“I think a lot of people are sitting around and mourning film still. This is a really exciting moment for photography – it’s become more important then it has been in many years. Everybody is talking about it and everybody is participating in it.”
Emily Shornick, Photo Editor at The Cut, is one of those people whose passion for what she does extends to every aspect of her life. From studying photography at Bard to naming her cat Daguerre (yes, after Louis Daguerre, the photographic genius who created the daguerreotype), Emily’s interest in visual expression is never exhausted – even after long days in the office and on shoots. Her interest in photography and photo editing is all-consuming, and infectious. For those who don’t know, and there are many, Photo Editors are the people refining visual culture, and taking it to new and exiting places – and as Photo Editor at The Cut, Emily is at the forefront.
What were your expectations for your career when you graduated from Bard?
I sort of figured out within my senior year that I didn’t want to be a photographer, which was a really valuable educational experience. I’m so glad I went through that program. I learned so much about photography and I think its made me a much better Photo Editor.
I was shooting since I was about 9 and right as I graduated I kind of had this epiphany like, “Oh my god I don’t want this to be my life.” I don’t think you have to be miserable to make art, but I had to be miserable to make great art. That was my process and I just thought I can’t live like this anymore.
Initially, I thought I was going to go into more of the art history side of things. I hadn’t officially double majored in art history but I kind of unofficially double majored in art history, to the point where the head of the art history department asked why I wasn’t an art history major.
Right out of school my first job was at a gallery – I thought, I’ll work there for one to two years, I’ll teach myself French or German and then I’ll go get my masters in art history and become a curator. Or, maybe I’ll get my PHD and teach. I discovered pretty quickly in my stint in the art gallery world that it was not for me. The gallery I was working for was changing directions. My understanding was that they shut down as a gallery proper and became more of an investment strategy consultancy. I was working as a registrar and since they no longer had inventory, I no longer had a job.
I took some time off and I went and took care of my grandmother, who had a fall, for a couple weeks – she’s fine now. I went and stayed with her for a little bit to consider my options.
I thought to myself, I love photography and I know I want to work with photography, but what is it that I love about the photographic process? I thought about how I used to shoot and my problem with photographing was I could never execute the vision that I had, so I would just shoot, and shoot, and shoot and then edit down from there. It was the editing process that I really enjoyed. So I thought, How can I apply that passion that I have, and this understanding for photography that I have, without working in the art world and without being a photographer? I came up with the solution of editorial. I interned even though I had been out of school for a year and the rest is history I guess.
So you began by interning at Spin, a music magazine?
I knew that I had to intern because in editorial, especially the art side of editorial, there isn’t a really specific field of graduate study that applies to that. So I thought – ok this is grad school. An entry-level position in this field is an internship. And have to do it. I had to pay rent so I just hustled.
I was interning at Spin and to pay my bills I scooped gelato under the table where I made a lot of money because it was right after the recession of 2008 so people were very sympathetic.
I also worked as a personal assistant to a family in the Upper West Side. They had six kids, which was total chaos. Most of the kids had special needs, so most of my job was just dealing with insurance paperwork and education paperwork. I also freelanced on the side. So yeah, I was working more than seven full days a week, (laughs) I worked my ass off!
What were you doing at Spin?
I was in the Photo Department and I actually got really lucky. It was a weird time at Spin so I was given a lot of opportunities. At the time, again it was a recession so there had been some reductions in their Art Department and also the Photo Director was on maternity leave for most of the time I was there. So it was really down to to just their Deputy Photo Editor and me. I got to do a lot of real photo research and I was able to build a book from that experience. They really gave me opportunities. I got to go on a shoot with Guy Aroch which was like crazy (laughs) you know – for a kid in an internship. I’m still in touch with a lot of people from that period. It really was such a supportive environment where they really trusted young people to be creative. I just feel so fortunate to have had that opportunity.
How was it transitioning from music to fashion?
Right after my internship at Spin ended I got a part time paid internship at American Lawyer Media, which is a B2B publisher that does American Lawyer Magazine, Corporate Counsel Magazine – lawyer trade publications. That was part time and I also got a job part time at Retna, which is a celebrity photo agency. I was on their assignment desk as Assistant Assignment Editor and then I got promoted to be their full-fledged Assignment Editor. So I had to leave American Lawyer Magazine. I was at Retna for about two years. From there I went to Lucky and then from there I went to The Cut.
