10 minutes with Alison Unterreiner

Interviews with Photo Editors May 23, 2014 10:02 am

When did you first become interested in photography?

I first became interested in photography when I was pretty young. I must have been about 13 or 14 and I stumbled upon a book my mom had by Robert Mapplethorpe that was full of flowers and nudes, but the images that really caught my eye were his self portraits, particularly the photo where he’s sticking the whip up his butt.
I was suddenly exposed to this whole other world of sexuality and love and relationships that I’d never seen before. I sussed out pretty quickly that Patti Smith was someone important to him. I had no idea then about who she was or what their relationship was. Remember this was before the internet, so I couldn’t go looking this stuff up. All I had was that book and whatever I could find at the local library, which wasn’t much. I was scared to tell my mom I saw the book because of what was in it, so I never even asked her.
But after that moment, I was hooked. I saw in that medium the ability to expose yourself in order to understand yourself. I saw how gritty photography could be, how raw. I saw how clean it could be too. I saw that you could be a voyeur into other worlds. You could freeze time, capture an emotion, a feeling, you could frame things the way YOU saw them, not the way everyone else did. It was a faster way to explore the world around you and to try and use art to understand it.

Mapplethorpe – what an introduction into photography! What led you to becoming a photo editor?

I guess you could say I am an unintentional photo editor. I studied photography, but had no idea what I’d do with my degree once I graduated. I had received a fine arts degree and so there wasn’t too much career advice I was given when I left because the thinking was that you would end up with an art career. I knew early on that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so when I came back home to the city, I just started interviewing everywhere I could that had any sort of artistic bend.
I ended up landing a job at a big publishing company in their photo studio (Fairchild Publications which printed W, Details and Jane back in the day). Though I wasn’t working at one, that was where I got my first exposure to how magazines run, which really cemented it for me.
I wanted very badly to be at one of the big glossy publications after that. I loved everything about magazines and publishing – that it was creative and always evolving. I loved the passion people had for it. I loved that there was a job that put you in touch with interesting people and gave you access to interesting places. I fell in love with the idea of making beautiful pictures that everyone would see.
So getting into the photo department at a magazine became my goal.
In order to gain the experience necessary – since I wasn’t getting it at my current position in the photo studio – a friend of mine and I started a little music zine. I did the photo production and design and he did the editing. I used that as my portfolio and it was what got me my first job as a photo/art assistant.

I love that you created a job for yourself to get the job that you wanted. Is being a photo editor what you thought it would be?

I don’t know that I can exactly remember what I thought it would be, if you can believe that!
I guess I had some vague ideas about what it would be like and I figured it would be really exciting to be a part of a big team working towards a common goal that we all felt really strongly about in the creative field. So in that regard it’s definitely lived up to my expectations.
What I couldn’t possibly know then that I know now, is the satisfaction you get working with photographers whom you admire. The joy you experience discovering a new talent and working with them before anyone else has and helping to guide them in their work. How exciting it can be, not necessarily meeting a celebrity, but rather meeting regular everyday people who do work that you hold in high regard – such as working towards curing cancer (a story I worked on involving Stephanie Lee and scientist Eric Schadt was just that…) – and having a conversation with that person about how they became interested in that work and what exactly it all means.
Those are the things that I enjoy most about my job and none of them could be anything I would have had any idea about prior to my working as a photo editor.

Whats the hardest part of your job?

I haven’t been at my current job long enough to know exactly what the most difficult part of my job is just yet. However, I imagine finding smart, subtle and interesting ways to portray the same concept each month – golf – will present it’s own set of challenges once I get further along.
In the past, I would say that the most difficult part of any photo editors job is trying to convince a subject to do something if they aren’t really into the concept. Sometimes I’d come to a shoot armed with a specific idea that the magazine had in mind and when it’s explained to the subject, they either don’t understand or aren’t really feeling it and they just don’t want to get on board with the picture. The most important thing, really, is the comfort of the subject, because without that trust established, the photos can flounder quickly. So the photographer and I really just try to make sure the subject knows that we understand where they’re coming from and work towards finding a solution that everyone will be happy with.

How do you find new photographers to work with? Do you look at every mailed and emailed promo that you get? Do you take cold calls, or even like them? Is there anything that a photographer can do to stand out?

I find new photographers any way I can. By reading photo credits religiously in other magazines, by attending portfolio reviews, by looking at mailers and clicking through on pretty much every email link that people send me, by looking at PDN 30, and by looking at Instagram and tumblr and following photographers that I like who are usually friends with other photographers that I like which leads me down this rabbit hole of names…
So that’s how I find new talent!
As for cold calls, I do not particularly like them. The main reason being, I’d prefer to see work ahead of making a meeting with someone to ensure their aesthetic is in line with the magazine.
The main thing I think a photographer can do to stand out, is really just be themselves and stay true to their personal work and vision. That means shooting and editing for yourself and what you like, as opposed to what you think people want to see. When marketing, they should try and understand which magazines would work for their look and target those magazines. Last but not least, handwritten and personalized ALWAYS makes an impression.

Any words of wisdom for the up-and-coming photo editors – or photographers?

My best advice for any aspiring photo editors is to learn as many different skills as possible. At this time, the most marketable PE’s are ones that can research, produce shoots, think in terms of extra content for web/iPad, produce/work with video, perhaps even do a little design. Our roles as photo editors have expanded beyond just research and assigning with the emergence of the web and then the iPad. We now have to think big picture in terms of a branding, so the more skills you have to facilitate this, the better off you’ll be, it seems.
The same goes for photographers. I feel like the photographers that are able to jump right into the fray and produce well rounded projects, with print and video and extra interviews/images, are the ones that stand out the most now.

Photo by Stephanie Tricola

Photo by Stephanie Tricola

Alison is currently the freelance photo editor at Golf Digest Magazine. Before that she was at Esquire Magazine, Popular Mechanics and Men’s Journal. She originally hails from Brooklyn, NY and thinks L&B Spumoni Gardens makes the best pizza.

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