A Conversation with Jim Estrin, New York Times Lens Blog
David Alan Harvey: You will be the third photographer in a row that I have interviewed, who I know as photographers and who have evolved and are now editors/decision makers. Anyway, I knew your credit line so I think of you as a photographer, a staff photographer at the New York Times where they have got a pretty large staff.
Jim Estrin: Thank God.
DAH: But now you are making decisions for Lens Blog at a time where time is tough for young photographers. You and I were lucky because there was more of a career track for us. So tell me about that, tell me about where you see young photographers and where you see yourself fitting into the decision making process?
JE: Well, why don’t we start with young photographers? I think that there is obviously a shapelessness to what’s going to happen in the future, what we can perceive as to what’s going to happen in the future as far as photography and as far as the industry go. But, I don’t see it as negatively as a lot of people do. I don’t want to belittle in any way the need to make a living, I think it’s critical, and I think that there are certain jobs that existed when we were young that don’t exist now. But not as many as some people think. There were a few hundred people, from this country who were working internationally for magazines and making good living.
DAH: Yes, a profession of a hundred people. However, it has NEVER been a real “profession”. Never lots of people in it. Law and medicine are “professions”.
JE: A hundred or two hundred who would have been making money I mean. There were more newspapers that were palatable to work at, and there are few now, so there were those jobs, but most of them didn’t pay much.
DAH: No, but it was a great job though Jim. I mean it was a great job. As jobs go. You could go home and cook in your back yard, and then go out and shoot some good assignments and your buddies are there… no, I always lived very well as a newspaper photographer. Yet I knew there had to be more..
JE: Yes, well I worked at the Jackson Clarion Ledger.
DAH: Yeah, I know you did…and I was with Clarkson in Topeka..
JE: And I love that kind of photography, and working for a newspaper. I happen to really like working for a newspaper, but what I am saying is that it has never been an easy profession; it’s a myth that it was easy twenty-five years ago.
DAH: Yeah, that’s bullshit.
JE: I don’t know about forty-five years ago, but I know about thirty years ago and it was not easy!
DAH: No, it was not easy and it seems easy to the young because they see us a certain way and they forget that it wasn’t like that really. Every generation has to build their own thing.
JE: And so for all the challenges which young photographers face, and they do face serious challenges, I am not making them smaller than they are, there are also tremendous opportunities that didn’t exist then that do now.
DAH: That’s what I keep telling people.
JE: First thing is the opportunity to have your work seen.
DAH: That’s like a miracle!
JE: That is a miracle.
DAH: You had to work for the New York Times in order to be seen, and I had to work at National Geographic to be seen at all! Otherwise we wouldn’t have been seen. It was hit the top, or nothing!
JE: I spent my twenties not being seen.
DAH: I as well spent my entire twenties not being seen. That’s what I keep telling young photographers. I couldn’t even show my photographs except to get published in NatGeo. I had to really bust it to get to NG. Then I left! (laughing). For Magnum. Well, you gotta keep moving to a new place….
JE: Yeah, I would drop off a book, and if a secretary looked at it I was really lucky, you know? But there is now the opportunity to show your work, there is the opportunity to self publish, there are these entrepreneurial opportunities to do business. If you get past the jobs that I was talking about, and you talk about the great documentary photographers, they didn’t make a living.
JE: Gene Richards wasn’t making a living… you know the decision to do documentary work as opposed to photo journalism, to do art work as opposed to photo journalism, there wasn’t money there. If you taught you were lucky…
DAH: Well, the only place there has ever been money is advertising photography.
JE: That’s true. And there used to be corporate work.
DAH: Yeah, but there was certainly nobody selling prints when I first got in the business, nobody sold prints.
JE: No, not unless you were Ansel Adams.
DAH: Well, maybe Ansel Adams, but people weren’t talking about selling prints; photography had not risen to that stature.
JE: There are multimedia platforms for story telling that weren’t available. I love working at the New York Times but for the first half, actually the first fifteen years of my career at the Times, I wasn’t the story teller, even if it was a story I came up with. I was an illustrator, someone else told the story. Now, I can tell the story. I can tell the story with audio, with video, with writing on the web, in a blog…
DAH: Jim, you have really hit the nail on the head better than anybody, and that is the truth. That is the truth of the new media because you and I, when we first started in the business, even though we had salaries, I was also at least three people removed from my audience. You are nobody removed from your audience. You might have an audience of fifteen, but you’ve got fifteen people who know YOU. And actually who you are as a photographer, see, because I had a couple of editors interpreting theoretically to readers whoever DAH was. I had to convince Jack Hunter, one crusty embittered guy on the city desk of my newspaper, that this was in fact a good picture to get published. I mean I had to get to one guy who hated photography to “get” my picture…
JE: (laughing) Yeah. You know, I’m very sympathetic with young photographers, and I don’t mean to say…
DAH: No, you can’t make a living of it. Yet I started Burn to at least give some sort of outlet for the next generation. Lens Blog is for sure a premiere force.
JE: But one has to make a living. I’m merely saying that one, it wasn’t always simple, and two, that for every disadvantage now there is certainly at least one advantage.
