“so much of it is just luck”

Columbia J-School grad Elissa Curtis did not set out to be a photo editor, but photography was always part of her life. “I always loved photography, just shooting it on my own,” she says. “I was a pretty shy kid and the camera was a way of communicating.” Curtis has worked as a photo editor at The New Yorker magazine for about three years. She’s also worked at The New York Times, Vogue, Newsweek and the late New York Sun.

CV: How did you get into the business?

EC: I had no idea what I wanted to do. In high school I took a lot of photo classes, worked in the dark room, learned how to process film and really loved that, but also loved writing. In undergrad, I majored in political science and thought that I would do policy-based diplomacy or something like that. I worked through a bunch of different jobs, I worked at Japan Airlines, was waiting tables for a while, and I love to ski so I was a ski bum for a season. After working at Japan Airlines for a couple of years, I thought, ‘This is not what I want to do. How am I going to get out of this? How can I convince my parent that quitting my job is the right thing to do?’

I decided to apply to graduate school, and thinking that  journalism would continue to let me live a life of experiencing new things. The long story short is that photography was kind of a common thread throughout all my experiences. I wanted to experience different things and be part of them, have a record of them.

At Columbia, I took a photojournalism class with Vincent Laforet. I loved being able to photograph the stories that I was working on and I was fairly good at it, so when I graduated I applied for an internship at Newsweek. I knew a few people that had worked there in the past, so I got an introduction to one of the editors who introduced me to the Director of Photography and I lucked out, so much of it is just luck.

At a certain point, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be a photographer. I shot on assignment a little bit, but that was never really my career goal.

CV: How did you end up at The New Yorker?

EC: The internship at Newsweek was really the beginning. There I met James Wellford and Paul Moakley, who have been mentors of mine ever since. I freelanced with them when the internship was over. Then, when the former director of photography of The New Yorker was looking for a freelancer, one of the editors at Newsweek refereed me, and I went to freelance there for a few months.

I got my first full time job in photojournalism as a night photo editor for The New York Sun, where I worked the night shift from 4pm to midnight. When the paper folded, The New York Times was looking for a freelance photo editor, so they picked me up. I ended up working for The New York Times as a floater, first on the night desk from 5pm to 1am, then I worked on Metro, National, Sports, Foreign, all the different desks.

Once thing led to another. After about two years of freelancing at The New York Times, I was ready for a staff job. There’s benefits to freelancing but there’s also drawbacks, I was ready for health insurance and I wanted to be able to work normal hours. Around that time the DOP of The New Yorker retired, and Whitney Johnson, who had my current job moved into that role, so there was an opening. I had met her and known her from when I freelanced there, and from the photo community. I saw her at the going away party for the DOP, and she asked me if  I was interested.

CV: What are the benefits of going into a publication as a freelancer?

EC: It’s really interesting. It’s a lot of fun, every publication I’ve worked at has a very different personality. I freelanced at Vogue for a while, which was the polar opposite of The New York Sun, which was basically stacks of newspaper and dusty old books vs. Vogue where it’s all eight foot tall women. It’s a great education when you’re starting out in the business.

CV: How do you approach an edit?

EC: Photographers are not always the best editors of their own work, so we often ask for a photographer’s A, B and C edit. I want to know what their favorites were, but the number of times we publish an image from a B or C edit, is probably more often than from an A edit. What I like to do is go through a whole take once to see what there is, and there’s always going to be images that stick out. Then I go into the content perspective asking, which picture tells the story? So I usually do a first pass, I narrow it down, and then I go back to fill in holes. I go back to photographers all the time, and say, do you have more of this?

CV: What do you love most about your job?

EC: I love being able to provide a platform for people’s work. These guys go out there and they invest their lives and their time into telling really important stories, from even a small day story to a long term project.

CV: What’s your least favorite part of the job?

EC: It’s a tough time in photography, in photojournalism. We’re always fighting budgets, we’re always fighting not having enough money to do the things we want to do.

CV: Who are some of your favorite photo editors?

ECJames Wellford, who was at Newsweek, is amazing. He has ushered in and mentored so many photographers and is incredibly beloved in the industry. Kira Polack at Time, Kathy Ryan, Patrick WItty, Paul Moakley. These are all editors that have been doing it for a really long time, and they are really passionate and good at what they do.

I also like keeping tabs on the next generation of storytelling. There’s this branching out of the editorial magazine world into websites, like with Simon Barnett, who was at Newsweek and is now at CNN, and Amy Pereira, who was also at Newsweek and is now at MSNBC.

CV: What do you look for in potential photo editors?

EC: An ability to work with other people. The relationship to photographers is really important, the ability to support a photographer’s work and also to remember that you represent a magazine that has its own voice and its own needs. Somebody might shoot the most beautiful picture that you’ve ever seen but it’s just not right for The New Yorker. Playing that middle person can be tricky, it’s like matchmaking. So from editors you really want people that love looking at pictures all day, that are seeking out new talent, and are also maintaining relationships with photographers.

After America tear sheets courtesy of Elissa Curtis. Photos by Zalmaï and text by 

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