Spend 20 minutes with

Joanna Milter

& Mo Mfinanga

 
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  • Published on May 4, 2019
  • Photograph by Kathy Ryan
 
 

Joanna Milter is the Director of Photography of The New Yorker. From the moment she stepped into that role in 2015, she has been publishing photography that is memorable, provocative, and often show-stopping. The portraits she commissions are consistently defined by their originality, emotional resonance, and elegance. Philip Montgomery's heartbreaking photo essay on the opioid crisis in Ohio that Joanna assigned and edited in 2017 is the seminal photographic documentation of this epidemic.

On the cultural front, in 2018, she published one of the best Hollywood features of the year—the delightfully vibrant portfolio by Awol Erizku of Ruth E. Carter's historic costumes. Joanna's passionate love of pictures and keen sense of what makes a good story always lead to something special. I was fortunate enough to witness her creative vision and fierce work ethic close-up during the eleven years we worked together at The New York Times Magazine. Now I eagerly await the arrival of The New Yorker every Monday, so I can be inspired by her work from afar.

Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography at The New York Times Magazine

 
 

Mo: I'd love to start by talking about your formative years. Where were you born?

Joanna: I'm from Cleveland Ohio, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers—2016 NBA champions. [both laughing] I'm obsessed with basketball so that's a thing in my life. Photo editing is actually my second career. I went to Northwestern in Chicago for college and then moved out to Los Angeles to work in the movie business. I'd like to say that I had a mediocre career in that business. Usually, I worked for producers who had studio deals and I worked in script development. During my time working in Hollywood, I read hundreds of scripts for producers and studios, looking for projects that could be turned into movies. If we found something we liked, we would put it into development, and work with the screenwriter to revise the script, with the hope of getting a movie made.

Joanna: I love movies more than anything, but the movie business on the other hand [laughing]—it’s very slow. This was during the 90s, when there was more money in the business to make these so-called development deals. There was this little ecosystem within the movie business with development people, like myself, looking for projects. Most movie projects in development don't get made. And most screenplays don't get optioned. So you can work on a script for years and years and it often doesn’t become a movie, or it can take years to get made. For example, I worked for a producer named Bobby Newmyer, and we developed the screenplay for Training Day. It was a great experience, especially with the screenwriter David Ayer, who was then a fledgling writer—he later became a director. By the time Training Day became a movie, I was long gone from that job; I wasn't in the movie business anymore. I was working in magazines. Movies can take five, eight, ten years to happen, and I'm impatient. [laughing]

 
You’re asking yourself: Is there something here that’s unexpected?
— Joanna Milter
 
Awol Erizku for  The New Yorker ,  Ruth. E. Carter’s Threads of History , 2018

Awol Erizku for The New Yorker, Ruth. E. Carter’s Threads of History, 2018

 
Photo Editing
 

Mo: What encouraged you to get into photo editing?

Joanna: My last job in movies was in Australia, where I worked for Fox Studios for two years. I came back to New York and I was trying to figure out what to do next. A magazine writer that I knew, who covers the movie business, she thought I would enjoy working in magazines. She helped me arrange informational interviews with editors. I knew very little about journalism and had never worked in magazines before. By the time I left the movie business, I was an executive and I was at a certain level professionally, but I was completely willing to start over. Terry McDonell, who was then the editor-in-chief of Us Weekly, offered me a job as an assistant editor—an entry level position. I'm very grateful to Terry because I was, at that point, not like the other assistant editors. They were much younger than I was! [laughing] I was so happy to be there. I wasn't on the photo side, but I learned about how a weekly magazine is put together: the reporting, writing, editing, art, and production process. It was like a crash-course graduate school.

Joanna: Then I freelanced for a while as an editor and researcher, and I took any magazine project I could. One day, I got home to my studio apartment in Boerum Hill and there was a message on my answering machine. Mo, this is back when people had answering machines. [both laughing] The light was blinking and there was this woman's voice on the machine—a very lovely voice. She said, "Hello, Joanna. This is Kathy Ryan from The New York Times Magazine." She was reaching out to ask me to do research and production for a photo project.

Mo: Did you know about Kathy before she contacted you?