So I went from music at Spin, to Retna, which was really a music and celebrity photo agency – Retna’s roots was in music photography but around the time I started there they were transitioning to paparazzi and celebrity content. From there the celebrity stuff sort of turned into fashion at Lucky, so it was a smooth transition.
Working at Retna, being on an assignment desk was a frenetic time of my life. I was overseeing over 400 photographers across the country. It was really exciting because you were the news – you knew the news before the new outlets did. I didn’t realize how much of the celebrity news was staged, that was fascinating to me. Publicists would call me and say, “My client is going to be here in twenty minutes, send a photographer.” You know when somebody gets a haircut, it’s really big deal because then every celebrity photo of them is obsolete, and so you have to get new pictures.
It made me such a good negotiator as someone who is now a Photo Editor because I knew exactly how the photo agencies were thinking and I also knew a lot of the photographers, which helps when I’m looking for content. I know how to negotiate and I just know how it works.
At Lucky I was officially a Photo Researcher. Eventually I was given more and more responsibility. I ended up overseeing all the stills in-house. Which was a lot. The beauty department alone shot 500 stills a month. It was crazy. That was also a really good experience.
So between working on a wire and then working at Lucky I sort of pieced together how to produce a shoot. At Lucky I also assisted with shoots. I did location scouting or if we were shooting in a city where we didn’t have a big roster I would research some photographers there. I started to figure out how shoot production works. That was the part of the business that I was excited about because it was so much more creative. I mean I love research too. I love both, I really do. But I was excited to get into production more. Then The Cut gave me a good opportunity to do both.
Two years ago you were re-defining the visual identity of The Cut and as of last year you’re also producing for print. How has The Cut’s aesthetic changed over time?
I like to think it’s been pretty consistent, since I’ve been there anyway. I think we’ve become a little bit more commercially aware. I have to think about how things will look in print. If something has potential to run in print, I have to make sure it digestible for the magazine’s readership as well as for our online audience. I like to think of The Cut as a multi-platform entity that is consistent across all platforms. I try to align myself with the magazine’s taste a little bit more then the Internet’s taste.
Obviously there are certain things that are going to work better on Instagram versus a website versus print. Sometimes it’s thinking about the physical logistics of the space. What’s going to look good printed on a page is not going to look the same on a tiny two-inch by two-inch screen and a significant portion of our web traffic is mobile. I choose things that are less subtle for the website, things that are really bright and really graphic, and very saturated. Whereas, with the magazine you have more leeway for visual subtly.
Sometimes I know what’s going to go in the magazine, and sometimes I don’t. I approach things that have the potential to run in the magazine keeping that in mind. I know for example that the magazine readers prefer things shot in color. If I’m excited to work with an artist that works in black and white then maybe I don’t give them an assignment that I think would run in the magazine. I try to align myself with the magazine’s taste then the internet’s taste. I don’t know how to explain it other than a gut thing.
Credits: Photographer – JUCO. Prints on Prints: Fall’s Most Vibrant, Decadent Patterns. New York Magazine’s The Cut, July 2014.
What’s the balance between the different work you do at The Cut?
It varies. I really feel like the production stuff happens in waves. I feel like I’ll be in the office for three weeks, then all of a sudden I’ll have 5 shoots in the course of one week back to back. It’s kind of hard to predict.
The fashion cycle is obviously very uneven. In September and February I’m in my office for 80-hour weeks working almost every weekend. But, January is very quiet and December is very quiet. Well, January is quiet until award season (laughs).
I feel like it’s hard to know. What’s great about working in digital media is that we have such a great opportunity to be responsive. You can go with your gut feeling. When the feeling in the office is like, “We just need more original content right now” – we just go crank it out.
I would say I generally do about 8-10 assignments a month. They’re not all in studio. They’re not all in NY. But whenever they are, I’m there (laughs).
I spend a lot of time on the phone with photographers more than I do standing over their shoulder because I hire people I trust. I think most photographers do better when you let them do their thing. The art is really in hiring the appropriate person for each job. If it’s something with bigger production value and there are a lot of moving pieces, then of course I’m going to be on set. You know when I’m juggling multiple models, a studio, a photographer, assistants, hair and makeup, a manicurist, and a set designer, a stylist and a stylist assistant, you know when all these tiny things are coming together – yes, I’m there to make sure the trains are running on time. And I do look at the pictures and make sure they’re on the right track. But, I feel like photographers perform better when you are not breathing down their neck most the time. Sometimes people need hand holding and you know, I’m happy to do that. And I love being on set, I love the energy of a set, but I try to stay out of the way.
