In Focus – Q&A with Photo Editor Jim Colton

By Alex Federowicz

Jim ColtonJim Colton is a veteran photo editor who has worked in the industry for over 40 years at organizations such as the Associated Press, Newsweek, Sipa Press, and most recently just finished a 15 year stint at Sports Illustrated. He’s on the board of directors for the renowned Eddie Adams Workshop and is a huge influence in the world of photography and a mentor to many. He was named Magazine Picture Editor of the Year in 2008 by the National Press Photographers Association; and has been acknowledged as one of the 100 most important people in photography by American Photo.

Since his start in 1972 photo editor Jim Colton has worked at just about every level of the photo industry. From humble beginnings as a photo researcher at AP, to Executive Vice President of Sipa Press, Director of Photography at Newsweek, and, most recently, spending 15 years as Sports Illustratedʼs Photography Editor. With the announcement of his recent retirement from SI, Jim was kind enough to spend some time with a handful of our questions and share some valuable insight from the other side of the desk. From advice from his father that photography probably wasnʼt for him, to multiple flights on the concord running film, to using photography and editorial resources to give back to children around the world, Jim recalls some of the most memorable and inspiring moments of his 40 years in the industry and looks forward to whatʼs next. A very warm thanks again to Mr. Colton for his time sharing a unique perspective gained from valuable years of experience.

Could you tell me a little about your career?

I started at the Associated Press in 1972 in their photo library doing research before moving onto the picture desk and then became the color picture editor. This was at a time when newspapers were just starting to use color. Five years later I went to Newsweek magazine and became their International section photo editor for 11 years. In 1988 I became the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Sipa Press, a Paris-based newsphoto agency before returning to Newsweek as their Director of Photography from 1992 to 1997. I then joined Sports Illustrated as their Photography Editor where I have been for just shy of 15 years.

How did you get started and what first drew you to editing?

I tell people it was genetic. My mother retired as the Art Director of People Magazine and my father retired as the Director of Photography for the Associated Press. They met in Japan when they both worked for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. So I grew up in a visually oriented household.

Time Magazine 1975

Cover of Time magazine of Squeaky Fromme I reffed. (Credit: Time Magazine)

What have been some of the most memorable highlights throughout the years?

Getting the cover of Time magazine in 1975 by finding a shot of Squeaky Fromme (the Manson girl who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford) by going through color negatives of a Charles Manson rally and spotting
her face in 3 frames.

Traveling on the Concorde (seven times) bringing back film from various locations around the world to meet magazine deadlines.

But mostly giving back to the industry including your next question.

Jim Colton - Dominican Republic

Jim Colton distributing some sporting equipment to the kids in the Dominican Republic. (Credit: Lynn Johnson)

I heard you talking about Lynn Johnsonʼs photos from the Dominican Republic and the outpouring of support they generated. Are there any other instances youʼve been involved in where photos have played such an important role and, with society so bombarded with imagery today, do you think photos still have the same impact they did in the past?

Whenever a photograph, or a series of photographs, gets published and makes a tangible impact, there is no greater reward for a photo editor. The series of pictures that Lynn Johnson took of kids playing baseball in the squalor of the Dominic Republic proudly using tree branches for bats and rocks for balls were published in SI and there was such an outpouring of support for these kids that it resulted in 17 crates of sports equipment, and more important, school goods being donated by our readers.

Other instances where photos made a difference. The Heart Gallery of New Jersey.

Many of us in the industry volunteered to have an exhibit and publish in newspapers and magazine, a series of portraits of children waiting to be adopted in New Jersey. By putting a face to these kids and having their story seen by readers of People magazine and the Star-Ledger and even spotlighted on television, dozens of the children wound up being adopted.

As far as images having the same impact in the past, I firmly believe they still do. When the right pictures meet the right audience, great things can happen. As a caveat though, with all the new media being used (more on that later) we see some frivolity as well. Eg: The school bus attendant that was being harassed by teenagers seen by over 8 million people on You Tube resulting in
people donating close to a quarter of a million dollars for her “vacation.” WTF?

Dominican Republic Kid

Closeup of one of the kids in the Dominican Republic posing with a piece of wood he carved into a bat. (Credit: Lynn Johnson)

What is the editorʼs role in assisting impact with visual communication?

I cannot stress enough the importance of having a good photo editor. We wear many hats and many times also wear the Kevlar as the conduit between the photographers and the line side editors. Iʼve often described my role as a “treasure hunter,” digging through thousands of frames looking for that “gem in the box.” And when we find it, we have to get it published or else it may as well have stayed buried.
We also must be good teachers. Making sure our “students,” grow and learn from their mistakes while encouraging them to pursue their strengths and fortify their weaknesses.

As a member of the board of directors for the Eddie Adams Workshop, could you give a little insight into the decision making process and the evaluation of portfolios?

