Kathy Ryan

For Viewfinder

The landscape of photography through her lens.


Portrait by Philip Montgomery


Kathy Ryan is the Director of Photography for The New York Times Magazine. She creates alluring, energetic, and authentic photo stories on a weekly basis with an approach that includes taking risks by sometimes hiring young photographers for large commissions and seasoned veterans for jobs outside their usual range.

She believed in me when I was a young photographer, and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She's been so encouraging. We’ve collaborated on many memorable projects over the years. In 2004, I went underwater with the US Olympic Swim Team for one of my earliest projects. In 2010, we rigged a giant swing on top of a 38 story building over Manhattan for the musician MIA to soar. And just last year we shot for 24 hours straight, over two dozen couples passionately kissing driving around the city on top of a double decker bus.

Kathy’s passion and belief in the impossible makes her an asset to the photographic community. She is a mentor, a motivator, and simply a lover of the art form. She finds the humanity in the image. No gloss, no attitude—it's about the poetry in the photograph. She always says she wants our photos to be “One for the ages.”

Ryan McGinley


By Mo Mfinanga

August 7, 2019

Estimated 40 minute read

Kathy: You and I have something in common. We're the only two who've made photos of Joanna.

Mo: It's the Joanna Milter Portrait Club. [both laughing] She told me about your guys' relationship in our interview, so I'm curious to hear your side of the story. 

Kathy: When she came to the magazine it was very exciting. She was clearly somebody who had a great visual and narrative sense. As you know, she came from the film industry, not from photo editing. I was impressed by her energy, intelligence, enthusiasm, and knew she definitely had the instincts to be a storyteller. So I started giving her assignments to produce.

Mo: What were some of the most memorable parts of working together in those 11 years?

Kathy: I would say the Great Performers was always a big, ambitious thing we worked on together. That would involve both of us going to LA for a shoot, so I would say that was always a thrilling experience.

Mo: What was the process like working on those?

Kathy: It was basically coming up with an idea for someone to both direct and photograph. The challenge with that to find someone who was both a filmmaker and a great photographer because we didn't want to split it. If we split it, first of all, it would separate the two things and we only have so much time with the actors. So if you're going to have a three hour window with an actor, one hour of which is hair and make-up—or sometimes two hours—then we don't want to lose any of that valuable time. Part of the challenge was creative brainstorming [too].

Mo: This series happens every year right before the Oscar season, yes?

Kathy: Yes, the lead-up to the Oscars.

Mo: So when does the conversation start in terms of working on it?

Kathy: It never starts early enough. [laughing] We always try to say we're going to start immediately in the beginning of the year, but we're generally in high gear talking about it... oh god, I don't know.

Jack Davison for  The New York Times Magazine ,  Great Performers: The Portraits , 2016.

Jack Davison for The New York Times Magazine, Great Performers: The Portraits, 2016.

The photography that stays around is the photography that gets people in the heart.
— Kathy Ryan
Philip Montgomery for  The New York Times Magazine ,  Great Performers , 2018.

Philip Montgomery for The New York Times Magazine, Great Performers, 2018.


Mo: What does downtime look like at the magazine, if there is any?

Kathy: We have no downtime. You know how other weeklies, like The New Yorker, or New York Magazine, have certain weeks where they don't put out an issue, they’ll do a double issue to have a week off? We've never done that. It comes out every single Sunday. So as fast as one is closing, we're in high gear producing the next ones coming.

Mo: How do you balance your personal life and working on the magazine?

Kathy: I'm not the one to ask. [both laughing]

Mo: Does Kathy Ryan have hobbies? 

Kathy: Yeah, Office Romance, which happens to also be in this building! That's the weird thing—that's literally what I do with my extra time. It's a very small postage stamp of where I exist. I mean, that's not the only thing I do, [though]. I look at a lot of art. So my hobbies would be Office Romance, making pictures in this building, going to galleries and museums, and going to the theater.

Mo: I mean, the word 'relax' usually isn't in our industry’s dictionary. We love what we do so it contributes a huge amount to what we occupy our lives with.

Kathy: I consider it a great gift to work with pictures in any form, like producing photography for a magazine, but also looking at pictures for inspiration. However, pictures not only in the sense of photography but also painting—in other words, imagery.


Office Romance

Office Romance is a series of vignettes that visualize Kathy's observations at The New York Times building.

Learn more here


Mo: Is there anything recent in your life that has made you look at photography differently?

Kathy: You know, I would say, and it's just so obvious, but the huge surprise of Instagram and this tremendous accessibility both to other people's pictures and putting your own pictures out there. I would never have foreseen that. It's a complete revolution.

Mo: And getting to see the response in your work, like with Office Romance.

Kathy: Yeah, it's fun. It's a dialogue. That's the part that I think is very cool about it. You said something on Instagram about this interview series encouraging creativity in others and I love that. That's what the most positive thing about Instagram is. All sorts of people create images who might not have even thought of themselves as photographers. And then the ones who were photographers to begin with, by occupation, they can be in control of their work. There's total authority. There's no more going through galleries. Sure, it's still great to have a gallery or museum show, but if you're doing some great work and you really believe in it, you can put it out there.




