During her time working at the New York Times, Kathy Ryan has been face-to-face with her share of attitude. She’s gotten it from musicians and actors, from politicians, from the famous and those who wish to be. But she’s okay with it; indeed, Ryan DC’78 welcomes outsized displays of personality. They make her job easier, and it’s a big one, too. She is the director of photography for the New York Times Magazine, the calling card for the venerated newspaper’s Sunday edition.
“The most effective covers of people are those with high attitude,” Ryan is saying from her sixth-floor office at the New York Times’ new headquarters in Manhattan. “They have a strong graphic and emotional power. They are very clear. The magazine isn’t aiming to flatter subjects or idealize them but to present them as somebody you might find interesting. I want people to look at the photo and read the piece.”
Once inside the magazine, readers get the full treatment from Ryan—portraits, still lifes, photo illustrations, architectural and fashion images, and documentary photographs. They are again getting top billing these days, ever since the Times Magazine was redesigned and reintroduced in March after three months of preparation, a time-consuming and soul-searching process for Ryan and the new editor, Hugo Lindgren. Responding to the accelerating digital age and the growing hegemony of the internet, the magazine is a more lively and interactive experience for the reader (who can even email the editor responsible for a story and read blogs by staffers). It’s complemented by a magazine website that contains evocative slideshows and video features. “They are so cool,” she says. “How thrilling is that?”
The changes come at a time when Ryan is at the peak of her talents, which contributed to the magazine’s receiving the 2011 National Magazine Award for news and documentary photography. Largely responsible for making the final cut on images appearing in each of the 52 annual issues, she has an expansive sense these days of what is possible—which is, namely, anything. And with the firepower that the New York Times can marshal for any project, no matter how improbable it may be to produce, she knows now to swing for the fences. “It’s better to go after something huge,” she says. “If an idea doesn’t work, people forget it. If it’s good, they remember.” To honor actors who had appeared in the December 2010 Hollywood Issue of the magazine, she oversaw a compelling video segment that featured each actor appearing in a one-minute vignette, shot in black-and-white and scored to a roiling passage of classical music. “We had to get somewhere really quickly, with an impact. And it had to be beautiful,” Ryan wrote in the New York Times blog Lens. “Celebrity portraiture demands reinvention. And music can steer what people see in a picture.”
Ryan has been seeing an inordinate number of pictures lately. Holing up on weekends in the Soho home that she shares with her husband, Scott Thode, and their 12-year-old daughter, she is preparing for the fall release of the book tentatively called The New York Times Magazine Photographs (Aperture, 2011). It’s been a two-year marathon, requiring her to cull the best photographs from thousands of images that have appeared in the Sunday magazine since 1978, the time when, she says, photography began to make its mark in the publication. “I’m into the homestretch,” says Ryan, who talks quickly and resonates with energy. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Ryan quickly learned to expect nothing less of her profession. Fresh out of Douglass College, where she majored in art and art history, she had plans to be a painter—before realizing that self-imposed solitude wasn’t for her. Shortly after graduation, she fell upon the chance to interview at Sygma, the former French photo agency, whose New York office was looking for an archivist. Even though she figured she would bomb the interview and then treat herself to a consolatory hamburger for lunch before returning home to Bound Brook, New Jersey, she was hired on the spot. She began working that day, instructed to start creating a system to catalog prints and slides of photographs. No one broke for lunch—or for dinner. By 7:00, Ryan, famished, gently inquired if people ever stopped to eat. Eliane Laffont, the imperious woman who managed the office and was the agency’s cofounder, arched her eyebrows and looked at Ryan as if she were crazy.
By the time she left Sygma in 1984 after six and a half years to accept the job as deputy photo editor at the New York Times Magazine, Ryan was thoroughly schooled in photojournalism, in large part because magazines used to rely more on buying existing photography than commissioning work. She was constantly editing images and slides on the fly in order to fulfill requests. By mid-1987, Ryan had been promoted to the photo editor at the magazine (a title later changed to director of photography). Calling herself a little “obsessive,” Ryan also serves as a guest curator, with her husband (who is the editor of VII The Magazine), for gallery shows and photo festivals. Their conversation rarely wanders far from the subject of photography, about which Ryan is lyrically articulate and clearly passionate. And she still feels strongly about the advantages of a photograph on the printed page over an image glowing on a computer screen. “When it is good,” she says, “it slows readers down. And they stare at the picture.” — David W. Major