DAH: Yeah, every generation’s got to carve the damn thing out of raw soapstone because, for example, National Geographic was not a place to work when I got out of college… we made it a place to work. It was red fucking t-shirts, it was embarrassing, National Geographic. I wanted to work at Life Magazine, Look Magazine, New York Times… but Look folded, Life folded and National Geographic was there, we rushed it… a whole bunch of young people rushed it at the same time.
We reinvented it. With basically only one editor who aided us. And so every generation has got to reinvent the damn thing. You know, I lamented the fact that Life wasn’t there for me, but you turn something else into it. Yeah, something is happening. Now there are new collectives coming with Prime and with Luceo. Well, the agencies have all got good photographers in them, but…
JE: Yeah and you know there’s digital distribution so on one hand you have five hundred people in Times Square with iPhones, which I am not saying is a good thing necessarily or a bad thing, but the ability to distribute your photos at least is there. One can send photos digitally..
The problem is finding people who will pay for them. You know, it’s difficult, it’s confusing, but I think it’s also exciting… It’s essentially a golden era.
DAH: Totally a golden era. But I think there is only one problem. Only one, instead of a multitude of problems which I felt like I was up against. There is only one problem now, and that is the pay wall.
DAH: Just the money, but if you’re only talking about money, that’s only one thing to kind of think about, you know you can kind of focus on that one. Yet there are ways. Again, this has never been a place where all who thought they were photographers got paid.
JE: Look at Danfung Dennis, with “Condition ONE”, and his film. You know, he’s a photographer, he’s inventing technology, he’s promoting technology, he’s into business, he’s making a film… you know, there are a lot of options. But again, we have to figure out the money. It’s no question.
DAH: Well, you know, when I met Candy she was my computer tech person and two days before I went down there we set up a pay wall, a rough one, for TheRioBook. So I was charging $1.99 to go on this adventure. I sold it as a workshop. That was the most likely thing for me to do, and I figured the Burn readers would get that. You know, hey… let me charge this buck 99 thing, come on with me to Rio…
JE: How many did you sell?
DAH: Oh just a very few thousand.
JE: That’s a lot! A thousand is a lot.
DAH: Is it?
JE: You did it in no time.
DAH: No, in fact, we are taking on subscriptions on now just as much as back when we were live. It’s continuing because it’s become kind of a classic out there. Anyway, the point is that I did charge for content on the web. The thing that everybody said you cannot do. I didn’t have an app. I just had a good ole fashioned Pay Pal account. So I did do it. Might try it again. Might not.
JE: The second part of your question about decision-making is I think connected to the first. You know, I want to help photographers figure this out. I want to help promote photography and promote photographers. Now there are a lot of people doing it. But my thesis on Lens is that photographs do not happen by themselves. They happen because of photographers. That is why we write about the photographers, you know? And as far as decision making, we are very, very fortunate. Right now it’s David Gonzales, Josh Haner, and Matt McCann who work with me on Lens, We can do almost anything we want to do, that we think is good.. Fortunately they like what we do. We are very, very fortunate.
DAH: You are the most popular, biggest photo blog out there. You’ve got the circulation and the incredible content, so everybody wants to get published on Lens Blog. So I would image they would let you do whatever you do, and I’m sure they would also like to figure out how they could monetize Lens Blog too. I’m sure everybody would. Double your salary, or however you want to look at it.
JE: Well, I think it has to do with paying people, not doubling my salary. And we are just now starting to do that. Now we are able to pay photographers.
Essentially what it is, is that we have to like it and think it’s good.
Often it has to make me feel something personally, or think something, and you know that’s it. And of course my colleagues as well, but you know it’s real simple.
DAH: You have to like it and think it’s good. Very big news that Lens Blog will now pay photographers.
JE: Yeah, really, and hope that it is of some interest to our readers.
DAH: No, but seriously that’s such an honest answer, and it is actually everybody’s answer, but nobody wants to quite put it that bluntly. But that is the truth.
JE: Well, I am very lucky. If you are a magazine editor you’re answerable to many, many people, including the advertising people.
And David Gonzalez and I blessed to have Michele McNally. I mean if she didn’t like what we were doing, she would be involved in every decision, every single day, intimately. But she likes what we’re doing and she gives us room.
Of course she comes up with some story ideas. It’s another lucky thing when your boss has good ideas. She’s a truly brilliant photo editor.
DAH: Yeah, she was so cool. She was here in this loft, doing her job, while she was in our class. Yeah, she went online and did her job in front of us.
DAH: Looked at pictures, picked pictures… she said, well it’s an online thing, people are coming in like this, this is what’s happening. So that class is like wowww! Michele McNally is doing her job in front of us!
JE: If I had her for a boss 15 years earlier, I would be a much better photographer.
DAH: Wow, that’s a great line. I hope this machine is still working.
JE: If not, you can just make it up.
DAH: (laughing) You’ve delivered some classic lines. No, we’re rolling.
