Photo Editor Robyn Lange sent me a note the other day alerting me to these camouflage images by Liu Bolin, which she thought I would like. And I did indeed! I also found out that Robyn is a hilarious emailer, and has some excellent perspectives on freelance photo editing. So, I made her do a formal interview for le blog. I hope you like! Here we go.
Tell me a bit about your career as a freelance photo editor- how did you get started on that path, and who have you worked for?
I arrived a bit late to the game since I hadn’t formally studied photography. I started in the psychology field but once I determined that I wanted to make my career in photography I took it upon myself to read every technical book and look at as many monographs as possible. And the psych degree hasn’t been wasted, since first and foremost I work with people and it’s helpful to have an understanding of how the average individual functions.
Like many people I started with internships; first in a commercial studio and then at Outside magazine (where I was ultimately hired on as staff). I had spent a summer running the photo department at the Maine Photographic Workshops, worked as an assistant to Arnold Newman, and then joined Bernstein & Andriulli until deciding to give freelance a try about five years ago. I worked every contact that I had at every magazine that I was interested in and subsequently spent a month and a half unemployed and wondering if I’d just made a terrible mistake.
Travel + Leisure was the first publication to offer me a project and I’ve been working with them on and off ever since (for both the magazine and their travel books). Vogue became another regular client, and eventually through word of mouth I was able to land gigs at Men’s Vogue, National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure Golf, and most recently Southern Living and Budget Travel. I also completed some cover projects for Penguin Books this past summer. There are numerous other publications that I’ve done work for here and there over the years, but many of them are now defunct. RIP.
Did you become freelance as a choice, or was it the nature of the business? Do you feel that it affords you more options and enough job stability?
Becoming a freelancer was definitely a conscious choice that I had made. To be perfectly honest my initial goal was to integrate more travel into my life. The average two weeks off per year just wasn’t enough to satiate my desire to see both my family and the world so I made the jump with the hope of living what was, in my mind, a more balanced life. It certainly isn’t the choice to make if you crave stability, although I have been extremely lucky in that respect. For most of my freelance career I have had plenty of work on my plate.
But as a freelancer you have to accept (and budget for) the fact that your current gig may or may not be your last for any given amount of time. Mentally it can be difficult to go on a long trip without knowing whether or not you will have work when you get home, but so far so good. And in terms of options you couldn’t ask for anything more. I love going from fashion to travel to still life and back again. It has made me into a well-rounded individual in terms of resources and knowledge about the industry as a whole.
And I’ve been able to meet so many new people and to create a community for myself, which I never would have been able to do if I had stayed at just one magazine. It’s a great test of skills and a good life practice to throw one’s self into an entirely new environment where you are expected to hit the ground running with little notice. It’s exciting!
What are some of the most interesting/rewarding/hilarious projects you’ve worked on?
Spending days researching pornography for a Men’s Vogue story (and waiting for IT to descend upon me at any moment wondering just what, exactly, I thought I was doing) was pretty amusing. And getting a cover shot out of a feature that I had produced for Travel + Leisure (which was briefly slated to be canned altogether) was incredibly satisfying.
Any photographers off the top who are just a delight to work with, whom you always champion?
Martha Camarillo, Joao Canziani, Martin Westlake, Andrew Rowat. They all make my job easier and my happy hour a lot more fun.
You noted that some of your photo editor friends are rethinking where their skills could take them, now that the editorial industry is seemingly on its last legs. I think a lot of folks are brainstorming about this right now. Aside from the deli counter, what are some ideas?
With all of the layoffs (“bloodbath” was the term a colleague recently used to describe the situation) that have been going on it really does feel like an apocalyptic moment for publishing. I do believe that there will be survivors and that those magazines will be stronger both in terms of content and fiscally for having made it through the past year, but I also believe that there will be fewer of them and thus fewer outlets for the myriad talented folks out there.
Where do we go from here? We’re all trying to expand our skill sets so that as individuals we’re more marketable. Some are trying their hand at ad agencies and book publishing, some are fine tuning their web skills with the idea that there will be a heavier presence online now that print is diminishing and some people are considering getting out altogether to pursue something outside of photography. And then there are those few individuals that, against all odds, are going out and starting new magazines. I like that kind of gumption that flies in the face of all things rational (call me!)
I love how photo editors often are amazing photographers as well- tell me a little bit about your personal work. Have you ever considered making a living as a photographer?
Funny, a friend (and fellow PE) recently asked why I wasn’t doing exactly that. Like many other youths discovering photography I started out pursuing b&w documentary projects, but I was terribly shy when it came to photographing people so it was always a test of will to get out there and make a picture. I made a small book for myself from a project about boxers in Albuquerque that I was extremely proud of (everyone has their boxing phase) but I’ve always been content to create work just for myself.
I enjoy being able to indulge however much time as I would like in any particular location simply for my own amusement. I’ve done quite a bit of travel in the past few years and my color travel photos have definitely been improving (and accumulating) so lately, with the encouragement of friends and colleagues, I’ve been putting together an archive that I would like to try selling as stock. If I could wander around taking travel photos and living off the stock sales I would definitely do it, but since I just had new “Freelance Photo Editor” business cards made I should probably stick around until they run out. I hate to be wasteful.