Mo: What encouraged creativity in your childhood?

Kathy: I was a kid who was always drawing. So when I was little I'd be drawing and painting. I'm one of six siblings, and one of my sisters who's a year older than me also loved to draw. My parents would buy discounted rolls of wallpaper. Not the plastic kind, but the paper kind, so that we could roll it out and do these long epic drawings on the reverse side of the paper. Money was tight, so instead of getting fancy drawing pads they'd get us those. I loved that so I was always doing that.

Kathy Ryan in 3rd grade.

Kathy Ryan in 3rd grade.


Kathy: Earlier when we were talking about when you realized you loved cars, I flashed back to when I was in sixth grade. The boys in the class used to bring in car magazines and they would give them to me, point out something in a car like a grille or wheels, and ask me to draw it. And then I would go home that night and I would draw the detail that was important to them. It was extremely good because for the first time in my life I felt like I was popular with the boys. I always loved drawing so the same applied in high school.

Kathy: Before I went to college—Douglass at Rutgers University—I was toying with [the idea of] going to an art school, but I wanted to get a general degree. Ultimately, I ended up majoring in art and art history. I didn't do any photography at all. Didn't even think about it. It was all painting and lithography because at that point Rutgers had a great lithography studio so I did a bunch of printmaking there. 

Kathy: When I first graduated my dream was to be a painter and I was painting a lot but I also needed to make a living. The advantage of going to Rutgers was that I paid my way through college 100-percent. It wasn't what kids have to go through today. I had to take out some loans but it wasn't huge. So the only time I didn't work while I was in college first semester freshman year, but from then on I always had a job. 

Kathy Ryan with one of her paintings after college.

Kathy Ryan with one of her paintings after college.

Mo: What jobs did you have?

Kathy: In the summers I waitressed. During the year I had a job in the student center. My senior year I was one of the student center assistant night managers which was a big deal so that was kind of cool! [both laughing] I had a regular job when I was 12. Three days a week after school I would go to babysit for a family that had three kids. The oldest of the three kids was 11 so that's how mature I was for them to hire me. [laughing]

Kathy: So then in college, one summer, I had a job in a penicillin factory and that was great because it paid a lot.

Mo: How much were you getting paid an hour?

Kathy: I think I was getting paid $12 an hour at that point. Waitressing was always good, too, because of the tips. I was doing all of that and grateful that I didn't come out of college saddled with loans, but I had to work hard all the time.


New York


Ryan McGinley for The New York Times Magazine, The New York issue, 2018.


Mo: What was your perception of New York before you came here?

Kathy: My perception was that it's where I needed to be from the moment I was born. I was raised in a small town in New Jersey, called Bound Brook. I was always, always, always going to New York. I don't remember, even for a second, thinking there was anywhere else that I needed to be, so it was always a question of, How do I get there? One of the advantages of going to Rutgers is that it's so close. My senior year I had an internship in New York one day a week. So I was starting to make that transition.

Kathy: When I graduated in June, I painted in the studio during the day and waitressed at night for almost three months. I realized I didn't have the temperament to be alone all day. I liked making art but not the isolation it required, so I wanted to work with pictures and people. Somebody told me about Sygma, the photo news agency. They were looking for a librarian who would archive all the photos that their photographers were shooting around the world and sending in. I applied and got hired on September 15th. I went in on that Friday morning and the director of the agency, Eliane Laffont, interviewed me very quickly and said, "You're hired."

Mo: What do you think she saw in you at the time?

Kathy: She's French and I think I remember her saying, "She has a nice face," in French. [both laughing] I think she just saw that I looked serious and committed, but who knows. So then I said, "When do I start?" And she responded, "But of course now." So they pulled up a chair, found a spot for me, and I started working. That night my parents called to see how the job interview went, and told them I got hired and was already working there. I was there for six years and then got the call to come to The New York Times Magazine.

Mo: What did those six years prepare you for at The New York Times Magazine?

Kathy: It gave me a love of photography. The more I worked at Sygma, the more I began to love photography as a medium. So that's what I think I gained there. Up until that point, my background had been overwhelmingly fine art. Being at Sygma—where they had news photographers—gave me an ever broadening sense of journalism and photography as a narrative storytelling medium. That was new for me. I didn't even have the confidence to apply to The New York Times Magazine. I held it in such regard.

Kathy: Peter Howe was the director of photography of the magazine at the time. In those days, a photo editor at the magazine would call Sygma maybe a couple of times a week and ask for a selection of photos on different topics. It was all pre digital. Let's say it was at the height of the Iran hostage crisis, if The New York Times Magazine was doing a story on that, my job would be to pull a selection of pictures of that news story. So Peter saw my eye and the kind of edits I was putting together so he must've thought I had the sensibility that would work well in The New York Times Magazine.

