job so long," and I get that, and I worry about that too sometimes. But then the job changes all the time, so I like that. I have to learn new stuff pretty regularly.
What does that process look like when you have to learn a new technology that influences the storytelling?
The process is mostly figuring out who's doing the best work, because the most important decision I'm going to make is who we hire for the assignment. The minute you make that decision for your director, and in most cases with us the director and the photographer are the same, you better have made the right one, because that's a big call.
I always have somebody who produces it. This year and last year, it was Amy Kellner; the year before it was Christine Walsh. A different photo editor generally produces it, and they do all of the production. The moving parts, the studios, the teams, the lighting, the booking, and working with the publicists. They also get involved creatively.
We do lots of brainstorming together with the director and have them submit ideas. That's part of the process that I'm very much involved with. That part of the process is super, super creative, coming up with a concept and then fine tuning it. It's a little bit of everything. It's super creative all the way, and then it's also lots of production—logistics stuff and pulling it off. I would say that was a role change.
Was your approach to these role changes simply about going with the flow?
It is definitely hit the ground running and go with the flow. Even if you don't have any idea what you're doing. There generally is not a lot of time to put a process in place. I feel like a lot of it is like, "Oh my god, we're going to do this, and we'll figure out how to do it." Like a leap of faith.
I'm very grateful that Jake Silverstein, the editor of the magazine, has tremendous faith in us, and that is crucial. To work with an editor who is inspiring, who has vision for the magazine, as he does, and who wants something big. He wants big, surprising things.
What does your personal photography mean to you, and do you have any specific ambitions for it? Has it influenced your work?
I shoot because of the light. I am compelled to. It is plain and simply that. I would be standing somewhere and see a dagger of light and think, "I have to capture this." It was like a moment of ecstasy that I couldn’t ignore. Then I began to realize how cinematic the light happens to be in this building, and how I could just play with it.
Because of my life and my job, I can't get too fancy, so I shoot on my iPhone. I love the idea that this thing in my pocket would actually give me the ability to do it. I do it because I'm madly in love with this building design by Renzo Piano and the way the light comes pouring through—it just demands attention, so I do it because of the light.
Literally, if the sun is out on the weekend, I'm here. It just makes me feel good. When I first started doing it, and sometimes it was a little bit during the work day, I'd sneak away for a few minutes. Other people would go to get a coffee to get their fix at like 5pm, and I'd be like, "I'm going to go get a picture." It felt really good; it perked me up. It gave me a little extra lift. Then coming in on the weekend, it got even better, because I can focus more.
I work in a deeply collaborative field. Magazine making is collaborative, and I love that. That's why I'm in it. I always wanted to work with people, and I love the people here that are incredible. But there's also something cool—when I'm making the pictures, it's just me. If it's good or it's bad, it's me.
On a practical level, Jake [Silverstein] was the one who asked me to do the contributor portraits. He was like, "Hey, I have a crazy idea. I'm going to have a re-design of the contributor page, and I want to feature one contributor every week with a portrait, and I want you to shoot them, and all here in the Times building. On your phone in your Office Romance way." I said that is the craziest idea I ever heard of, mainly because I'm not a photographer. I don't even use a real camera. But then I thought, "Yeah, it is a camera. Why not? I like a challenge." So I said yes.
The other advantage is that it has been very helpful for me to be on the other side. I understand some things about photography that I didn't before. As a photo editor, I've gained empathy and context.
Becoming a photographer helped me on some practical levels on understanding what photographers really have to do, and what they're trying to do. It makes you sometimes more demanding. But the main thing is also humbling, just realizing how hard it is.
There's so much content in the world. What is the role of context in your work, and what are some ways that you've been able to hone in on the importance of context?
Context is extremely important—that's such a good question—especially at the New York Times. The context in which we publish pictures is vitally important, and we think about that a lot. I can give you one big example this year when we had the cover story on the rise of the white supremacist movement in the U.S. and antisemitism. That story had been in the works for a while, and then Jake [Silverstein] decided to propel it forward right after the attack in the synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The following week, we decided to quickly move everything and go to press. Mark Peterson has been covering that subject on his own, getting assignments, because people knew he was interested in it. He’s been essentially ringing that alarm bell and saying, "Look, there's a rise of this white supremacist movement." We got pictures in from him that were amazing, and one of them shows a burning swastika at a rally in Georgia last year in the U.S. Deeply disturbing photo. Most time you'd be like, "Can't run that." But Jake didn't pause. He decided to run that picture knowing that some readers would probably find it offensive. You never know. You can never predict how readers will react.
Jake and Gail Bichler, our design director, said, "Let's do a list down the side." Gail designed a long list of incidents of demonstrations, incidents, attacks, so that when you saw the burning swastika, the dark red and black, and then you saw that long list of incidents, it was very clear to you. "We are using this to make this point that in the context of this country what's going on now, and that there's this many of these."
I felt like that was the case of it. When you're going to publish something disturbing, you want to make sure that you get that right. Maybe that's a very literal example. There's probably lots of other times when we're having that dialogue about something that's more nuanced.
Nowadays, not only are the photographs considered, but also the characteristics and the personality of the photographer. Is that an influence in your decision making?
For me and the team at the photo department, we're more focused on diversity, really saying to ourselves, "Are we being expansive enough in who we're looking at?" As in wanting to hire more women photographers, more people of color, and really being disciplined about that. When we think of somebody good, going with the first choice would often be a male choice, but stopping and thinking, "Is there someone else?”
You want diverse points of view represented in your pages as people come to their assignment with their own worldview and experiences. You can't avoid that. A woman might see something differently. A person from another place might relate to the world in a different way.
I think that who the photographer is has become more important in that regard. There's been, I think, a big awakening, and an opening up of opportunities, and we're in a position to encourage that and continue to make opportunities happen.