[Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in 2019, when Lucy Conticello was serving on the jury of the LensCulture Portrait Awards. We’re delighted that she is on the jury again this year — and her insights and advice about editorial portraiture are as relevant as ever. Enjoy!]
The work of the photo editor is a patchwork of different tasks and skills. In addition to the vital job of bringing photographers and stories together, a good photo editor is a photographer’s advocate, facilitator, mentor and sounding board. An even better one encourages you to see every assignment as an integral part of your broader work and artistic vision; a way to elaborate on and challenge your signature style while extending your portfolio and crossing genres. The classic testing ground of this exercise is the editorial portrait.
Lucy Conticello, Director of Photography at M magazine, the weekend supplement of French newspaper Le Monde, works with an exciting and impressive roster of artists, from the likes of Viviane Sassen and Brigitte Lacombe to emerging talents such as Jack Davison and Molly Matalon. With decades of experience behind her from a variety of different magazines, Conticello is very familiar with the challenges of making an engaging portrait under certain constraints—and the conditions that need to be created in order to get it right.
We reached out to speak to her about learning from the greats, the challenges of the editorial portrait and the importance of self-representation in our society today.
LensCulture: You’ve had rich and long career in photography, from working at a host of magazines to writing and lecturing. Can you tell me a bit about how you first became interested in the medium and what keeps you drawn to it after all these years?
Lucy Conticello: I learned about photography at my high school, Virgilio in Rome, an elective class that—thanks to an inspiring teacher—became extremely popular. I loved spending entire days in the darkroom developing, printing, burning and dodging. The camera gave me the opportunity to explore Rome, my hometown, which had a profound influence on my sense of aesthetics and encouraged a layered understanding of history. During college I took night courses in photography and opened a basement lab with a couple of friends. I read all the photography books I could put my hands on—in pre-Amazon Rome there was one single bookstore I could turn to, Al Ferro di Cavallo, whose supplies I supplemented by pleading with relatives to mail me copies of A. D. Coleman, Fred Ritchin and others.
When I started working as a photo editor in 1998, I realized I much preferred collaborating with photojournalists on assigning, shaping and editing their work rather than photographing myself. I had been a news junkie since high school, when it was considered ‘cool’ to be seen reading several newspapers a day. Photography was not part of mainstream culture, and certainly not considered ‘high’ culture, and that was part of my initial attraction to it: it seemed—at least from my perspective at the time—like a field in which a lot was yet to be done, especially in the case of Italian news photojournalism.
Twenty years later I still love how photography works on the psyche, and how its immediacy lets readers access stories simply. It fosters—sometimes very casually—an emotional understanding of a story, its subjects and their circumstances. Of course, as with any written story, photography can be meaningless or banal as much as it can be thought-provoking or mind-blowingly awesome. The best pictures elicit empathic responses which hopefully linger on long enough to encourage a form of engagement.
LC: What would you say was the post where you cut your teeth in the craft of being a photo editor? What is the most important thing you learned starting out and keep hold as your career progresses?
LC: It was my first job as an assistant to the director of photography of Liberal, a newsweekly in Rome. The director Manuela Fugenzi is brilliant, intellectually honest, has a strong work ethic and was very encouraging and generous with me when I started out. She trusted me and gave me the space to grow as an editor, but always had my back when I hit a wall or had questions and doubts.
Another important experience was working for Larry Lippmann at BusinessWeek. The job was challenging, as the magazine tended to assign portraits of usually male, often middle-aged businessmen and their companies. Exploring different angles within the story and having in-depth creative conversations with photographers was paramount for developing a variety of images for each story, and for keeping our readers engaged. BusinessWeek was a fabulous school with inspiring colleagues. Later on, I brought what I had learned to the business pages of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and would approach the business editors with a balance of respect, coaching, and a patient description of how the pictures I assigned could benefit the reporters’ stories on page.