Mo: How has your relationship with New York evolved the longer you work and live here?

Kathy: I still love it as much as when I first came here. I love it. I love the energy, the creativity, the people. They're just fascinating. Even last night, after a long day, I got on the subway and still looked up and down the subway car thinking this person is interesting because I love the way her hands look; this person is interesting because of this. Almost on every subway ride there will be five people whose story I want to know.

Kathy: I like that no matter where you go, there's something. That's not true everywhere else. Whereas here you can step outside your door and by the time you get to the corner there's been something that's been visually striking or some situation you want to know more about.

I would always rather take a big chance on something where I’m not quite sure how it’s going to play out, because if it works it’s more memorable.
— Kathy Ryan
Alex Prager for  The New York Times Magazine,    How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions   , 2018.

Alex Prager for The New York Times Magazine, How Maya Rudolph Became the Master of Impressions, 2018.


Mo: One of the things I love about this city is that it feeds your curiosity.

Kathy: Totally! And it's an incredible walking city, as you know. Anywhere you want to go, you can walk that area. And the abundance of art is amazing.

Mo: Do you find yourself listening to music or the city when you're walking?

Kathy: I just listen to the city. I never listen to music when I walk. I've thought about it but honestly I don't think I'm coordinated enough. It's interesting because I have wondered why I don't. Do you listen to music while walking?

Mo: I try to strike a balance of both. When I do listen to music I want it to contribute to the scene or neighborhood I'm in. Sometimes the music harmonizes with what's happening in front of you to the point where you feel like you're in a movie. But when you’re listening to the city you're able to hear what's happening before you see it. I was talking to Andre Wagner about this and he listens to the city.

Kathy: It's funny because you would think since photos are silent, then closing off one of the senses—hearing—might help your seeing to become more incisive and clarifying but none of us do that. Very few people say that they're going to put on headphones so that they hear nothing and let all the stimuli come to them visually.

Kathy: I sometimes think if I had music on if it would help to inspire the improvisational instincts. Like, in other words, one of the things with photography that I think is cool is to not always be in control of what you're photographing and to be more improvisational. 

Kathy: Last night I watched a documentary on Basquiat and he was so improvisational, or look at Jackson Pollock when he's splashing paint—it's improvisational. So over and over, there are artists who are doing something loose where the interior emotions just come out without going through the cognitive intellectual judging mind, and instead it comes from some other place—music helps that. And in particular in jazz music or atonal, Phillip Glass-like music. I like when it's that; that overlapping quality. It makes sense that Basquiat listened to jazz because he managed to leap into another orbit that the rest of us would never have been able to visit, except we could do it through his paintings.


12 Performers Show What It Takes to Make It in New York

Brenda Ann Kenneally photographs performers at work around the city for the 2019 New York issue.

View the story here



Mo: Is there space for improvisation while making the magazine?

Kathy: I think so. We're at our best when we're thinking about the content of the story that we're trying to make an assignment or thinking about the photographer and what their mindset and artistry will bring into it. Things are most exciting when you somehow bend the genre a little bit. If you can figure out a way to do something unexpected... Like, I would always rather take a big chance on something where I'm not quite sure how it's going to play out, because if it works it's more memorable. There are different ways of doing that. 

Kathy: We just did our annual New York issue in early June. As we met together and brainstormed what the theme would be, ultimately, we came up with this notion of live performance, that at any given moment in this city there is performance going on. There are thousands and thousands of people in this city who love to perform. Some aren't famous and well known but they're performing every day: The piano bar guy in a fancy hotel; someone on the subway car; the sword swallower at Coney Island; the broadway star. We decided to feature 12 performers and we should take a documentary approach with the photography.

Kathy: First of all, that's going to be a beautiful world. We had a ballet dancer, an opera singer, and we're gonna get backstage! We're going to have that incredible beauty and I wanted to capture the sweat, beauty, passion, and desire to perform. So then I thought who would be a good documentary photographer for this who would shoot in color. Color oftentimes signifies contemporary a little more than black and white. Black and white, as we all know, is very friendly to photography and we all love it for that reason. 

Kathy: So then I thought it would be really cool to do the entire issue with one photographer, which we don't really do. So I assigned Brenda Ann Kenneally and it was thrilling. Her book Upstate Girls is honestly one of the best photo books of the decade. It features the families of Troy, New York where Brenda was from. 

Kathy: So we assigned 12 performers. Once we had selected the 12 performers to feature, Brenda just went for it and I love what she did. The whole issue has the rhythm, intensity, and intimacy of her work. You're inside, you're behind the scenes, she's everywhere. So the improvisation is just that. To be in a meeting, walk in there and think, We have 12 assignments so we'll have 12 photographers. But then go, No! We're going to just go for one!

Mo: And Sasha Arutyunova's beautiful work in the issue...

