CD: Molly thanks for agreeing to be part of FUSEVISUAL. We’ve known each other for years and have worked together on a couple of projects. Its funny, I don’t really know much about your photographic history outside of the magazines that I have shot for. Tell me a bit about how you came to photography, your career path and the transition from shooting full-time into consulting and photo editing.
Molly Roberts: Hi Cameron, Congrats on this new endeavor. I also like to read about photography, process and inspirations, so thanks for asking me to participate.
I discovered photography as an artsy teenager, to be honest. I was living in Boston with very little money and spent my free time in the Harvard Square bookstore, looking at photography and art books. Robert Frank’s book, the Americans and The Lines of My Hand, really shook up my understanding of what photography could do. I thought it was radical, subversive, beautiful and inspiring. I decided I wanted that in my life. It was like falling in love, and I’ve never lost that sense of awe about what an image can do to merge ideas and feelings and reality. I looked at Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and Emmet Gowin. Eugene Richards, Henry Horenstein, and Jim Stone were working and teaching in Boston at the time. These are some of my influences. Later I studied photography and Art History at Univ. of Maryland, studied with John Gossage and was lucky to land a job in the photo archives at the Washington Post when I graduated. The newsroom at the Post was my journalism school, I was surrounded by consummate pros like Bill Snead, Ken Feil, Matt Lewis, Lucian Perkins, also wonderful designers like Bob Barkin and Ed Schneider .I began to work freelance for the Post and eventually to shoot for other local magazines and newspapers.
I was always involved in different aspects of photography; shooting, editing, and teaching.
When the redesigned Washington Post Magazine launched in 1986, Jann Alexander, the Art Director created a position for a photography editor and asked me to join the team. This was an amazing opportunity for me.
The mission was to make the magazine a showcase for national photography and writing talent. I was encouraged to assign nationally known photographers and raise the awareness of the Post magazine. It was a time when magazines had more resources. There I worked with Mary Ellen Mark, Neal Slavin, Eli Reed, James Nachtwey as well as the talented staff of the Washington Post newspaper. I have had a few transitions from editing to shooting and back, and a couple of the reasons are my two wonderful kids, and my desire to have more control over traveling and scheduling.
CD: For years Smithsonian was known for its literal approach to photography. (full disclosure – I shot over twenty stories for the magazine between 1987-2003) Since the change in editors, the magazine has been taking some bold steps in use of photographs and the photographers who shoot for the magazine. How did this come about? Follow on: I loved the Chicken story that Timothy Archibald shot. (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Chickens-Dressed-Like-Napoleon-Einstein-and-Other-Historical-Figures.html) I know there was some internet push back from the project – I thought it was a great piece. How did you sell the editors on the piece and why was Timothy chosen for the project?
Molly Roberts: Magazines are extensions of Editors’ personalities, I suppose. When I came to Smithsonian in 2001, the photography and publishing world was beginning to be transformed by the digital revolution. A new editor in chief (Carey Winfrey) was in place and had come from People Magazine. He began the shift to more personality-oriented writing. I’ve always had eclectic taste regarding photography. I studied Art Photography, worked at a newspaper known for serious photojournalism, and my personal work was more rooted in the documentary traditions of Farm Security Administration photographers like Marion Post Wolcott and Margaret Bourke White.
Different types of stories require different types of visual approaches.
I don’t believe photojournalism is the best way to tell every type of story, just as I wouldn’t want conceptual photography for every type of story.
Each has it’s own strength and purpose. Part of the pleasure of photo editing is finding the right approach for each story and finding the right photographer.
The story you mentioned, about the importance of Chickens in the evolution of cultures, presented a bit of a challenge. The Editor in Chief, the Art Director and I, all discussed possible approaches. We are always trying to consider new ideas. One way would have been to use historical depictions of chickens through the various cultures being written about, but how many people really will be inspired to read a story like this with shards of pottery illustrating the story? Another idea was to use traditional illustration. We decided to try photo illustration incorporating the idea of dressing the chickens from various time periods. I thought it had great potential to be absolutely brilliant or absolutely awful. But that is part of the fun, sometimes you try things, sometimes they work and sometimes they fail.
But if you never take chances with outrageous ideas, you will never know.
I enlisted Tim Archibald because I knew he would handle the idea with his deftly serious but humorous touch. Previously, we had worked on a story about robots. Also, Shannon Amos, his stylist really worked hard to make the costumes instantly recognizable, which was an important part of making this series work. It could have been terrible, and some people think it is, but I thought it really worked and really surprised people too. I think sometimes photography should surprise, should show people something they haven’t seen before. American Photography accepted this series into the awards exhibit this year, so I think at least a few agree; it was an idea worth trying.
CD: The 101 Objects Special Issue is pretty amazing. Not only for its breadth of objects but also for the talent used to shoot the objects. How did you choose the talent, plan and produce such a large project?
