There’s something extraordinarily dynamic about a photograph. It can be presented as a sidekick to a story that gives the reader the opportunity to witness a moment in time. It can exist alone and provide aesthetic appeal. Most important, a photograph can tell a story — a story that’s different for each person who views it.
That is one of the truest values of photography, and throughout its storied, century-plus history, The New York Times Magazine has held true to this intrinsic value.
A good photograph “captures a moment in time,” says Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography. “A moment, a sensation, the look of something, the way the light hits something, the expression on somebody’s face, the way the world looked at a given moment. I think that’s what makes it so special.”
The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is hosting The New York Times Magazine Photographs exhibit, co-curated by Ryan and Leslie A. Martin of the Aperture Foundation, from April 26 through Aug. 24.
Putting together the exhibit was no easy task. Ryan went through almost 1,500 issues of the magazine to carefully handpick each photo. “It’s two world-class entities coming together to do a project,” says Ben Thompson, the curator at MOCA, referring to nationally known photographers collaborating with the Times Magazine. These photographers are some of the best in the business. A portrait of Cate Blanchett, A-list celebrities in an abandoned Vermont house, and the bedrooms of deceased war veterans particularly stand out among the exhibit’s photographs.
The exhibit features 11 different modules that showcase the magazine’s diversity, including fine art, photojournalism and portraiture. “I think people will be able to see photojournalism as a trade, and to serve the ability of photography to transcend that and exist within the fine art context,” Thompson says.
The photographs are organized thematically in categories such as War and Conflict, Beauty and Celebrities, and Olympic Sports. That’s why it’s difficult for Thompson to pick a favorite. “It’s like asking someone who’s their favorite child.”
Though the subject matter is quite different for each photo, Ryan believes the photographs still connect to one another.
“All of the pictures represent a really distinct view on the point of the photographer that meets the editorial needs of the magazine,” Ryan says.
The exhibit is not only aimed at showing the final product. The goal is also to help people understand the process of producing photographs for the magazine. There are areas in the exhibit referred to as “texture” that show a behind-the-scenes peek at the work that goes into photojournalism.
“We wanted to have both wonderful pictures framed in the classic traditional way that are framed in a gallery but, at the same time, show reproductions of the tearsheets of the magazine pages to show the work in the original context,” says Ryan.
The exhibit also seeks to highlight the difference between viewing a photograph in the context of a magazine versus viewing the very same photograph on the walls of a museum. Ryan believes the two are inherently different, because “everything is context. In the pages of a magazine, content matters a lot,” she says. “Narrative matters. Readers are coming to the pictures and they want to know what the story is. In a museum, you more often have people coming to look at the pictures for the artistry of them. I just hope we nail it on both levels.”
Ryan believes that once the right photographer is chosen for a specific shot, half the work is already done. She takes risks by assigning photographers to a photo that is outside of their area of expertise. She tries to match the scenes with a photographer’s specific obsessions, concerns and vision.
The trick is to maintain the photographer’s vision while also adhering to the magazine’s guidelines. Ryan hopes that each photograph is “meaningful in a purely editorial journalistic way, and meaningful in a purely visually artistic way.”
If pictures are really worth a thousand words, these photos may be worth millions.