Kathy: Those videos! They were amazing. They were incredible. She's really something else. I love the energy and gracefulness she uses as she moves around the subjects. And I want to give credit to Amy Kellner. She had the idea to bring in Sasha on that so I said, Let's go for it. And Rory Walsh, as well, who also works on the photo department. The two of them produced the stills and video shoots in the issue. They did a lot of the work of getting Brenda inside access. 

Kathy: I'm so busy I couldn’t go on any shoots, but I would have given anything to be on one of those shoots with Sasha just to see her in action. Amy was describing to me that the sword swallower swallowed the sword eight or nine times just so that Sasha could figure out when she went to do the one take, where she was going to be with the camera. I love that.



Amy Kellner

NYT Mag Senior Photo Editor

On working with Kathy

Working with Kathy at the magazine is so much fun. She's really up for anything. The sky's the limit, creatively. Even some of my craziest ideas that I propose almost as a joke, thinking, Oh, they'll never go for it—Kathy will say, "I love it!" and the next thing you know, Maurizio Cattelan is making 1960s Betty Crocker Jell-O salads for our Food issue cover story.

One of my greatest joys (albeit toughest, most stressful production jobs, but don't get me started on that; we're here for Kathy and she is all about positivity) was getting to put my otherwise useless knowledge and love of horror films to good use for our annual Great Performers issue. Again, Kathy is so amazingly open to creative input, to trying new photographers and filmmakers, and to anything that will make a unique, memorable image. And that's how you end up with goth-legend photographer/filmmaker Floria Sigismondi shooting Nicole Kidman screaming at the top of her lungs, smashing plates and writhing around on a kitchen floor for our annual Great Performers issue.

This year's New York issue was another standout. Working with Kathy and my co-producer, Rory Walsh, on that issue was a treat: getting to see incredible performers like Pedrito Martinez, and working with brilliant artists like Brenda Ann Kenneally and Sasha Arutyunova. Producing these things at our constant hyper-fast pace is hard work—no question—but I'm grateful to Kathy for creating such a positive environment of limitless creativity that makes it all worth it.



Going Digital

JR for  The New York Times Magazine ,  Madonna at Sixty , 2019.

JR for The New York Times Magazine, Madonna at Sixty, 2019.


Mo: What were the conversations like when your team made the transition to digital?

Kathy: Technology is always evolving. Jake Silverstein, our editor-in-chief, sets the vision for the magazine. He inspires us with the big vision for the magazine and he constantly challenges Gail Bichler, our designer director, and me and our teams to come up with ideas to bring it to life. We regularly have lots of creative meetings figuring out new ways to bring our story-telling to readers. Video, of course, was one of the new mediums. We're still constantly evolving and learning.

Kathy: With digital, there are so many options. You have the desktop, then you have mobile, so it's us constantly figuring it all out. The great thing is that there is always something new which is fantastic. The tough part is that this is what most people now see us on.

Mo: We're in a time where some people are discovering the magazine for the first time online.

Kathy: That's interesting, [but] it's a good thing. that we have so many people subscribing to us online. It's fantastic that The New York Times is building its readership all the time. It was only a short time ago that there was a real question whether people would pay for information. There was this belief that this generation would assume all information is free, and it's obviously expensive to produce the kind of journalism that we do.



Gail Bichler

NYT Mag Design Director

On working with Kathy

I consider myself lucky to be able to work with Kathy on a daily basis and to have such a strong partnership with her. She and I are very much on the same page creatively. We often get together to brainstorm the art approaches for stories or to discuss commissions. It’s not unusual for us to have similar thoughts on photographers or independently have the same idea about the type of imagery that would work for a piece. Even with our shared vision, we have personal perspectives that influence our approach.

Kathy frequently leans towards telling a human story. She is attuned to the subtleties of the imagery and brings a lot of historical context to things as well. I’m often considering how the image will work in the layout, or work with our typography, and particularly, with the cover, looking for something that feels very graphic and poster-like.

Many times I find that I’m looking at an image differently after our discussions since she brings incredible vision and intelligence to everything she touches.



A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers

Eli Baden-Lasar set out to search for each of his half-siblings. All 32 of them.

View the story here


Eli Baden-Lasar, the photographer, sitting on his mother’s bed in the home where he grew up in Oakland.


Dawson Johnson, 20, near the home where he grew up in Memphis; he works as a taekwondo instructor in Jackson, Tenn.


Daniel Claypoole, 19, older brother of Zeke and Grayson Barrett, in the living room of the house where he grew up in Clovis, N.M.


Anna Grace Bond, 19, in a field between her mother’s and grandparents’ home in Wiggins, Miss.; she attends college nearby. Fletcher Bond, 19, is currently in the Air Force.



Jessica Dimson

NYT Mag Deputy Director of Photography

On working with Kathy

I was inspired by Kathy long before I began working with her nearly 3 years ago. I saved copies of the magazine as a teenager and became captivated by contemporary photography through the artists and photographers she commissioned. Kathy represented my early notions of what a photography editor was. It was apparent to me, even then, that she was not just publishing incredible work; she was making great work happen. Those can be considered two very different endeavors in our field, but Kathy’s gift involves weaving them together in every commission.