JE: So, the question was, how do you choose what’s in there, and I think the answer is what do you react to? We see a lot of photographs and even if they are good… say, if you see your 50th piece from Libya, unless it’s as good as Yuri Kozyrev, it can be good and still not end up moving you.
DAH: Well, that’s why I always have to tell my students to please look at what’s going on around them. Study the history, study your contemporaries at least, because if you take your Libya stuff in there, Estrin at Lens has seen Yuri Kozyrev and a few other top people.
DAH: So how are you going to blow your socks off unless you’re as good or better than Yuri Kozyrev.
JE: Or, do something different.
DAH: That guy really is good.
JE: He’s excellent.
DAH: Geez, he’s good. Yeah, Yuri Kozyrev. Love his work.
JE: I think Tyler Hicks is very good too.
DAH: Oh yes. Tyler is very good.
JE: I think it is a fair statement to say that.
DAH: I would just give the edge to Kozyrev just on the sheer visualness of his imagery. Not on the journalism. Tyler is as good a journalist as you can get , and he’s THERE. No doubt about it.
JE: Well, on that level it is hard to pick. I don’t mean to be defensive for Tyler. Yuri is a great photographer and does amazing work.
DAH: Right, well there is either going to be some kind of a really strong story line or a really strong visual line in there or the visual literacy itself is going to carry it through. So you like it based on probably a lot of instinct and probably some knowledge in there too.
JE: I want to feel something. You know, make me laugh, make me cry, make me think about something in a different way, and I don’t care if it’s a perfect photo because how many perfect photos have you seen that don’t tell you anything?
DAH: Yeah, well I guess a lot. But you know that’s an interesting thing, and this is where some photographers and I part, and for me a photograph can be just an object in and of itself. It doesn’t have to mean something else to be. A picture can just be a picture. It can also be an architectural shot just showing me a building that I might want to buy some day, showing exactly how it is constructed… or it can be something that conveys a story and it’s covering the news. So it means lots of different things. But a picture can for me be all by itself and not have to mean anything. It just grabs me in the gut or it feels to me an aesthetic pleasure. Great to be informed of what you don’t know, but esthetic “pleasure” works too, for me anyway.
JE: But not solely abstract. Often it’s joy they make you feel.
DAH: Oh yeah.
JE: I care about the situation of human begins in the world and so I’m sometimes attracted to stories that I think are important socially that are particularly under covered. I think photography can inform people. I’m not saying it can change the world, but I think it can inform people and so that’s also something I will take into account.
DAH: You’re talking about things that matter, subjects that matter, topics that at least, if they don’t matter they should matter. Human condition… environment… both. They are the same thing.
JE: I believe that, on a personal level – not a professional level as a journalist of the New York Times, but on a personal level – I believe that it is my responsibility living in this world to help repair the world. That is one of the reasons I exist as a human being and that probably plays into some of the decision making, obviously within journalistically appropriate ways. And let’s face it, for most documentary or photojournalists… it’s a large reason why people do it. There is this beautiful, maybe naïve, but beautiful belief that it is important what we do. I believe also, separate from photography, that any action, any single action can theoretically change the world. You don’t know which action it is. It may not be the big action, but I think it is possible to do that.
DAH: That’s probably why documentary photographers, unlike other groups of various kinds who might be allied with each other to make money… that’s certainly not us… we don’t make money off of each other, or very little anyway if nothing at all, but I think it’s because of what you just said; there is this commonality of thinking that what you do is righteous.
JE: Exactly, that’s it.
DAH: You think you’re doing something righteous and you feel good. You’re doing stories about things where wrongs need to be righted, you’re doing stories about things that are right and set the example for somebody else. And you feel like you’re doing something, that the information is a worth while profession. It’s cleaner and there is a lot of righteousness attached to it. Like whether or not people take heed, we can’t think about it too much because we know people probably don’t take heed but we don’t worry about that… we don’t dwell on that part of it. You don’t go out there and count to see how many people you actually saved, but you assume you saved somebody. And you probably did. There is no doubt that stories, pictures that we have done have actually changed lives for the good. I am sure of it – we both know it because we both have received letters at various times where we really did make a difference in somebody’s life.
JE: We can certainly point out, maybe not often, but we can point of specific examples when photography has helped. You know, Lewis Hine, Donna Ferrato, Minamata… and we can come up with specific things that they did.
DAH: Yeah, you name some high points there but cumulatively I think that yes, we have done a pretty decent job of doing the best that we could to inform people. And I say we as in there is the American photojournalism, but there is the whole European photojournalism that has also had a huge influence. I don’t know as much about certain eras in the far North and the Soviet Union, I don’t know what was going on in some parts of that, but anyway wherever there has been a free press, and a free government, there has been a proliferation of photographers who have done a really terrific job of documenting the culture.
JE: Yeah, you know I was thinking that also another thing I really want to do with Lens is to show work that isn’t seen, particularly both young photographers, but also photographers who are not North American or European. You know, there is a lot of extraordinary work in China, Asia in general, and South America. The photographic canon is pretty much defined in a singular way, and I would like to try to expand the canon and to expose photographers who are working only in their own countries.
DAH: Thanks Jim, you are righteous indeed.