That was honestly the best lesson I learned at Spin. It was the first photo shoot with Guy Aroch. They were shooting a band I really liked so it was like really hard to keep my cool. All the interns and stylists and assistants were all just standing there, staring at the band and hovering over Guy. Michelle, the Photo Director, came over and talked to us and let us know we needed to back off.
I realized the Photo Editor and Photo Director were sitting on this couch off the site, not even looking. When Guy had a good moment he would say, “Ok come check the screen.”
When you’re photographing a person, you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable like they’re in a zoo. I think that’s half of what makes a good portrait photographer, a good portrait photographer, if they are able to draw something out of a person by speaking with them. You don’t want to interrupt that. When I’m on set for something like a still life I’m way more involved. I’m totally a helicopter. If we’re shooting still life I’ll step in and say things like I don’t like this highlight, let’s tilt this ten degrees.
If it’s a person I keep my distance, if it’s a product I’m a helicopter.
To clarify the common misconception that Photo Editors are solely retouching photographs how would you describe your role?
The way I explain it to people who don’t know anything about editorial, is the Photo Editor is to the photography content as the Editor is to the written content.
Basically it’s overseeing the visual direction and standards. It’s obtaining and licensing third party art and illustrating stories appropriately with existing content but also creating original content and producing shoots.
Credits: Photographer – Maciek Jasik. New York Magazine, February 24, 2014.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I just love working with photographers. I really do. I’m not a good photographer, I’m really not, but I still love making photographs and this is my way to do that. I feel like I have a vision and I get to help people realize their potential.
I get to work with some of the most talented photographers in the world. I’m fortunate to work with people like Alex Majoli , Stefano De Luigi, heavy hitters – Tim Barber but you know I also get to nurture really young talent.
I get to take risks, which is one thing I love about working in digital media. First of all NY Magazine respects photography more than any publication I’ve ever encountered in America. They really believe in the power of a photograph and respect Photo Editors in a way that I don’t think you see in most publications. So it’s a great place to work.
I get to say, I love this photographer and I believe in their work, I know they’re only 22 and still in college but trust me (laughs). And they let me do it. They let me do crazy things, they let me shoot with Synchrodogs in the Ukraine and ship thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing there. I get to do these crazy projects. I just got to do a shoot with Asger Carlsen. Sometimes I feel like this magical art fairy who gives people their wishes.
We do this series called Out of the Box – the premise is basically we give a photographer a budget and a rack of clothes and kind of say “Go to town.” The fashion and market team pick the clothes and obviously I weigh in a little, and say, this photographer works really well with this color palette or I think this person would really benefit from highly structured pieces, or this person photographs textures really well, so let’s get a lot of textured fabrics in. So they go to make their fashion magic happen, and we send them a bunch of clothes and accessories.
We always tell the photographers you can do whatever you want but we’re here to help you if you want some direction, or if you want me to help you book a studio and a model. It’s so collaborative and exciting.
Actually, you know what? I changed my mind! My favorite part of my job is when I get to download the pictures. When I produce something and I’m the first person to look at them. I’m usually one of the first people in the office, especially during fashion week – I go to the office and download these pictures from these incredibly, incredibly talented photographers that nobody has seen yet in the whole world, and I get to edit them down to something that makes sense as a narrative. I mean that just feels like Christmas – well I’m Jewish, but I imagine it’s like Christmas morning.
I’m really excited with the Lean In collection and I do think that it’s really exciting that people are thinking more critically about representations of women and various minorities and other identifiers in visual culture, but I think there is such a long way to go with representations of race.
If you search for a person in one of the bigger creative stock agencies, about 9 out of 10 results will be a white person. As a Photo Editor it’s really challenging to represent other ethnicities due to the lack of diversity in stock photography.
It’s really a systemic problem. I really applaud Getty and how they have taken on the ways women are represented in visual culture but, I think somebody really needs to do that more with people of color because it’s just embarrassing.
Once in awhile, I get a comment on the blog about the lack of diversity in our images. I’m really glad people are more aware of what they are consuming and that they’re questioning it, and I love that the Internet gives people the opportunity to voice those questions. I understand this is hard to talk about it but if you don’t talk about it nothing is going to change.
I’m glad people are angry about it. I’m angry about it. I want more options as a photo editor.
How do you see the current state of visual culture?
I think the way people communicate is becoming so much more visual. You look at the younger generation like kids who are teens to early twenties now. They are all shooting for Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. It’s increasing visual literacy and I think it’s increasing visual communication, which is really exciting for photo people. People are definitely becoming more aware of the visuals in communication and more aware that our culture is becoming so much more visual.