Kathy is deeply curious and constantly inspired. But it is her sheer optimism that propels so much of the great work she does and inspires those who work with her. It’s the reason she is rarely ever daunted and takes the leap when others might shy away. Eli Baden-Lasar’s photo essay of his 32 half siblings is a perfect example. Eli had never undertaken a magazine commission before and he came to Kathy with just the beginning stages of a sprawling and complex project, but she knew immediately that it was going to be something memorable and important.

Recently, when I was becoming discouraged by how an assignment was coming together, Kathy sent me an email that continues to resonate with me. She wrote: “You have to believe. You have to have faith. We can do big things.” That is the essence of Kathy.



Mo: The recent photo essay with the 32 siblings seems to underline how photography can be used as a medium that allows us to connect with each other. Was that something you were conscious of when working with Baden-Lasar?

Kathy: Yes, from the moment I first met with Eli and saw the initial couple of photos he had made of his siblings I knew this was an incredible story and something we had to do. This was a case where Eli’s very personal story of his journey to meet and photograph his siblings would have enormous relevance to our readers because it beautifully explored a newly evolving form of family. There are many children born from sperm donors who are now discovering they have lots of siblings.

Kathy: Jessica Dimson, our deputy director of photography, worked closely with Eli over the next nine months, producing the story as Eli traveled around the country, photographing his siblings. We had many creative discussions with him over that time period, developing it and figuring out the text and quote components, and then Gail Bichler worked with Eli on the cover concept. 

Mo: Another thing I’d like to ask is how you continually sharpen your focus and vision at the magazine?

Kathy: That's a really good question. I think, first and foremost, I look at new work as much as possible. I’m regularly seeking out the work of people who are coming up in the field. I did portfolio reviews for The Bronx Documentary Center last month—a terrific way to meet photographers. I do The New York Times Portfolio Review which was earlier this year. It gets such a huge turnout. It's a fantastic place to discover talent.

Mo: You guys also bring in photo editors from other publications, too, yes?

Kathy: Yes! Lots of them. Not only photo editors come in for it, but photographers from all over the world. Credit to James Estrin who got the whole thing started. So that's a great thing to do. And then there's NYC SALT, an afterschool program for high school students in New York. It teaches them photography, guides them through the college application process, and is just an incredible program. They are mentoring some really incredible photographers. It was a SALT exhibition a couple of years ago that I first saw the work of Mamadi Doumbouya.

Mamadi Doumbouya for  The New York Times Magazine ,  Megan Rapinoe on Keeping the Politics in Sports , 2019. Mamadi is the sole photographer of the magazines regular  Talk  column that appears three times a month.

Mamadi Doumbouya for The New York Times Magazine, Megan Rapinoe on Keeping the Politics in Sports, 2019. Mamadi is the sole photographer of the magazines regular Talk column that appears three times a month.

Kathy: His portraiture is defined by a rich, vivid color sensibility that is uniquely his. Several months after I saw his work in the show at SALT, we started working on our annual Voyages photo issue. The theme we landed on for that issue was family vacations. We wanted to show family vacations on  all the continents. And we were researching trying to figure out who was going to shoot it and on what kinds of occasions. 

Kathy: While researching what to do in Africa, I saw that Eid was going into fall within the time period that we could shoot the pictures and make our deadline. So I thought of Mamadi. At the time, he hadn't had a magazine assignment from anyone yet, but the photos he had in the SALT show were phenomenal. So I asked if he had family in Guinea who celebrate Eid and if they do, do they travel somewhere (which would mean it could qualify as “voyage” for us? And he said, Yes, absolutely. His family members gather in their ancestral village and they usually rent a vehicle that approximately 15 of them travel in. So alright, that's a voyage! I asked if he'd like to go and he said yes. So we sent him to go to Guinea to document that and he did such a beautiful job. I can't tell you how thrilling that was. 

Mamadi Doumbouya for The New York Times Magazine, The Voyages Issue, 2017.


Mo: Is there something you want to continue—or start—to explore?

Kathy: I feel like I'm exploring all the time. I'm always looking for someone new to bring into the magazine or for an exciting assignment for a photographer who has been working with us for years. Part of the fun is to match a legendary photographer with a new and unfamiliar subject. I consider us very, very fortunate that we can sometimes work with someone like Lee Friedlander. A while back when I asked him what he would want to do for us, he said if we could get him behind the scenes at the fashion shows in New York, he'd like to shoot that as part of his ongoing documentation of workers.

Kathy: I feel like a lot of it is trying to figure out new approaches to familiar stories. One of the most challenging things in journalism is that stories repeat themselves. Certain things play out in our world and culture over and over again. You have to make it feel fresh or urgent. There's a responsibility there with The New York Times Magazine. The photography cannot be boring. It has to be good. It has to be provocative. It has to be meaningful. 