Joanna: I did. I mean, Kathy is a legendary person, but I’d never met her. So I researched and produced a photo essay about thoroughbred racehorses for her. It was my first time working on the photo side of magazines. I worked with Eugene Richards, an incredible documentary photographer. I was already in love with magazine work and the pace, so that project—being on the visual side of things—brought everything together for me. Doing the background research on racehorses was something I found fascinating because I was learning about a subject that was new to me. And producing the project reminded me of the movie business—the wrangling, the logistics, working with a creative and thoughtful person like Gene. Eventually, I became a full-time freelancer for The Times Magazine, and then I went on staff, and then I became the deputy photo editor. I was there for eleven years.

Mo: What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started there?

Joanna: Good question. It's a legendary photo department—Kathy is a visionary. She's my mentor, so that's how I feel about her. And the standards are very high, but it’s a weekly magazine so the pace is very rapid. You have to work quickly, but well. I loved the challenge of it, though. It's anxiety-producing, but I think my personality thrives on anxiety in some way. It was a wonderful experience.

Mo: Do you think working through that anxiousness kind of correlates to not being patient? I was recently telling a friend that I can't stand silence. Things always need to be active, including myself.

Joanna: Yes! Even in the moments of stress, when all I want to do is go home and watch a basketball game, I think I thrive on the activity. And sometimes it's hard for me to articulate the way I feel. I'm not a writer so I have a hard time speaking eloquently about photography, to be completely honest. I react in a very visceral way to images. At Northwestern, I didn't major in art history; I didn't major in journalism. So sometimes, I feel that I don’t have the words to explain why I like one image over another, which perhaps might be a deficit for a photo director. [both laughing].

Mo: It's interesting that you went from an industry that involves a very narrative driven medium to another industry that is also story driven.

Joanna: Narrative is very important. Working in script development, we would talk about: Where's the drama? What is the main character feeling? What's the action that actually shows this moment? We don't want the character to just sit there and explain the way they feel. When I’m looking for photo projects and good images, I still think about those questions. You're asking yourself: Is there something here that's unexpected? Is this an image that draws you in emotionally?

 
Faces of an Epidemic

Philip Montgomery photographs the opioid crisis that permeates everyday life in Montgomery County, Ohio.

View the story here

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Narratives
 
 

Mo: Do you feel like the narrative is the most important thing you focus on?

Joanna: The New Yorker is a writer-driven magazine. We have wonderful writers. It's a privilege to be able to commission and edit photos for this magazine that started in 1925. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the images are going to work with the words. Online, we can run more images and have more visual work, but in print, sometimes we only have one image, so we ask ourselves, what is the one image that will pull readers into the story? And some of our stories are very long, so what is the image that's going to intrigue people? What is the image that's going to work with or play against the headline and subhead? Sometimes, you don’t want to be too literal—is it possible to give a hint of a story’s content, and retain some mystery? These are all things we think about.

Mo: Before we delve into your work at The New Yorker, I want to paint a clear timeline before you started. What was that transition from The Times like?

Joanna: So I was at The Times Magazine for eleven years and I spent the last four as Kathy's deputy. Honestly, it's an amazing place to work, so you think long and hard before you make a move to leave. But this opportunity came up to be the photo director at The New Yorker. I've been a lifelong reader of the magazine. My parents subscribed to it so it's been a part of my entire life. I interviewed for it, and got the job and I was terrified! [laughing] I started in spring of 2015 so it's been four years.

Joanna: At the Times Magazine, I spent a lot of time working on cover shoots, having meetings to come up with a cover concepts, and then assigning and producing cover shoots. It's a huge part of the job, but we don't have photo covers here. We have illustrated covers, and yet I find we’re still extremely busy! [both laughing] For the print magazine, we try to commission as much photography as we can. We publish the print magazine 47 times a year, which is a lot. And we're always trying to come up with ideas for photo essays for the print.

Joanna: On our website, we publish 15 or so web-only stories a day. Many of those involve pulling existing photos from wire agencies, but in the last couple of years, we've been doing a quite a few web-only photo commissions, especially for our political pieces.