Working for Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine, I learnt to push myself further. Kathy encouraged all the photo editors to think about photography more broadly. She inspired us to thoughtfully and carefully cross-assign—conflict photographers could shoot fashion, fashion photographers would shoot editorial, fine art photographers would shoot still-lifes. She also encouraged the photo-editing team to brainstorm ideas together when handing out the stories that needed to be worked on. We would inevitably garner a far greater pool of ideas and photographer wish-lists than could have been achieved alone. Taking some of her principles on board, I have since actively sought out colleagues with different backgrounds in order to ensure a healthy debate and space for variety.
I’ll seek out difference of opinions at work, as it give me and the photo department the opportunity to better define what works best and what concept is weaker. I’ve always dreaded conversations in which everyone agrees on a given direction, and overall I find them to be stale.
LC: How would you describe your role in relation to the photographers you work with? What are the most enjoying and fulfilling aspect of being a photo editor?
LC: I see myself as a facilitator, a problem solver and a visual story shaper. I try to inspire photographers to do their very best and brainstorm as much as possible on all of the visual ideas related to the subject they shoot. Seeing a photographer’s visual language evolve is certainly the most fulfilling aspect of my job. Knowing that I can contribute, even a little bit, towards that development is very rewarding. I am always very moved by beautiful work, be it in the challenging category of what I call ‘single-image stories’ or longer multi-day reportage. When successful, these photographs remain with me forever and turn into ‘old friends.’ That’s how I relate to many works of art I’ve been moved by.
LC: What is an ideal story for you?
LC: I’m a devoted fan of multi-faceted, long-term investigative ones: stories about shady real estate off-the-radar moguls, crooked family-run city mayors, grieving veterans, an investigation about sustainable fishing, a window onto an architect’s life and work. The most truly exciting shoots are those paired with the writing of a journalist I admire and whose story will be, in my opinion, original or unexpectedly insightful. I obviously get a kick out of assigning photographers whom I grew up admiring, but am careful to approach them with the right subject.
LC: Portraiture is an incredibly important and common component of the stories that a magazine tells. What are the main challenges of getting the job done well on such a regular basis?
LC: Portraiture is a central part to our magazine: we usually have one to two stories each week that call for a portrait. Portraiture is most often dependent on access and actual time spent with any given subject, so my job is to advocate for the photographer when I negotiate duration and location. If I do my job well, the photographer will then have time to build trust with their subject, and create a space where the portrait can be its best. Of course there are plenty of narcissists and self-important people out there, so there’s a real ‘people’ skill to getting this right, as well as substantial advance prep. I try to do as much research as possible on the person before I commission, as it gives me an idea on how to handle them. I read articles and look at pictures and video footage to have a feel for the person and their body language.
LC: You are currently Director of Photography at M, the weekend magazine of French newspaper Le Monde. Does the publication have a signature style or ethos that runs through the photography you choose?
LC: The magazine definitely has a recognizable visual identity, but it is now 7 years old [in 2019], and we have re-shaped it a fair amount along the way. Each photo editor on the team has a different background. For example, Federica Rossi, from Italy, has a lot of experience in contemporary art and a very strong aesthetic sensitivity; she makes incredibly fine-tuned choices, with particular regard to fine art photographers and illustrators. Laurence Lagrange has experience in both fashion and photojournalism, coupled with a passion for linear narratives. Meanwhile, a keen interest in French politics and society makes her an excellent news feature editor. Hélène Bénard Chizari has a strong interest in travel, style and design, and advocates for bold, clean graphic images.
We also rely on a fairly stable group of freelance photo editors, each with their own unique interests, strengths and points of view, all with even more sets of interests and suggestions about photographers and visual ideas. We generally commission photographers that work in film rather than digital, and due to time constraints, the majority of the photographers we collaborate with are locally based. Many come from a fashion background, as the pages dedicated to fashion are significantly more numbered than other sections of the magazine. But some of the most successful are those who have had a documentary imprint in school or on their personal projects, and have later moved to commercial work.