Kathy: The last thing you want to do is put something out that doesn't touch people in some way. And photography is interesting because you want to touch the reader with the beauty of something; be it the composition, the graphics, or light. Ultimately, when the day is done, the most important element is that you touch them emotionally. The photography that stays around is the photography that gets people in the heart.

Mo: And there's an element of time. Who knows how a cover will age over the years.

Kathy: It takes on a different resonance. As the years get layered on, the photograph resonates differently and that's what's so fascinating with photography. It gets better with time because it takes on an element of nostalgia and it captures a period that's gone. The minute you make that photo, time moves on no matter what, especially in a city like this. I really learned that and that's why I urge young photographers if you have an idea that captures your interest then do it. Things will change.

Kathy: If I were to pick up my phone right now and take your photo without framing or looking at you, then I'm going to get a document of what you look like at this moment and time on this Saturday afternoon sitting in The New York Times. But then the desire is to make something where I'm in more control. Are you looking at the camera? How's the light? There's thousands of other questions that come up but the document is handed to you. If I'm photographing you, do I want to emphasize your eyes or the placement of you in this room? And when you're commissioning a photographer, you're often commissioning them based on what you think they're going to emphasize; what they're going to call your attention to.

Mo: LaToya Ruby Frazier is someone that came to my mind when you just mentioning finding a photographer who will call your attention towards something. What do you find in her work reflects that?

Kathy: LaToya is a brilliant photographer whose work deals with the ways in which communities are affected by the decline of industry in their cities. When she saw the announcement last winter that GM would be closing some of their factories and laying off thousands of workers, she proposed doing a photo essay on the workers whose lives would be upended by this decision. Jake Silverstein green lighted the project and then Jessica Dimson and I worked closely with LaToya in producing the photo essay. LaToya went to Lordstown, Ohio a number of times over several months making connections with the members of the local union. Her ability to gain the trust of her subjects and her keen eye led to powerful, touching portraits.


The End of the Line

A photo essay by LaToya Ruby Frazier that explores the repercussions of a factory shutting down in Lordstown, Ohio—a factory town.

View it here


Kesha Scales with her friend and former co-worker Beverly Williams.


Dave Green, the president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, in his office with the local's financial secretary, Rick Smith (standing), and vice president, Tim O'Hara.


Vickie Raymond at her parents' home.




Kathy: We think a lot about the emotional undercurrent and tone of what our photographers will bring. Do we want someone who will bring a critical eye? A critique of a social situation unfolding. Do we want someone who's going to bring a warm, nonjudgmental eye? There are a million different things that photographers see in the world, and generally speaking, the better the photographer the more they are homed in on the way they see. They tend to be less flexible but that lack of flexibility is often intertwined with their greatness. They see something in a certain way and the universe that unfolds before them can only be seen that way. 

Mo: Adding on that, how do you make sure that we're getting a wide variety of perspectives from photographers with different backgrounds?

Kathy: It's very, very important to have a diverse range of point of views, for sure. That literally defines The New York Times Magazine. We cover everything from politics to culture or how-we-live-now stories. Science, hard news, art... We kind of cover it all. We're very international; almost every issue has an international piece in it. And that demands a very expansive group of photographers. We want to have work that changes things up.

Mo: How do you challenge yourself to do that?

Kathy: Let's say a subject is coming up in the magazine. I try to think of a way to portray this subject in a way that hasn't been done before. Okay, that's a challenge. You can't always meet that bar. But I start out with every assignment aiming to do something fresh and unexpected with the subject matter. Sometimes that means assigning an art photographer. 

Kathy: Let's say it is someone who does something very specific in their artwork. This could be the moment when there's the appropriate journalistic assignment to match that person with. Perhaps there's room for lots of poetic license within the assignment; perhaps we don't have to be so specific. 

Kathy: Last year, we did a Voyages issue where we had Karine Laval photograph the whispering aspens in Utah. Stacey Baker, a senior photo editor, had the idea to assign Karine. The photographs she made were wonderful, almost abstract canvases of color—it was a perfect moment. We're still in the rounds of working on the upcoming Voyages issue but I can say that it's going to have a lot of poetic license. There will be a lot of room for art photography where the photographer can do something deeply personal, maybe somewhat abstract and resonant. We kind of look for those moments.

Kathy: I've had a great time working with Idris Khan, who's a wonderful artist who shows with the Sean Kelly Gallery. I've loved his work for years. He’ll layer a number of pictures on top of each other so you have this kind of vibrating, pulsing picture. We did an issue on London at one point and I asked Idris to photograph the most familiar landmarks—like the most cliché things that could represent London. But in his hands, he took it to a whole other place. So when we have that opportunity to do something like this, we go for it.

Mo: And you want to serve it justice, yes?