I think that’s exciting. People are becoming smarter with their vernacular photography. I think the line between vernacular photography and fine art photography is becoming very blurry. It’s always been blurry for me, but you know I studied with Luc Sante and I totally believe everything he has to say. I’ve always been really fascinated in the artfulness of a vernacular photograph.
But I think now people are so much more visually literate and taking so much more time in making beautiful photographs because they are sharing that content so much. So I’m excited to see how that pans out. I think the role of the Photo Editor is becoming more important. Sometimes I think 20 years from now my job is just going to be editing an Instagram-like feed for a news publication. I think that’s where it’s going. It’s just going to be pictures.
I also think, on the other hand maybe because everyone is more visually literate it will just be expected that it’s falling in the lap of the reporter to handle their own visuals. And because photography is expected to be so immediate, speed is going to matter more than quality. But, I think that already happened and I think there has already been a backlash.
I think that was the fear. Everybody was like “Oh my god you know photo editing is dying and reporters are going to be taking their own pictures and this doesn’t matter anymore – because now! now! now! Instagram, Twitter!” I think that immediacy thing happened and I think people started to regret it and now you see a lot more curated produced images for the Internet. I really do believe that now, more than ever, the Photo Editor is in a really important position because the next generation of consumers wants to see really high quality photos.
What are some recent trends you’ve noticed?
There are a few different permutations of trends happening right now. I’ve seen things that look really clean that embrace the flatness of an object. I also think there’s a 90’s nostalgia moment happening across the board. It’s happening in fashion for sure (laughs) and in music and so I think that’s happening in photography. I feel like I see a lot of things that look like Juergen Teller and Jason Nocito and have sort of like a gritty point and shoot camera kind of look to them.
I’ve also seen a lot of collage work, like a lot of collage work, and I think that is sort of like a hankering for something that’s really physical. I think people really want something that’s tangible so that there’s an artfulness to it, there’s a sense of someone putting something together that you don’t necessarily get in a picture.
There are artists who are embroidering photographs. I think people miss the physicality of the art object…which is why I think it’s interesting to sell Instagram prints (laughs). I also really think the square format is just going to blow up – and I’ve been saying this for years – I think its happening now, it’s blowing up.
I remember when I was in art school there was one girl in my class that was trying to shoot square and I remember all of my professors saying to her don’t shoot square – it’s the hardest format to shoot. You don’t naturally see that way – nobody naturally sees it that way. You’ll never succeed. Nobody does it. There’s a reason nobody does it.
I feel like because not only Instagram, but the way technology has developed so that we have screens that rotate – square is just sort of better for flexibility in formatting. You know, it’s easier to crop something that’s square to a horizontal or a vertical, whereas going from a vertical to horizontal is a lot harder. Because of Instagram and because of everyone looking at their phones I just think people are learning to see in square more. I know that I personally have become more comfortable shooting in a square and seeing in a square then I was 10 years ago. I think the next generation of fine art photographers is going to be all square (laughs).
There’s just so much happening. It’s such an exciting time. I think a lot of people are sitting around and mourning film still. But this is a really exciting moment for photography. It’s become more important than it has been in many years. Everybody is talking about it. Everybody is participating in it. It’s kind of like when your favorite indie band gets really successful and everyone’s like well they aren’t good anymore. It’s like well they’re different now but you should just be glad that everybody’s figured it out.
Now that you’ve had a different relationship with photography do you ever think about picking up a camera and diving into that world as a photographer?
Within the last year or two I’ve sort of fantasized about picking up a camera again and I always flirt with the idea and then I’m like – Oh my god no! I can’t do it.
Recently, I’ve been so active on Instagram, and it’s brought the pleasure of taking pictures and sharing pictures back into my life. And framing back into my life, I love to frame the world. It’s brought me a lot of joy. I think it’s brought a lot of people joy – my mom, my mom likes my pictures.
Honestly, my fantasy for retirement is to go get my MFA at Yale. I don’t want to do it until it’s just something I do for fun. I’ve thought about it, but I think I’m too scared to do it anytime soon. Maybe, maybe one day. But I think about it. I flirt with the idea.
Emily is selling her Instagram prints here – check it out and enjoy a special 10% discount for quint magazine readers! Just use the code: quint
The photographs in the gallery below are a selection of the prints available for sale.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAMAR ALKHUDHAIRI
GALLERY AND THE CUT PHOTOS FROM EMILY SHORNICK