10 minutes with a photo editor – Brenda Milis

Interviews with Photo Editors November 26, 2012 7:45 am

What started your interest in photography and what led you to photo editing?

In High School I enrolled in an Art History class because my older sister had taken it and loved it and I constantly copied her, emulating her choices. I fell instantly in love with Art History and entered college at UCBerkeley as a declared Art History major. As the years passed, I found myself more and more drawn to photography, slowly straying from my original love of painting. When I moved to New York for grad school, a friend of mine had just gotten an intership at a magazine and I found myself deeply envious. I had longstanding passion for magazines, so I went out and got myself an intership, too: Landed at Jane magazine in the photo department and loved it from day one. I realized that this is how I’d like to make a living with my love for and knowledge of photography I’ve been at magazines ever since!

What are some of the best, and hardest, aspects of your job.

Because I love photography so much, I feel absolutely privileged to be able to make a living by looking at, working with, and thinking about photographs and photographers every day. Most photo editors are truly passionate about photography, so in general, I tend to work with people who feel as strongly about images as I do, which is fantastic! I am 100% a picture person. To be able to think about an article, its story arc, its overall essence, theme, and concept and then decide what kind of images and imagery would do the best job of conveying those elements is exciting and fascinating. Then I get to approach photographers whose work I truly respect and am often a huge fan of. The creative aspects of my job are wonderful.

As for the hardest parts of the job, I’d say those would be (a) working out the timing of photo shoot production and (b) the fact that everyone seems to have a strong and confident opinion about photography, even when they are not in the photo and art department.

(a) Photo production is a many-headed beast! Trying to coordinate the photo subject’s schedule (usually via a publicist or PR person who can be very controlling) to link up to the photographer’s availability, the shoot location’s availability, in addition to the other members of the photo crew —wardrobe stylist and/or prop stylist, etc, etc to meet your publication’s production schedule can be tricky, ever-changing and quite maddening. A lot of headaches and stomachaches result from photo production for me and every photo editor I know, some very sleepless nights as well!

(b) When producing photo shoots, I very much have to keep in mind not only what kind of imagery I would like to see produced for the particular story, but what the Creative Director and editors would like to see as well. That doesn’t sound like much but it can be very complicated. Staying true to one’s vision, true to the brand, and predicting many staff members reactions and criticisms is a tricky business. And while I would never dream of telling a writer or editor that I think they should change something about the article they are writing (can you imagine?!?), virtually the entire staff at a magazine seem to feel extremely comfortable criticizing any and all images they see in layout. We live in a visual culture and so everyone does, in fact, feel themselves to be expert in communicating and deconstructing visuals, no matter what position they may or may not occupy on the masthead. I definitely get it and accept it as par for the course in my job, it’s just a tricky part of my position!

You get tons of printed promos, emails and phone calls: what is the best way for a photographer to reach out to you and what are some common mistakes that are made.

This is a pretty easy question to answer: REACH OUT REACH OUT REACH OUT and keep in mind
1. Please don’t call me on the phone. It’s a bit awkward to get cold calls when I don’t know you and haven’t seen your work. If you do call, I’ll just ask you to email me a link to your website.
2. Please send me a personal email with a link to your website (vs auto-generated).
3. If I like your work (and I may even absolutely love it and the photo department may gather around each other’s computer screens and and aaaah looking at your pictures because we love photography), I will let you know.
4. I may love your work but it might not be right for the magazine I am currently working at. But who knows where I might be working in the future? Your work may be right for that publication/brand and if I like your work, I’ll let my colleagues at other publications know about you and recommend your work to them.
5. A lot of times, I may like a photographer’s work and yet it’s clear that they aren’t ready to shoot yet but headed in the right direction—so those are the photographers I watch over time and after a while, we usually work together. 

When you get a shoot in, what is your editing process? Do you go by your reaction to an image or is your edit based on the text or what your editor has asked for?

I think it very much depends on the specific shoot and the article it’s anchored to. Also depends on which publication I’m working for. Some CD/DD’s want to see virtually every image, some are more comfortable with a tighter edit.

Photo editors never, to my knowledge, get final say in which specific images run, by the way. I think it’s important for photographers to know this. We have a voice, often a strong one, but the Editor-in Chief and CD/DD really have final say. That can be a bit heartbreaking sometimes, if you have your heart set on an image/images that you love and believe in. Hard not to get attached and being flexible and learning to let go of control once you have clearly stated your reasons for wanting that image/images to run is extremely important to preserve your own sanity and staff relations as well!


Photograph by Ayla Christman

Brenda Milis began working with photography as an art historian, receiving her B.A. at UC Berkeley and studying photo history on fellowship in the graduate division of Northwestern University. Falling in love with photo editing while interning at Jane magazine, Brenda went on to launch Style.com and has since worked for Outside magazine, Men’s Health, Marie Claire and Time. She is currently the Director of Photography at Bloomberg Markets magazine.

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