Kathy: Yes, I like that you said that because that's another responsibility I feel. We have to serve the subject justice. And there's lots of ways you can interpret that. We're talking about commissioning and bringing into life a photograph that's so special it does justice to the subject. We're only going to do that subject in that week’s issue so please let us bring a photo into being that's memorable and will stand the test of time. When you just asked me the question now you made me think of the things we consider when we photograph a political candidate.

Kathy: The cover issue we closed recently was with Elizabeth Warren. If we're going to put a presidential candidate on the cover we think a lot about the emotional tone of the portrait. It's tricky because we have a lot of democratic candidates out there right now. So we decided to go for a direct, straightforward approach. We assigned Sharif Hamza who made a beautiful, elegant picture. No heavy duty lighting. You'll see, it's a little more classical than what we might do with another subject, but this subject—a democratic candidate for president, in this particular race, at this particular moment in time—demands an authentic you-be-the-judge kind of portrait where the reader can come to it and look at her without seeing too much visual commentary. 

Mo: How do you know if it's authentic?

Kathy: I think with photography if somebody is looking right at you and they're lit in an even way, that's authentic. Whereas if you're trying to dramatize something you might bring in harsh light. But then again, is photography ever authentic? [both laughing]

Photo Illustration by Idris Khan for  The New York Times Magazine , 2012.

Photo Illustration by Idris Khan for The New York Times Magazine, 2012.


Mo: We touched on this a little bit, but what do you find are some of the narratives or themes lacking within young photographers? We can't cover every photographic landscape, so I want to put a disclaimer that this is in the context of editorial photography.

Kathy: I mean one subject that's sort of out there in a big way, and you're going to laugh because it clearly interests me: Working in an office. [laughing] Name ten photographers in the past ten years who have taken life in offices as their subject matter. Almost no one touches it. Why? Because it's not sexy! 

Kathy: There are certain subjects that by nature are like honey to photographers [such as] ballet. It's stunningly beautiful and will be endlessly fascinating for photography. But lots of people don't take on other subjects and office work happens to be one of them. Also, climate change. I would challenge photographers to think of vivid, visual ways to tell the story of climate change. It is one of the most important subjects of our lifetime and it's a hard one to tell. 

Kathy: We've seen lots of great photo essays on climate change, in particular, all the great work on the melting glaciers in Greenland but we need to find additional visually compelling ways to tell the story of climate change. We've got the whole planet earth, it shouldn't be hard. I'm glad that there's a much more diverse group of photographers working in editorial photography. Lots more women and people of color are coming into the field and making pictures that broaden the human stories that are told. I love that because it's an explosion of talent. I would say that's the most exciting thing happening now.

Mo: We're starting to see this overdue blossom of diversity in artists, but one thing I was recently talking to a friend about was how we've noticed the situation of having a black photographer photograph a black subject, a female photographer photographs a female subject, and so on and so forth. So how can we make sure we're contributing a variety of voices without pigeonholing people into their own race or sexual identity?

Kathy: I agree, that's a challenge. There's been a shift and I take the long view because I'm older than you. [both laughing] I love that you raised that question because you have a few things happening. One, the great news is that there's this abundant, diverse range of photographers working now and often wanting to be connected with subjects that reflect their own ethnicity. But you're right, at the same time you don't want to segregate the assigning, which I've always made it a point not to do. I'm always trying to match people to something they wouldn't expect. So I think the answer to it lies in case-by-case. 

Kathy: With each assignment, we’re thinking about it from all directions. We're also thinking about it from a pure formal kind of picture making: Is it a muscular composition? Is there an intense, high-contrast light? We think about all those kind of questions, and more. Another important concern is the knowledge or history the photographer brings. Are they familiar with the subject? It’s helpful and often necessary if you’re sending someone to Sudan or Afghanistan that you send someone who has familiarity with that territory or kind of photojournalism.


Editorial World


Mo: What concerns you in the photo community?

Kathy: What's scaring me in the photo community is that magazines are folding their print editions on a regular basis. I find that heartbreaking. Every time I see an announcement that a magazine is going online-only a little bit of my heart breaks. I feel for your generation. Sure, great, new, other things come up. On the one hand, there's this huge world online, but there's something about holding print in your hands where it's been beautifully laid out, the photographs have been sequenced, the typography has been designed, it's at a certain size... I just hope the business side can sustain that.

Kathy: Editorial doesn't pay like it used to and there are more and more photographers coming in so it's gotten harder to get the jobs. And trust me, I know. The number of photographers now wasn't like this when I started. 

Mo: It's more accessible now. 

Kathy: Yeah, and I think it's also because people love it. There's more of an awareness of what a fun, meaningful, and incredible thing it is to do with ones life.

Mo: I believe we're going to see a cultural shift on the attention that photography has within the next decade. 

Kathy: I think that's right. 

Mo: Knowing that the editorial budgets aren't there anymore, how can we best serve the time and energy of photographers commissioned?

Kathy: We luckily still have the same budget for producing photography—knock on wood. Granted, it's still an editorial budget so we have to keep an eye on all the expenses of course. I think what we can do is what we already do: give people opportunities. It's a symbiotic relationship. If a photographer is doing great work, we benefit because it makes us look good to put out an issue with wonderful photography. 

