See the Video Interview
with Jane Palecek
Enter the Mother Jones
Photo Gallery


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 department’s 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 man’s 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, Kratochvil’s 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 pages).

Palecek’s art department and photographer don’t 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 comes through.

When she describes what she looks for in a photographer, Palecek describes a professional: A person who will call if there’s 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.


Marianne Fulton
Contributing Editor
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