Molly Roberts: This was a huge project that was intended to recognize the amazing assets we have as being a part of Smithsonian Institution, to really celebrate our collection, but to do it in a different way. We decided to call upon photographers with very different styles and approaches and to let them create an artistic portfolio from the thematic grouping of objects that the editors at the magazine had put together. Honestly, the Museum and the Magazine had never worked together on anything of this scale before.
101 objects, culled from 16 museums, involving a multitude of curators, PR people, museum techs, 3 photo editors and coordinating with 6 photographers and their crews. It was a scheduling nightmare, as you can imagine. It was a lot of fun as well. The photographers we chose based on their styles, but also on their interests. Dan Winters had recently done his Discovery book, and I knew he was a space geek, so he was assigned “Discovery”. Definitely one of the highlights of the shoots was being in the giant storage facility with Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.
Albert Watson had recently done a museum project in London and was very keen to photograph some of the important artifacts of American History we have at the museum of African American History and Culture, he was assigned “Freedom”. Seeing the shards of glass recoverd from the Birmingham church bombing where the 3 young African-American girls died, was an weighty emotional moment for everyone in the room.
Mark Laita had come out with a beautiful book of snakes, so we thought he would have a nice touch with the natural history artifacts, he was assigned “Wild”. He made some of the taxidermy come back to life. It was an amazing team effort from all parties involved, and I think it’s a handsome package that will be relevant for some time.
CD: How does an aspiring photographer come onto your radar screen? Follow on: How does a photographer fall off the list?
Molly Roberts: There are many ways I discover new talent, and of course, there are folks who I have worked with happily for many years. I do think part of the job of a photography editor is to develop new talent. I think most people know I have an open door policy, I see a lot of photographers when they are passing through town, or coming for meeting with other magazines and organizations in DC. I keep up with Open Society and the Pulitzer Center; I look at all the awards and grant recipients. I look at mailers and emailed portfolio links.
This year I was a reviewer at Santa Fe Review and made contact with some
new to Smithsonian photographers. I was also a reviewer at Texas Photo Roundup. I am involved with Women Photojournalists of Washington and the network that comes with that.
I do spend some time on Facebook, following links to work posted by my network of friends and colleagues. Flak Photo on Facebook is very good. The photo blogs posted by Lensblog and Time magazine are daily reads. This year I also judged the editing categories at POYi and Best of Photojournalism. I just curated a fundraiser exhibition for Art Works Projects, in Chicago. I am on their DC advisory board. So inspite of the challenges to photography and publishing, I still see it as a vibrant and exciting field. It’s just one that’s in a difficult transition.
Rather than any kind of shortage of talent, I see so much work that I’d like to publish, but simply doesn’t fall into the areas of interest that Smithsonian generally publishes, or we can’t get to the story in a timely fashion due to our production schedule. Our website has very little budget, so I don’t want to send these ideas to the web, unless there is a book or exhibit to promote, something that makes the trade-off worth it for the photographer.
Some things not to do: Try to show me your portfolio when I am not in a professional situation, send me angry emails about why you haven’t heard back about a pitch. Spend too much money without approval, turn work in late, talk about stories we are working on to other magazine editors, be rude to subjects or subordinates.
CD: When you are deciding on who is the right person for a shoot what are the decision points for you?
Molly Roberts: These days, one of the deciding factors is location. We rarely send photographers to other countries, or even across the country to shoot stories. I can usually find someone quite talented, who is close by. The other deciding factor is an enthusiasm, knowledge and access to the subject matter, based on previous work I have seen published or in photographers’ portfolios. Another factor is just simply an easy working relationship. Sometimes things go wrong in assignments, but freaking out never helps, so being able to roll with the punches is a great skill set. Be calm, clue me in, and be resourceful.
CD: What advice do you have for an aspiring photographer who wants to shoot editorial and specifically for Smithsonian?
Molly Roberts: I like to see stories that photographers have done based on fairly in depth and long-term commitments to a subject, or story. Generalist portfolios don’t tell me anything about how you would develop a photo story. I am looking for a level of expertise, either in technique or visual approach that gives me an idea of what a story I assign to you might end up looking like. I need to see a portfolio that gives me some confidence that you will be fearless, forthright and take chances visually, but that you will also be responsible to the subject and to the magazine and return with images that resonant. I don’t actually believe photographers can be objective, obviously we filter everything through our own beliefs and experiences. I’ve come to accept that a photograph is a record of one photographers’ experience, so I do rely on trusting a photographer to be honest and authentic in developing stories and to be as unbiased as possible.
One should read the past few Smithsonian Magazines, so one knows what kind of stories we do. We can’t get most news stories in with our 2 month lead time. We may be interested in the subject matter, but need to find a “Smithsonian” way to tell the story, which usually delves into the same areas the museums cover: history, science, art, cultures, technology and travel.