Kathy: And If we give somebody a great assignment, the photographer benefits because they enter into a world that they can document that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise. It's happened a number of times over the years when I've made an assignment at the magazine that the photographer continued to pursue the subject afterwards, and that's always exciting to see. The only thing we can do is to keep creating opportunities and matching photographers to assignments that will help their bottom line—but also be meaningful in an artistic and journalistic level.

We have to serve the subject justice.
— Kathy Ryan
Christopher Anderson for  The New York Times Magazine ,    The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close   , 2016.

Christopher Anderson for The New York Times Magazine, The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close, 2016.


Mo: What are some of the things you wish to see more in established photographers? 

Kathy: Oh, god, I don't know! I want to see them work for us. [both laughing]

Mo: Who are some of the photographers that fall under that?

Kathy: The problem with me saying that is it's tipping off my competition! [laughing] But I can tell you some. I've always wanted to work with Vera Lutter. She's on our wishlist. I mean, the work she does is so impressionistic it translates reality, so it has to be the right match for that to happen. I will regret saying this if six months from now she does a big portfolio in The New Yorker. [both laughing] I would very much like to work with Deana Lawson, too. We've asked her but haven't succeeded yet in connecting on an assignment.

Mo: For you, is there a burning question about photography that hasn't been answered yet?

Kathy: [Chuckles] Hmm.

Mo: I'll let the readers know that this was a 50-minute pause.

Kathy: A 50-minute pause! [both laughing]

Kathy: I guess one of the questions I have is, How does originality manifest itself? I'm probably partly saying this because I just watched that Basquiat documentary, but how does originality surface? How did his ideas come into being? Why is it that there are certain people, whether painters or photographers, that have a leap of originality in their work. Why does it spark?

Mo: I would naively assume that two elements that come from originality are curiosity and self awareness. I think if an artist is curious enough to inspect something and aware enough to act on it while adding their upbringing as a foundation, then I'm sure that has a significant factor in originality.

Kathy: Curiosity and self awareness; that's interesting.

Mo: I used to have a rule on reading at least three interviews a day and they were rarely of photographers. Usually the subjects were comedians, actors and actresses, musicians, and others. So a common thread I observed was how curious these people were. In one’s youth curiosity usually has two paths. You're either curious or you're not. It's either encouraged or not, you know? From birth our accessibility to the world grows as we grow so if we continuously act upon that then maybe—maybe—that's a core ingredient of originality.

Kathy: I love what you're saying but I have a little bit of a different feeling on this. [both laughing] I think it's desperation and obsession. On one hand as a photo editor, I'm desperate to publish good photography. So when we're going to assign something like The New York issue then I feel a great sense of desperation. I get so anxious because it has to be memorable, like last year’s kissing covers by Ryan McGinley. 

Kathy: So it's a desperation to not waste that Sunday's issue. And that's not every week! Sometimes we're doing an issue and the possibilities aren't great, but when it's The New York issue or Voyages photo issue—or a similar issue—it's an opportunity that cannot be missed. And it would be horrifying to me if it isn't a good issue because we have to wait another year for the next one and lots of people get these issues.

Kathy: So, for obsession, it's clear that the best photographers are obsessed. Once somebody gets obsessed with something, like the way red could intersect with black, such as Christopher Anderson channeling that in his work; or high contrast shadows and black and white—you have Jack Davison; or the myriad of colors that can fall across the face—you have Mamadi Doumbouya; or human stories demanding to be told—Brenda Ann Kenneally. Those four photographers all became obsessed. You can see it in their work. 

Kathy: Brenda has spent thousands of hours in Troy, New York photographing the people who live there. That's obsession. Or when I come in here on a Saturday morning because it's sunny at 9 a.m. to make Office Romance photos after a long week, I know that that's some level of obsession. I can't seem to get control over it but at least I get some photos out of it.

Kathy Ryan by Philip Montgomery for Emmazed, New York, 2019

Kathy Ryan by Philip Montgomery for Emmazed, New York, 2019


Mo: Where does the purpose in your work lie?

Kathy: I think the purpose is to add to the dialogue in some way that brings clarity. This is done by producing good photography that illuminates a subject and moves people emotionally.


Further Reading

  • Joanna Milter
  • “It's about broadening the tent and bringing in more new and up-and-coming photographers.”

Editor's Endnote

It was a memorable experience spending a couple of hours with Kathy at The New York Times earlier this summer. I’ve never quite witnessed anyone else as passionate about photography as her. I’m extremely humbled to have Ryan contribute such a heartfelt intro. A million thanks to Gail, Jessica, and Amy for being involved in this piece. And Philip—the portraits he made out of this piece captured a silent intimacy often layered in his work. It was a bucket of fun producing this. Thanks for reading.

Mo Mfinanga

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes. Photos courtesy of The New York Times Magazine.