The Editors Speak Up

Working in the Visual Culture
by Monica Cipnic
Are picture editors and endangered species? I certainly hope not or I'll be reinventing myself again very soon! Since this is my second incarnation as Picture Editor of Popular Photography, I have the distinctive vantage point of 20+ years of working with  photographers from every conceivable genre and many countries around the world.

Have things changed? Absolutely! But my passion for photography in all its myriad forms has not. While still in college, my photojournalist brother, Dennis Cipnic, took me to my first photo gallery opening. It was circa 1969 and Garry Winogrand had a show at Lee Witkin's gallery in New York. Garry thrust a book of his photography into my hands said, "Tell me what you think of them," and we had a lively discussion.

My brother had already introduced me to commercial photography and his brand of photojournalism--he once lashed himself to a tree during a hurricane in New Orleans and Life Magazine published the picture double-truck--it was daring and adventurous and I knew I wanted to have something to do with it. I was hooked on photography after my first foray into photo editing at the age of eight when my brother left his photo presentation binders on the living room table. Naturally inquisitive with a familial design gene and in ten minutes, I rearranged it all. His initial anger quickly changed to laughter and he announced to our parents that he knew what I would be I grew up: a photo editor. I remember thinking what exactly is that? And whatever it is, it was fun and immensely satisfying.

By the time I graduated from college (where I originally wanted to be in the diplomatic service--skills that serve me to this day), I was having trouble choosing between law school and graduate studies in archeology and communications. But New York and an offer of a position as an assistant photo editor beckoned more than Syracuse, Tulane or Stanford, and I've never looked back.

When I joined Popular Photography in 1973, a new regime had started and everything about photography was exciting. Charles Reynolds was the Photo Editor and a longtime friend of John Durniak, so I got to  learn from the best. And what I quickly learned was to innovate and improvise. One of my first ideas was to turn a storage closet into a picture room with long counters, projection equipment and a great custom built 5 foot long lightbox. Then I set aside three mornings a week to see photographers - on average I viewed the work of 25-30 people a week. This was in addition to whatever had been sent or dropped off. Charlie and I once calculated that we were seeing in the range of 750,000 photos a year. And we needed to - we put out a monthly magazine, various quarterly or one-shots, and the Photography Annual with its 100 plus pages of photographs.

I was always looking--and I felt I succeeded--in presenting  both current and historical work that reflected the particular time from which it came. I had to convince some of the higher-ups that the best work, the newest work, the important work didn't "come over the transom," as they liked to put it. I made concerted efforts to visit photography programs at universities, schools, and workshops throughout the US and later on in England, Canada, Australia, Mexico, France, Germany, and Italy. By not only working with top level pros but by cultivating and nurturing a wide variety of photographers who were just getting started, I believe I helped give opportunities to literally thousands of photographers, many of whom I've worked with and continue to do so today. The results of my efforts spoke for themselves: the issues looked great, and with ad pages up, I was directed to keep going after all the new and unknown work. At the same time, we moved our offices and by default I arranged not only a bigger and better Picture Room, but I convinced the publisher and editorial director to turn our reception area into a showplace gallery.

For ten years  beginning in 1976, I had the wonderful opportunity to provide a space during the explosive era of photo galleries to show contemporary work or as I liked to joke, "photographers who weren't dead yet." We all know how incredibly difficult it is to get that first big break, and despite the additional work it entailed, I was thrilled to provide this type of venue. Many of the artists went on to have their work published, received future commissions for installations, museum and gallery shows worldwide, and got tenure at universities. The shows ranged from a woman photojournalist's retrospective of her days during the Vietnam War, one of the first group shows of Chinese photography in the US, fine art and cutting edge themes to shows where participants had mastered the craft of photography and in doing so had overcome physical disabilities, substance abuse, and other obstacles, and improved the quality of their lives.