All submitted portfolios will get an initial review by qualified photo editors in the industry to weed them down to a workable number. (Approximately 1,000 get submitted every year…and there is only room for 100….50 students…and 50 professionals with 3 years or less experience) This workable number (about 250 or so) will then be projected and voted upon at a final review by the entire board of directors and select staff (about 30 people) to make the final cut.

Eddie Adams Workshop - Walk Up Hill

Scene at the first day of the Eddie Adams Workshop as staff welcome the students as the walk up the hill for the first time.

What makes a good photo and what makes a collection of good photos evolve into a good portfolio? What are some of the key aspects that weaken an otherwise good portfolio in your opinion?

Iʼve described a good photo as one that crawls down your throat, reaches your heart, and gives it a tug. Simply put, “a good photo has to be affective to be effective.” It has to cause some kind of visceral reaction to being viewed…makes you cry, makes you laugh, makes you mad….makes you something!

A series, or portfolio, has to have continuity or a story line or at the very least, look like it was taken by thesame photographer.

Best advice: Photographers are too close to their own work and consequently make the worst editors. Always show your work to other people for a consensus of opinion…..especially people outside the
industry! Your portfolio is only as good as the weakest picture…so you want to insure there are no clunkers in the mix.

As we continue forward in this era of transition in our industry, how do you see the future of photography? Are you optimistic? How do you think new media formats will take shape and how important is it for photographers to learn video, audio, multimedia, etc.?

The only thing constant in life is change. Nowhere is this truer than our industry. Think about where weʼve come in such a short time….from analog to digital….from print to the web. I am extremely excited about the industry as we now have multiple platforms for our work. And anyone who is not learning all the new mediums will be left behind…, video, multis will all be required elements for any photographer.

With editors as busy as ever and with ever more photographers trying to break into the industry, what is the best way for a photographer to reach out and make contact with someone at a publication they would like to work within your opinion? Whatʼs the best way to make a killer first impression and get remembered?

Study the publication that you would like to work for and make sure your work fits their style! Alter your portfolio to highlight work that is similar to the work that is being published in that magazine or newspaper. Try to make a physical appointment with that publication…there is a better chance that you will “hit it off,” with someone in person than by drop-off. Create interesting promo cards….a master of this is Dave Moser: who will send chocolates or discounts in his mailings!

It seems as though thereʼs endless information for photographers out there but itʼs pretty dry when it comes to those interested in breaking into the editing world. Do you have any advice for those interested in seeing what itʼs like on the other side of the desk and how they might make an entry into that side of the business?

Look for internships. If not, befriend some photographers or editors at the publication youʼre interested in. Suggest to them whether it would be possible to just “sit in,” one day to observe. Youʼd be surprised how many editors will open the doors if you express interest in their side of the business.

What is the best advice youʼve ever received and whatʼs the most important thing youʼd like to pass on to the next generation of visual story tellers?

Best advice was from my dad, who convinced me that I wasnʼt a very good photographer. And he was right. But he encouraged me on the editing side of the business knowing I had the passion for the craft. Best advice to young photographers is to always have a personal project to work on…and continue with that project until it is completed to their best ability….regardless of whether it has marketability to be published. And then….start another one. Sometimes your best work comes out of things that you feel a personal passion for.

Jim Colton

Jim Colton with his dad, Sandy, and his step-mom, Irene, at the Eddie Adams Workshop. (Credit: Howard Schatz)

It seems as though going from looking at upwards of a quarter of a million images per week and the high pressure world of editing to the quiet of retirement is almost an impossible transition. I keep envisioning the scene from the film “The Hurt Locker” when Jeremy Renner is in the super market bored to tears and dying to get back out in the action. Whatʼs next for you? Will you stay in visual storytelling and do you have any plans or new interests youʼd like to pursue?

I havenʼt retired. Iʼm just going to take a little time to “kick back and relax,” after 40 years in the biz. I look at it as closing another chapter in the Colton Book of Life…and opening a new one…..soon. And itʼs not quite the Epilog yet. I truly feel I have much more to offer before officially retiring. I will continue to “give back,” as that is the core of my belief…that even if I have helped just one photographer become a better photographer or a better person, then my time on this Earth has been justified.

After so many years in the business and so many millions of photos seen, is there anything youʼd like to add while looking back on it all?

Itʼs been a great ride. And I look forward to continuing on the path that has been chosen for me and am always excited about what lays ahead at the next destination.

Alex FederowiczAbout the writer:

Born in Philadelphia and raised all over these United States Alex Federowicz currently resides in Columbus, Ohio while pursuing graduate studies in photojournalism at Ohio University. Never taking a moment of his time on this planet for granted, he covets his camera as a vehicle to understanding the subtleties and nuances of our human experience. Engaging the world in such an intimate discourse as photography is how Alex wishes to create a visual narrative that challenges our generation’s perceptions of ourselves, will hold us responsible for our future and references where we came from to get here. In the meantime, however, he enjoys Irish whiskey, the smell of the ocean, his Kindle and the company of his fiance, Cassie, and their two small cats, Orson and Charlie.

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