 
 
Carlota Guerrero for  The New Yorker ,  A Battle for My Life , 2019

Carlota Guerrero for The New Yorker, A Battle for My Life, 2019

 
 


Joanna: Photo Booth is our photo blog that we publish two or three times a week on our website. Every member of the photo team pitches projects for Photo Booth. We work with a story editor for Photo Booth, she decides who will write the text, and then each post goes through a full editing, copy editing, fact-checking, photo editing and layout process.

Mo: It's fascinating to see how you guys harmonize your visual and textual language. To be completely honest, I came across The New Yorker later on in life but have always been drawn to its timelessness, especially now with the digital transition magazines have faced the past two decades. The oldest magazine I'm familiar with is WIRED and seeing everyone's progression has been fruitful as a reader.

Joanna: We've used the same typeface, called Irvin, for decades. And it has this timeless elegance to it. So for example, if you read WIRED or The New York Times Magazine, they do incredibly innovative work every single issue with their layouts and they have all these different typefaces and ways of laying out photos that interact with type and illustrations. And we don't do that. We have templates. Sometimes it can feel constraining, but I have to say that a single photo into our layout template can have an incredible impact.

 
It is amazing to me how much visual variety our layout templates can stand.
— Joanna Milter
 
Roger Ballen for  The New Yorker ,  Chaunt , 2018

Roger Ballen for The New Yorker, Chaunt, 2018

 
 
 
Pari Dukovic for  The New Yorker , 2017

Pari Dukovic for The New Yorker, 2017

 
 
 
LaToya Ruby for  The New Yorker ,  Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System , 2018

LaToya Ruby for The New Yorker, Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System, 2018

 
 


Mo: What’s a pleasant surprise in your role as a photo director at The New Yorker?

Joanna: There are fewer opportunities for photography in this magazine because there are no photo covers, but it seems like photographers really want to shoot for us, which I guess I shouldn't be surprised about! [both laughing]. That's been great.

Joanna: Even though our page layouts haven't changed much since the magazine’s early years, it is amazing to me how much visual variety our layout templates can stand. We're able to assign lots of different kinds of photographs; the photos should be a visual indicator of the variety of topics covered in the magazine. There's serious journalism, there's humor, there's culture pieces and reviews, and there's fiction. One challenge: We have so many portraits! Can we look at a story, and figure out a way to assign a photo that isn't a portrait?

Mo: In 2019, what do you feel like one of the biggest responsibilities you have as a photo director?

Joanna: That's a good question. I have to think about that for a moment because there are so many. It's about broadening the tent and bringing in more new and up-and-coming photographers. That's one of the things I learned from Kathy. She's never resting on her laurels; she's always searching for new photography and new ways of looking at the world. And I think that's something that I try to remind myself that we need to do all the time. I think that's really important right now.

Joanna: Another is trying to figure out how to tell stories in a visual way. That's not necessarily a new thing for 2019, but there's a way that images can have an impact, even in a writer-driven magazine.

 
 
Concerns
 
 

Mo: Is there anything that concerns you heavily in editorial photography?

Joanna: I think it's harder and harder for photographers to make a living. It's something as photo editors we have to keep in mind. It's just tough. There were earlier periods when photographers could make a decent living in editorial photography. And those days are gone. On the one hand, there are so many images on social platforms and websites, which is really exciting, but on the other hand, because images and image-making is so accessible, it makes it harder for photographers financially. It's something I hear from photographer friends and photo editors. What do you think about that?

Mo: In my very limited experience, I share the same sentiment that money is harder for photographers to come by now. What I've been trying to figure out, amongst contemporaries and friends is, What's the catalyst behind this climate? Unfortunately the infrastructure of companies and magazines make the payment process for freelancers strenuous, especially when the budgets are smaller yet the demands are the same, if not, higher. But editorial work can provide more creative freedom to a freelancer and accessibility to higher figures than other avenues, generally speaking. Editorial photography isn't going away, at least to my knowledge. People still want to shoot for The New Yorker. People still want to shoot for The Times. But at what capacity can we sustain within the changing, decentralized climate of photography? We're all trying to figure this out. The burning question for most is, What's the next step?

Joanna: I honestly I wish I had the answer, but I don't, Mo. Every major city in the country—and most smaller cities—had a daily paper with staff photographers and now that's no longer the case. There's less editorial work, frankly. On the other hand, now the barrier to entry is lower—because of the rise of digital photography and the internet. So young photographers can make and publish projects on their own platforms, and photo editors can find them that way, so that's extremely exciting.