LC: What, for you, makes a striking portrait? And what makes a cover image stand out from the rest?
LC: One that is capable of creating an emotion in the viewer, well composed, beautifully lit, visually uncluttered, and with a lingering sense of being suspended, somewhat unresolved. As with all other genres in photography, the most important factor is the photographer’s style, their signature and their ability to revisit an old format in a completely new way. We do our best to put the photographer in the situation of being able to ‘mimic’ their personal sensitivity and signature within the subject and time constraints of an assignment.
LC: Portraiture is an age-old genre, so in some sense there are enduring tenets of the craft. What catches your eye among the flood of images that are on offer? What keeps it relevant?
LC: A portrait session is a meeting of two minds. Its success hinges on the connection they either succeed or fail to establish, and on a ‘power struggle’ for who will manage who. Today, the photographer’s subject—whether an actor, musician, politician, lawyer or anonymous bystander—is certainly very aware of the importance of self-representation in the social sphere. Although their portrait will be printed in a weekly with a one-day shelf life, it will also be widely distributed and shared on social media platforms, open to the critique of their colleagues, bosses and family friends. But this does not make them good photography semiologists or critics of the photographer’s work.
Straight portraits, emotional portraits, psychological portraits, humanizing portraits, self-aggrandizing portraits, graphically-composed portraits, portraits of people pouting or looking ostensibly bored and inquisitive and enigmatic portraits have all been tried. What I find most effective are portraits that foreground simple compositions, uncontrived body language and minimal post-production. Sometimes bold angles and graphic lines, an unexpected body position, or a tiny, barely-detectable but telling and confusing detail will make the shot. But, above all, the portrait needs to elicit a reaction in me, be it joy, awe, unease or revulsion.
LC: The pace and process of photographing has changed radically in recent years. In terms of the relationship between photographer and subject, what qualities, in your opinion, make for a fruitful end product?
LC: Each commission is an opportunity to do great work, one that should really be worth including in your portfolio and blasted on your Instagram feed. I try to push photographers to really think about how to address any given subject, and to consider what they can bring to the table with both their work and the subject at hand in mind. I do not want to see them bend their signature to fit the client, as this would weaken both them and us.
A lot of work I see feels contrived or gimmicky: many photographers working today use filters that make the work look vintage—whether they emulate an 80s Kodachrome style, the high contrast, grainy Tri-X film with added flash, a Polaroid or a Portra-400—harking back to a supposedly ‘better time’ they have often only experienced through books and Google image searches, when unspotted prints carried dust and scratch marks.
LC: What advice would you give to photographers making work in this crowded photography landscape?
LC: Really work to develop your own style, be an unforgiving editor of your work, and only show work that you are proud of. Seek out opinions and really listen to the feedback you get. Only keep work you could live with as a print on your wall. Think of assignments as an opportunity to build on your portfolio. Be an ‘ideas’ person: develop your ideas and calibrate them to the specific client, study the magazine you’re pitching to by being specific about the types of stories they run and why your pitch would be a good fit for their magazine. Don’t apply the same framing and lighting to all your your subjects indistinctly, but try to come up with different visual solutions and angles based on the specificity of the subject in front of you, and their temperament. Think hard about who the person you are photographing is and know how to make them feel at ease with you. Push yourself, care about your work, and take the time to get better at it.
LC: What kind of work is groundbreaking for you these days? What excites you about the way photography is changing?
LC: Photography trends tend to work in cycles! Currently, fewer photographers are doing highly staged, elaborately-lit portraits, preferring instead to bring their subjects into a green setting and shoot them in natural light—those warm, late-afternoon hues—thus humanizing the subjects and making them appear more approachable. In the past four years or so I’ve also noticed how many photographers, particularly the young ones, have moved away from digital and really embraced film. This affords them prints that have a much broader tonal range, but more importantly it gives them greater control over their work, greater attention in framing their images, and time to sit with their work and think about the selection they want to send the assigning editor. All of which is good news to me.