The cumulative impact was extremely positive and we were given the green light to start up a new photo magazine, Camera Arts. It was a great and timely idea--a magazine with beautiful images and well-written articles printed on thick, glossy stock. It was a dream, albeit a short-lived one. Camera Arts won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, the NPPA-University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism special recognition for Best Use of Photographs by a Magazine, seven awards for  photography and design in the International Editorial Design Competition, and numerous New York Art Directors Club Awards. But it didn't make the "numbers," and they canceled it. Unfortunately that was not the worst of it.  Popular Photography was soon sold in the flurry of mid '80's corporate takeovers and I left shortly thereafter.

Fast forward a little over four years. The magazine has been sold two more times, other photo magazines have come and gone. I worked at one of the largest photographic stock agencies, then worked on a weekly television series filmed in New York and on television movies as a director's assistant and dabbled in location and casting. On one occasion, I took the director to an opening at the International Center of Photography. Many photographers who I hadn't seen or spoken to for some time came up to me and reminisced about all the great stories I had done with them and lamented the demise of the Annual, Camera Arts, and the general downturn the photo magazines were taking. Jan Staller came up to me and after inquiring about where I was and what I was doing, turned to the director and said most earnestly, "Your great gain is photography's loss."  Needless to say I was greatly complimented, deeply touched, and somewhat depressed that I was no longer involved in that part of the visual art world. I made the decision to keep my hand in photography until the right opportunities presented themselves. I did  photo research for documentaries, commercials (even a little associate producing), books, magazines, and advertising. I was even approached about opening a gallery in California but family commitments kept me in New York. And out of the blue the newest regime at Popular Photography (formerly of Modern  Photography) needed some short-term help on a freelance basis--I've been there now nearly seven years.
So what has changed? Many things. Less space devoted to picture stories; thinner paper due to costs; budget constraints that affect my travels to see and find new work to publish; sufficient space in my office in which to view photographers' work (a cubicle is not a Picture Room), and an long-promised computer that should show up any day now. What hasn't changed? My desire to inspire reader and how I go about getting the best photographs from great photographers.

The challenge I relish is taking the content and translating that technical story by showing visually interesting and fresh work and using the new technology of digital separation and light-paper presses to get superior color reproduction and still provide the reader with a quality product. I try to get around this year's budget by lobbying for next year. All the photographic community contacts I've made provide me with new names to seek out, but nothing replaces the personal visit to a gallery or a photographer's studio. I love to see and hear from the individual about what they are doing, what motivates them and even if  something isn't apparent or right for the magazine now, it may be in the future. Or I may be able to suggest where and how they can further their goals.

All in all, I have been lucky working with editors who have allowed me to do what I do best: be a talent scout. I'm always looking for great photography and then turning into an agent trying to sell it to the editors because I believe it is important to get it out there. I have also been extremely lucky working with art directors who truly collaborated with my conception of layout and pacing of pictures in stories. I think most picture editors find this rare in today's magazine climate, if there is a picture editor at all.

I have always allowed a photographer to tell a story through the pictures and strongly supported their right to do so--this hasn't changed. Showing a broad range of work that is democratic, if not trendy or glamorous, is appealing to me, and that hasn't changed either. Probably most of the photographers reading this have, at one time, picked up a copy of Popular Photography for technical advice and the latest camera information. With our expanded coverage of digital and other technological advances, the magazine has retained its focus on in-depth coverage in the field of photography--but the competition has increased.

Most importantly, Popular Photography is unique, especially to this discussion. Most of the other picture editors' magazines, by their very nature and content, dictate what photos can be shown. My mission is to present a vast range of photography that encompasses and addresses all points of view. You may not love everything that is shown but I hope I can continue to publish photographs that transport the reader and inspire their personal creativity. I have thoroughly enjoyed my "mini-patroness-of-photography" position, in all of its manifestations, and continue to look forward to supporting photographers and photography in the future--and I trust there's a future in the visual culture for me.


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