Mo: I remember talking with Chris Maggio—a brilliant photographer—about how photography is such a young medium. I mean, compare its lifespan to paintings and it seems like an infant. We're seeing it change rapidly which is scary because I'm going to naively assume that the 80s and 90s had a pretty straightforward and predictable pace of photography in culture and the economy. So not many photographers were battling the hills we're climbing now. And think about the economy. Advertising is one of the first industries to be affected when things are good or bad in the economy. So photography takes the fall in those situations. But what do I know! I'm six-years-old! [both laughing]

Joanna: You're 21! I didn't even know what was going on when I was 21. [both laughing]

Mo: So what’s something you want to explore more of in the near future at The New Yorker?

Joanna: Integrating photography and video. Learning to shoot video is one of the things that photographers have realized they need to do, for both financial and creative reasons. We've seen an explosion of interactive projects integrating still photos, words, videos, maps, and everything else. When it comes to the visual stuff at the magazine, we're underdogs in some sense because most of the emphasis is on the writing. We have a small, terrific interactive department and the photo team works with them and our design team on different projects—that has been really fun. In general, I love seeing what other publications are doing with interactive. The Times is a wonderful platform to witness how photography can integrate with video—I love it. Some of the sports platforms are doing great interactive work: Bleacher Report, The Ringer.

 
Kevin Cooley for  The New Yorker ,  How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet , 2018

Kevin Cooley for The New Yorker, How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet, 2018

 

Mo: To rewind back into your formative years again, did you grow up in a creative household?

Joanna: It was more political. My father loved movies so he was always taking me to films when I was a kid. But my mother worked in local politics in Cleveland—Democratic politics in fact. You're often the underdog in Ohio if you're working for the Democratic party, but Cleveland tends to be more liberal. It was very much a political household, we talked a lot about politics and I was very aware of that from a young age. We haven't talked much about politics in this phone call, but that's something that's also driven me and helped me in my career and certainly in this, my second career—just having an awareness and understanding of political news.

Mo: What were the series of moments that inspired you to go to LA?

Joanna: I just always loved movies. I had a bunch of friends in college and we were all nuts for movies and we all felt that the westward pull. When you left Detroit, were you with a group of friends that decided to move to LA?

Mo: Not really, because it's one of those cities that's really easy to stay in because there was no indication, for me, that you could pursue a creative career. My dad worked in IT and my mom was at home supporting my sister and I. Initially, I almost moved to New York but immediately fell in love with LA when I visited here three years ago because of the environment. But I wouldn't have decided to move here if it wasn't for the confidence I received during a New York trip in my last year of high school.

Mo: So, one last thing I want to ask is what you find the purpose of your work to be?

Joanna: I want to help photographers show the world in new and interesting ways—to support them, really.

Joanna: Usually supporting them in their work means applying their talent to a story in the magazine. We work to help them take on that challenge.

 
 

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Writer's Endnote

Thank you Joanna for being open to the suggestions and ideas for this piece, and for giving me more information on being a photo editor. Joanna has been such an influential figure in the photo community and I unwaveringly appreciate the support she's shown for Emmazed. And Kathy's words... they're beautiful. Thank you, Kathy. And thank you, The New Yorker, for allowing this. This was an honor to produce.

Mo Mfinanga

 
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Q&A

 
 
  • Where can we follow you?

  • Instagram ↗
  • What New Yorker cartoon speaks to you the most?

  • It’s an old cartoon; my memory of the caption may be a bit shaky. A man and a woman are walking along, and he turns to her and says “The human mind! Right now, I’m thinking about Thomas Jefferson, amino acids, and you.”

  • Who are your top three NBA players?

  • LeBron James (the GOAT), Donovan Mitchell, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

  • What product under $50 has changed your life?

  • Those Muji gel-ink pens with caps.
  • What’s the last thing you googled?

  • "nba scores"
  • What are your favorite places in NYC?

  • Prospect Park and the outdoor balconies/exhibition spaces at the Whitney.

 

Further Reading

  • Eve Lyons
  • “How can we better understand one another?”

    Background photo by Hannah Whitaker for The New Yorker