10 minutes with Melanie Skrzek

Interviews with Photo Editors January 28, 2013 8:30 am

When did you first become interested in photography?

Well, when I was around 8 or 9 years old in the late ’60s, I became obsessed with Vogue and later Harper’s Bazaar. At the time I thought I might be either a fashion editor or designer.  And I pretty much soaked up each issue like a ravenous sponge.  This meant reading gutter credits to find out who the photographers were for every shoot, as well as all of the models, make-up, hair stylists, etc..  I was especially enamored with Avedon, Penn and Helmut Newton among others. And as we subscribed to more magazines in our household, I did the same with the other women’s magazines that came in.  I actually used to wait by the mailbox so I could get the latest issue and read them about 10 times before I even let me mother know they arrived.

In 1981, I worked as an assistant to Anna Wintour at New York Magazine (pre-Vogue) so all of that became quite useful.  And that was also when I realized I didn’t really fit into the fashion world.  There was a real rift between what I thought it would be and what was really required. So I occasionally worked fashion related jobs for a while but then veered to working in clubs and restaurants while I was figuring out what I might want to do next. 

Skip to 1993 when I was offered a fashion assistant job at Vibe Magazine by my friend Michaela Angela Davis.  Because they had a small budget, I would also have to work in the Photo Dept. under George Pitts.  Shortly thereafter when she left, I moved away from the Fashion Dept. and just worked in Photo. And almost 20 years later, here I am having worked now at 33 magazines and counting.  Being a magazine junkie was what fed my entry into photo editing.

I love that something you were interested in as a little girl shaped your career in such a strong way. With the experience you have working at over 33 magazines, I’m sure you have witnessed first-hand many of the changes in the industry, from the exciting and deadline-driven digital side to the budget and staff cuts. Do you have any ideas on what the future of the magazine world might look like?
So many companies have still not found a way to reconcile the money they once made from print ads with what they now get with web ads so its hard to say what will transpire until they do. Not that print is going anywhere soon. Many of us still prefer the feel of the book in our hands and I suspect that will continue. But you only have to ride the subway to see how many people are reading magazines versus tablets, etc..

I just feel for all of those staffs that have been cut in half and are still expected to produce the same quality of content. Its my job to step in when they need the extra help that once was a given (insert big sigh here).

Having worked at so many different publications and seeing work that spans all genres, what are the common mistakes that you see photographers make, either on their websites, in their promos or when pitching their work in person?

Re: photogs, I feel for them too as there aren’t the same number of jobs out there for them to survive on Editorial work alone, unless they happen to be the current fave of the art & photo dept. And that can turn on a dime when new staff comes in (or a re-design) and looks to change their image. Which usually means even a great photographer will be dropped just for their identification with the former look. I would say that I would recommend the following: Keep their websites & portfolios up to date. If I saw your site or book a year or two ago and you have not updated your work, I question what it is you are doing now and what you are up for. Be careful not to send too many promos. I see editors get annoyed and choose someone else; it can smack of the smell of desperation.

Lastly, there are a few editors who stay with their tried and true and won’t try out new talent, maybe fearing a bad shoot which can happen. Or they may just be overextended (see last answer) and don’t have the time to research new talent. But that doesn’t mean you should give up putting your work out there. I personally have always tried to hire new people as often as possible to keep it fresh and spread the wealth (of money AND exposure).

When you are working in photo research and need to find an image for a story, where are some of the first places that you look?

Depends on the subject. If time and money are of the essence, I might just stay with the bigger agencies: Getty, Corbis, Newscom, etc. If I have time and the budget is not prohibitive, then I can search for better portraiture or news shots at other agencies (Art + Commerce, Trunk, Redux, Outline, Contour, Magnum, etc.) or directly through photographers that shoot that material. I sometimes have to use google to lead me to more obscure sources. Every now and then the image is not available or doesn’t even exist. You’d be surprised at how many times editors remember seeing an image that was never shot. The best part of research is discovering a new source for the types of shots that are hard to find and securing images you think you’d never get permission for. The hired gun hits a bull-eye.

I’m always interested in what people do when they’re not working. Do you have any time to pursue other hobbies or interests?

When I’m not watching sci-fi and anime with my boyfriend (two nerds in a pod), I love to garden and cook with the harvest. I also starting volunteering at a local farmer’s market; it’s helped me plug into a place new to me. I moved out of the city a few years back to Shelter Island since I craved the nature I couldn’t get in NYC, where I’d lived all my life and couldn’t see wild rabbits, deer and hummingbirds out my window. Which is why I tend toward either part-time or short term gigs now.

Someday I will have my own modern (aka not too hippy-dippy) homestead raising crops and animals. I’d love to build a home that’s off the grid but still totally wired; a hybrid shack/spaceship/earthship. That’s the dream.


Melanie Skrzek

Self portrait by Melanie Skrzek

Melanie's garden in Shelter Island

Melanie’s garden in Shelter Island

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