11.11.09

Cheryl Newman: on editing

Cheryl Newman

Cheryl Newman is the photographic director of the award-winning Telegraph on Saturday Magazine. It’s a magazine known for its serious support of photography and for showcasing some of the greatest photographers working today. She’s therefore someone worth listening to when it comes to the art of editing the perfect image from an extensive shoot by American photographer Alec Soth.

In the summer of 2008 I commissioned a significant four-part series with the Magnum photographer Alec Soth. In the run-up to the US election Alec and the writer Mick Brown travelled in the US and China to observe and comment on the future of the two nations. The project took a number of weeks to shoot and led toSoth publishing The Last Days ofW, a self-published book printed on newsprint as a way to show the unused images from the series. Alec Soth’s remarkable images produced two important covers for the magazine and ran over 36 pages. This was a huge project to produce and although I’d edited quite a number of special issues of the magazine previously, the timing of this project historically gave it considerable weight both politically and artistically. And in retrospect, it is made even more poignant by recent events in global economics.

As Soth and Mick Brown worked hand in hand, the editing process was simplified. If Mick had written about it, Alec had also photographed it. Unbelievably it’s not unknown for writers and photographers to work on the same story, but when the work comes in, the results bear very little resemblance. The series took the writer and photographer from West Point to Beijing, but week two of the project produced my favourite images when Soth and Brown visited Detroit. The feature opened with a desolate snow covered image of the birthplace of modern America. Soth’s stark portrayal of the abandoned monolithic Hotel Eddystone with its soul-less dark empty windows, the snow covered barren streetscape, ghostlike vehicles and the soft glow of two street lamps is an edifying image, which evocatively sums up Detroit’s decline from the birthplace of the car industry to what is now known as ‘sick city’.

Soth shoots on a large-format 10x8 camera and consequently when his images arrive for editing, they are in a huge brown package, brought by the post room, not delivered by email. The act of unwrapping the precious images is what gives editing its soul but it is sadly now a rarity on the magazine. The huge contacts are beautiful enough to frame. Having read Brown’s copy, I begin the edit by looking slowly through the 50 or so images at some length. With important bodies of work such as this, I will revisit my edit a number of times, reflecting on the choices over a day or so if time allows. As Soth’s work is shot on such a large format, the images are more considered and therefore there are substantially less images than which we receive from a photographer shooting on 35mm. My editing technique is a mixture of an emotional, poetic response to the images and the need to tell the story in a journalistic manner. I don’t feel that we always need to be literal, but clearly the images need to make sense
in the context of the narrative with which they are to run. Choosing individual images is an emotional journey for me.
I usually edit the images down to about 10 to 15 on a large project, before asking the editor on the story and the writer, if appropriate, to become involved. Everyone has a subjective view when looking at images, but the art director and myself like to have the deciding vote!

In this case, Mick was at the birth of the images, one can see his footprints in the snow on the opening shot, so he was keen to see the edit as soon as possible. The art director and I work closely together and luckily share a similar visual aesthetic. We whittle the remaining images down to the seven or eight which will be included in the publication. We were careful to ensure that allowing them space within the layout and restricting the number of pictures used did not compromise the integrity of Soth’s images. Working with Alec Soth on this series was unusual and a gift for a photo editor as the reality for magazines these days is that diminished budgets and the use of new technology turned many photographers to digital. For me, the few still working with film such as Alec are a joy
and inspiration to commission.

 

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