Each year as part of Graduate Photography Online we ask a number of professionals from the world of photography to review all the work submitted and choose their favourites. We chat to Elizabeth Renstrom, Senior Photo Editor at The New Yorker and Selector for the MA/MFA phase of Graduate Photography Online 2020.
Tell us about your job? What did your core role at Vice - and now at The New Yorker involve?
Previously as sole Senior Photo Editor at Vice I oversaw all photo commissions and research behind the quarterly magazine as well as vice.com sections. This includes coming up with ideas for photo essays in relation to the themes of the magazine, but also commissioning portraits for profiles, conceptual still life, feature photography and cover art. In terms of vice.com I was responsible for web photo essays, interviews, and assigning photography for larger features on the site across all beats. I also contributed my own editorial photography while at Vice when I felt like my style was appropriate and in line with the story. At The New Yorker I’m in a similar role as before, but I’m now working within a department of photo editors vs. being the sole editor. At The New Yorker I work mainly on the print side commissioning original photography and also occasionally doing photo research for the weekly magazine. My current ‘beat’ is mainly commissioning around the fiction section which really allows for photographers to dive into a writer’s words and interpret them in a conceptual/visual way.
How did you make your way into the career you're now in? Did you always want to work in a field that involved photography?
It’s interesting, there’s no clear path to becoming a photo editor and I think most in my position would tell you the same thing. When I graduated from college I had no clue how I’d tap into my industry — I was working in retail and totally fine pursuing my artwork on the side. I barely knew how to send ‘unpublished files’ when Vice reached out at the time to include my senior thesis work in their 2012 Photo Issue. This is also before social media made advertising and commodifying your schtick second nature. When I landed my first internship in Time magazine’s photo department I had a vague idea of what it meant to be a photo editor, but the learning curve was steep. Luckily, I was working under many fantastic, generous editors who taught me what it means to commission in a thoughtful way, which went on to inform how I assign and also how I perceive my own assignments. I also had the chance when I was at Time to develop my own voice as an editorial photographer, which led to more shooting professionally when I was at Time. I think that’s always a big struggle for photographers who, especially, focus on personal projects and fine art photography. You have to learn how your unique voice will be applied to a story outside of your practice. Whether that’s a magazine commission, or advertising — what are the things you can pull out to make an assignment look like you shot it? For me I focused on my sense of set design and color and how it could be used for things outside of slime, and objects of girlhood (heh!)
In terms of ‘always wanting to work in the photography field’ — I originally wanted to get into painting and/or illustration–photography. When it came time to figure out my major I chose photography because I thought I’d have a better chance of getting a job in a creative industry. Of course what I would actually end up doing with it would keep changing and evolving. Even now I feel like there are so many paths to take with photography as a jump-off point — and I feel incredibly lucky for the experiences I've had with this medium. It’s connected me with writers, designers, curators, and countless other amazing talents that I look forward to collaborating with.
How do you decide on what makes an interesting photograph or photographic project?
Often times what makes an interesting photograph to me is what motivated the photographer to shoot it. We live in a time of complete image saturation, and it’s harder and harder to sift out unique statements because everyone can truly be a photographer. We are all familiar with the medium as it has become second nature and what we use to define ourselves nowadays. Therefore, when someone decides to embark on something solely for themselves/the love of the medium or gaze — I tend to pay attention. I get very excited and inspired by people’s personal work as a guide to how I should commission them. Photographic projects always tend to be best when they are an investigation of something personal to the artist. It’s good to start with what you know and see where it leads you — and I think that always translates into something uncommon.
As regards the photographer's statement, what are the most important things for you to know about the work? When it comes to showing their work outside of University, have you any tips on how graduates should prepare their work and the supporting material that accompanies it?
I often tell people when the work is finished, the second hurdle is finding your audience and doing your research. Where do you see your work? Is it a gallery? Is it an online feature? Is it a photo essay in a magazine? Is it the start of a conversation with a magazine? You have the opportunity to figure out who these people are and it’s so easy to do reverse research to understand what their voice is. I am on Instagram and you can see how I like to commission, but you also get to see what magazine I’m currently at and the section I’m working in. That’s relevant because you can deduce whether your work is a good fit for me at the moment. A lot of this info is more public than ever and it’s important to understand who you’re pitching to. In terms of presentation, don’t create extra work for an editor if you have to send your work over email. Get a nice PDF together, get your website sorted, and understand how to talk about your work in a concise way.
In your view, what are the kind of qualities that completing a degree course in photography should endow an individual with? Aside from specifically technical skills, what is the difference that having a demographic of emerging photography graduates makes in the world?
I don't believe that having a degree can make or break a photographer's career, but I do think being a student of photography provides you the time, community and access to resources to jumpstart your practice. There are valuable things to get out of a degree course if you commit yourself to it and use everything to your advantage. Labs, rentals, professors that have connections to the areas you want to succeed in — these are all the perks that you need to use while you have the opportunity to do so.
What are the challenges you see facing graduates from photography degree courses as they make their way into the world at this point in time?
I think there’s a lack of awareness about the variety of opportunities and how to pursue them. I had some professional practice courses included in my curriculum, but not enough for me to understand that there are more ways to be a working artist than being exclusively an editorial photographer. I feel like it’s significant for students to actively pursue their options and have a sense early on about how their work can fit into a variety of different places. I also think students pursuing photography degrees at this time may even be in a better position because of the total saturation of imagery via social media — so many jobs have been created in the past 5 years that didn't exist previously and it's an exciting time to be studying visual communication. Just know the tools you have at your disposal.
What advice would you have for someone interested in working in your area of photography?
I'm sure I'm repeating myself, but if you're looking to pursue editorially photography, or translating your voice as a fine art photographer to commissioned work — do your research. Think about how to explain your practice and figure out the publications that would be open to hearing your point of view. Don't be scared to start doing this work when you're in school. If you feel ready to show a project, start emailing editors and line up portfolio reviews, informal meetings over coffee, and ways to learn more about how to adapt your skills.