Creative Lives Podcast — Be prepared and precise: Advice from New York Magazine’s esteemed photography director, Jody Quon
This week on the podcast we meet Jody Quon, the photography director of New York Magazine. Jody is the brains behind some of the publication’s most ambitious shoots and covers – this can involve convincing art critic Jerry Saltz to dress up as Frida Kahlo or sculpting a cow out of ground beef for a feature on burgers, right through to portraits of school shooting survivors or the 35 women assaulted by comedian Bill Cosby. A firm believer in the power of photography, Jody’s role involves a great deal of creativity, lateral thinking and meticulous organisation. We caught up with Jody in London after her inspiring talk at MagCulture’s recent conference to hear more about her journey from fashion to editorial, the importance of work ethic and precision, and tips on how to catch her eye on Instagram.
Photography Director, New York Magazine
New York Times Magazine
Comme des Garçons
Art and Fashion, Rhode Island School of Design
It might surprise you, given Jody Quon has been the photography director at New York Magazine for 15 years, that imposter syndrome plays a part in her thinking everyday. The magazine’s diverse subject matter means Jody and her team of 10 photo editors (five working in print and five on the web) are constantly thrown in at the deep end. “One of the most important things I’ve come to realise is knowing what I don't know,” Jody tells us on this week’s podcast. “It allows you to open up and learn from others around you.”
Jody started out her career wanting to be a fashion designer but later decided to take a different tack. “Your career path isn’t going to be a straight line – it’s like a tree, one limb will turn into a branch and that will branch into something else and you’re never going to be able to anticipate where those directions are going to take you,” she says. It was while working under Marion Greenberg doing PR for Rei Kawakubo’s cult label Comme des Garçons that she learnt that detail was critical – in everything from phone etiquette to how to use a stapler. “Presentation is everything,” she says, "Those values that Marion ingrained in me, while I was pulling my hair out at the time, it’s what brought me forward and got me all the other jobs.”
“One of the most important things I’ve come to realise is knowing what I don’t know. It allows you to open up and learn from others around you.”
Jody’s research for Kawakubo’s magazine Six opened her eyes to the potential of picture editing as a job, and after earning a reputation for diligence and some lucky networking, she joined New York Times Magazine as a photo researcher, initially for a six-month fashion project for the publication’s 50th issue. “It's important to build relationships with everyone that you encounter,” she says. “Never burn bridges. Always be on your best behaviour and show interest. Show your shiniest side because people remember that.” Six months at New York Times Magazine turned into 11 years, but when its editor Adam Moss left for New York Magazine, he asked her to join him as photography director, a role she has held since 2004.
Being nimble is essential to her day-to-day, as is being insanely organised. It’s critical to create infrastructure that allows you to move quickly when a story breaks, she explains. Take the now iconic aerial cover shot of lower Manhattan plunged into darkness following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. As the storm was causing havoc, Jody and photographer Iwaan Baan were prepared enough to know exactly which air fields were still flying their helicopters, had already hired a car to get there and had even thought to take thousands of dollars out in cash in case the credit card systems went down – which they did.
“It's important to build relationships with everyone that you encounter. Never burn bridges. Always be on your best behaviour and show interest.”
As well as these big stories, Jody’s role is to find fresh ways to communicate an idea, whether that’s commissioning artist Barbara Kruger to create a cover for a feature on President Trump (a black and white close-up of his face emblazoned with the words “LOSER”) or inviting real couples to take part in a shoot for a piece on modern marriage. She frequently works with non-models and cold commissions photographers through Instagram – including for a recent cover of pop star Cardi B. In her advice to emerging photographers on how to catch her eye, she says, “Don't put things on Instagram that aren't a proper reflection of who you are – Instagram is the new portfolio.” Listen in for more tips from a photo director on the top of her game.