PALECEK AND MOTHER JONES
by Marianne Fulton
Jane Palecek is
the design director at Mother Jones magazine. Under her influence
and that of editor-in-chief, Roger Cohn, the magazine has published
excellent photography and given a new look to the photo essay.
A word about Mother Jones and Mother Jones. Mary Jones became
a widow at the age of 30 in 1867 when yellow fever killed her husband
and three children. A strong believer in the union movement, she began
traveling the country speaking out for union causes. It was tough work
and she was jailed many times. She was famous for her spirited cry,
Pray for the dead, and work like hell for the living. The
persona she created as Mother cast her as a mother to all
whom needed help.
The bi-mothly magazine, founded in 1974, took her name to connote its
progressive, issue-oriented content. The magazine has evolved over the
last 25 years. In the last two years with the arrival of Jane Palecek,
a new commitment to photography and photographers can be seen.
Palecek points out in her interview that when she began, the art department
worked with stock photos. Now the team creates six features per issue
and all are assigned (although Palecek is willing to listen and look
at new project ideas). In the process she can now work with a single
photographer to put together a six-page photo essay.
The projects she assigns have to do with social injustice, international
topics and, in general, subjects not covered by main stream press. Palecek
say she wants to get back to more investigative work.
This is not your average magazine. It is non-profit and therefore not
a hostage to the advertising departments bottom-line. It has avoided
the all-too-pervasive trend of eschewing news and editorial photography
for celebrity portraiture. It also does not have an agenda.
Palecek works with ideas and issues - much harder to carry visually
than glitz and sports. She works with top photographers, such as, Antonin
Kratochvil, Paul Fusco and Eugene Richards to name only three.
In the September-October issue is an article written by Amy Wilentz
with a photographic essay by Kratochvil. Entitled Slaving for
Cane, it deals with Haitians who work under harsh conditions in
the Dominican Republic. It opens with a two-page spread of two men cutting
cane with machetes. The closer mans face is in shadow and slightly
blurred because of the force of this blow. One realizes the horizon
line runs at a slant down to the right corner. As the initial image
in a series of thirteen, it sets an uneasy tone, reinforcing the story.
From here small photos are superimposed over another heavily slanted
cane field, then on to pictures the point out elements of the living
conditions, etc. The photographs chosen and sequenced do more than describe
a scene; they create a passion for the story.
The interweaving of photographs, such as, Kratochvils work, makes
one realize how seldom magazines use more than two pictures in an essay.
The power of the Haitian story also brings back memories of Life: In
this country, the photo essay grew to prominence because of its use
in that magazine. An essay made a unified statement and was given the
space to work both descriptively and emotionally (often more that ten
Paleceks art department and photographer dont revisit the
sometime strictly chronological sequencing of Life. They have created
a new way, capturing the feeling of the photographic work.
When asked what she looks for in a portfolio, she replies composition,
imagination and soul. She also looks to see of the passion of the photographer
When she describes what she looks for in a photographer, Palecek describes
a professional: A person who will call if theres a problem; someone
who can bring back great photographs no matter what the situation and
one who is even-tempered.
The Mother Jones web site
first appeared in early 1993. At this moment (November 2001), it is
being designed. It will no long solely reproduce parts of the magazine
but move into video and create space for additional stories.
Jane Palecek and the art department she guides have brought back the
photo essay, recognized and published excellent editorial photography,
and thus, crated new venues for photographers.
She and the magazine are to be congratulated on their work.