The Slow Death of the Photo Editor

The title of this article could just as easily have been ‘The Slow Death of the Art Director’ but I decided to stick with the photo editor as it is the role that seems hardest to explain the importance of to the people most often referred to as “those upstairs!” The money people. Put the term ‘photo editor’ into Google, click the images tab and you will be swamped with a million images of screens featuring post-production software. There will be no sign of a physical presence performing the role of photographic commissioner, collaborator and yes, editor! In the true sense, as someone who chooses and collates images to be published.

Of course the Picture Editor was not the only person involved in and overseeing commissioning, image editing and layout. On magazines this was also the role of the art director. There is a long list of great art directors who directly influenced photographers and the use of photography including Alexey Brodovitch, Alexander Liberman, Marc Boxer, Tom Wolsley, Harry Peccinotti, Phil Bicker, Marvin Israel, Cipe Pineless, Michael Rand and Roland Shenk. Great names from a distinguished past. They all had their apprentices who sat at the right hand of the master learning their trade, I myself learnt from Clive Crook, who had learnt from Rand. There was an obvious lineage of experience being passed from generation to generation.

These art directors were well paid, respected and had paid their dues working their way up through the ranks of the art departments they would eventually lead. They had weight when it came to decision making and would support and defend the photographers they chose to commission. They understood photography and photographers and saw that understanding as being intrinsic to their positions.

The world of the photo editor is less visible. When art directors where not involved in commissioning the photo editor stepped in. On magazines the art director usually held the commissioning strings, but on newspapers the photo editors made the decisions. Often as part of a team, they were unsung heroes of photographic knowledge. Only Eamonn McCabe – previously an award winning sports photographer – seems to have stepped out from behind the picture desk to be recognised as an expert, whilst Colin Jacobson produced his much vaunted magazine Reportage.

Today the ‘people upstairs’ seem to have little or no respect for the art of commissioning. Art directors and photo editors have been sacked, retired or reached a leaving agreement as publishers seek to reduce salary overheads, replacing them with art editors, whose input and decision making power has been greatly reduced, alongside their salaries. Photo editors have been replaced by journalists commissioning photography.

The issue, however, is not only with the devaluation of the roles but also with the break that has occurred in the learning lineage. With the removal of those with years of experience and knowledge comes the removal of those who can teach the next generation. The result is that those now finding themselves in commissioning positions are too often inexperienced in the very subject that they are meant to be experts in. The commission that was once based on mutual respect, clear communication and achievable expectation is now based on overly written ‘briefs’ that are too broad and unrealistic, mood boards that have little to do with the actual commission and a request to provide ‘choice’, with little or no explanation of what ‘choice’ actually means.

I am not saying that this is the case with all commissioners today and not all art directors and photo editors of the past were people you wanted to work with.

But, it is an increasingly relevant issue for the professional photographer who is being faced with working for people who have little, if any understanding of photography, how the images should and could be used and the legal requirements of copyright and image usage. In a world where commissioning is seen as nothing more complicated than sending an email the client expectation has become both unrealistic and ill-informed.

I do not blame those involved in commissioning today for this situation, they are just doing their jobs, but their lack of workplace education can prevent them from making that job something more than doing what they are told and into a profession. This concept of career over job raises some interesting questions as to the the career progression of those commissioning. If you are not interested in photography where would you aim to become a photo editor? There is often a mis-conception by photographers that those who commission are as interested in the medium as the practitioners they are commissions, but this is rarely the case.

How do I know? Because I am a commissioned photographer and therefore I speak from personal experience. I am also closely connected to a number of people who commission photography as a side line to their main roles as journalists and writers. And I was an art director for over fifteen years, on magazines and newspapers.

But, this isn’t an article based on pointless nostalgia but concerned realism. The devaluation of the commissioner and slow death of the photo editor have been having a detrimental impact on the client/photographer relationship for the past few years, hence my description of the death as being slow.

Commissioning has become increasingly risk adverse, leading to safe and bland images setting a dispiriting agenda for those photographers looking to be employed. Whilst those who do commission rarely have the job security required to defend work commissioned that does not fit their line managers expectations.

I wish I could end this article with a positive spin or a sense of optimism, but I can’t. All that I can say is that good clients and good commissioners do exist, as do a few good art directors and photo editors. It is the photographers responsibility to seek them out and if you find them let others know of their existence. If we don’t treasure them they may go the way of the Dodo, and none of us want or need that.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

1 comment

  1. Well said. Working without an experienced photo editor is difficult and frustrating.
    Your description of the broad and unrealistic briefs is spot on. And providing “choice” is just a excuse to cover CYA. It just means they don’t know what they want until you are done shooting it. Then a committee of too many cooks in the kitchen suddenly has opinions. None of them based on experience or knowledge, just speaking up to justify being in the meeting.
    So many skilled positions have been eliminated in recent years and it’s costly.

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