TA : So I know of you as a photo editor and blogger. Why don't you tell me more about your backround?
KO: I grew up in the Soho in the 80's. Both of my parents are painters and we lived in a big old loft that was divided with half of the space used as an art studio. So, I grew up with an incredible amount of creativity around me all of the time. Instead of wanting to be like them in terms of their skills, I wanted to be like them in their passion for what they did. When either of my parents are painting they go into in a zone that I am, to this day, incredibly jealous of. I grew up knowing what it meant when you ‘loved what you did’ and I really wanted to find that for myself. By the time I entered college I did what so many teenage girls do, took lots of moody self-portraits and snapshots of my friends being dumb kids and thought I was all sorts of brilliant. In college I never really got the technical side of photography down but I fell in love with the darkroom and using my hands and hiding from the drama of campus life. I wanted to be a photojournalist, those were the photographers who’s work I admired most, and I secretly thought that even though my technical skills were lacking, I figured I had the balls to be in a conflict zone and maybe that would be enough.
It took an internship at Magnum during my last year of college to realize that in fact my kahunas were not nearly large enough for any kind of war zone. I worked with four other interns; all girls like me. But they were tougher; they really wanted this, I really liked the idea of it. I had a pretty magical experience at Magnum—I was there right before everything was digital and there were still boxes to the ceiling of prints. Two of my favorites, Nachtwey and Richards, were still with the agency at the time, so during the day I could sneak off and open a box of outtakes from Rwanda and immerse myself in it all. Seeing outtakes from war photographers makes you realize how much they really see, how much is edited out. I could barely get through a box in one sitting. I knew then that I had to figure out another career path.
I tried a few things, worked in a couple of non-profits, but ultimately missed looking at pictures and missed being around creative people. I got myself an internship at Plenty magazine and decided then and there that a photo editor was everything I could ask for from a paying job; I could look at pictures all day and not be shot at.
Looking back at all this all now, I think the way I love photography and learning about the people who make pictures stems directly from watching my parents being so driven by their creativity. There is so much bullshit that comes with being an artist of any kind; the ass kissing and the self-promotion and the importance of who you know. Starting the blog, working as a photo editor, those things have allowed me to stay surrounded by people who are excited by making things. No, its not entirely bullshit proof—I’m not sure any profession is—but has been keeping me pretty happy so far. Though I do daydream of leaving the 40-hour workweek and running a bakery. Perhaps someday, but I will keep at the blog.
TA : I'm wondering what made you start the blog initially, and how that lead to your print magazine This Is That?
KO : I started the blog a couple of years ago and never really took it very seriously until one day a friend called and said that she had seen a post from the blog mentioned on A Photo Editor. I finally looked at the widget on Wordpress and saw that over 1500 new hits had happened because of it. It was a bizarre mix of excitement and embarrassment; This is the What is not a very polished blog and often the posts are spur of the moment and not always the most professional. I try to keep it optimistic and not dwell on the parts of the industry that I can't stand. But I do posts in a few minutes when I can't sleep at night, I don't always spell check and compared to the countless photo blogs out there, mine is pretty lo-tech.
With the magazine, I wanted to make something tangible. Something I would spell-check, something I could hold in my hand. I wanted to celebrate that very thing I spoke about before and focus on photographers that are really passionate about their work—so much so that they keep giving themselves these amazing assignments even when nobody else is asking for them. I really admire that dedication. My husband suggested I do a print version of the blog, which at first I thought was a terrible idea, but then I thought that maybe it could be a really collaborative experience with a small group of photographers and a designer.
TA : For TIT, you essentially curated two magazines at the same time. Is there an unstated thread in the first issue, or in the second issue, that ties the work together?
KO: I'm actually working on the second issue now. I started as soon as Issue I was finished. I'm a multi-tasker, but I wanted to make sure I was putting all of my efforts into each issue as its own thing. The theme that carries through both issues is on personal work. Not all of the projects started out as personal work; a few started as paid assignments. I wanted to give a home to the large bodies of work that photographers create on their own which are usually never seen—or at least, not shown in full. I still edited down images and tried to work with photographers on the edit, and there is an interview going through in both issues, but I definitely learned a lot from the first round. I like to pretend to be laid-back, but I'm not; I'm always on a schedule, I like to get things done and I am impatient. I didn't want to set that vibe up for the photographers working with me on the magazine. I mean, none of us were getting paid for this and my day-job is nagging people about getting things in, and you guys deal with that all of the time, so for the first issue I was a bit lax and let things kind of unfold. In the end it came out better than I had ever dreamed, but there were a few things I wish I had done differently; namely getting all of us to stick to a real schedule and I wish I had figured out a good way to get captions in.
I chose the photographers to go into the first two issues mainly by looking at what they were doing outside of their published work. Yes, many of you guys and gals were on my blog or I had worked with before, a few of you are even good friends; but I mean when I say that's not why I chose anyone. I wanted to get two groups of photographers that had very different work and who were pushing themselves outside of the realms of editorial and advertising work. I realize that photographers shoot all of the time and there is no way that I can possibly see everything there is to see, but from the moment I decided to move forward with This is That I knew exactly who I wanted to be in the magazine right away. I wish I could have had even more, I have a long mental list of people I would love to include, but I wanted to make sure that we had enough page space for everyone to really show their work in. At the moment, although I don't have the funds for it as of now, I hope that I can continue the magazine and that every year the theme would change. I would also love to get to a point where I could give photographers assignments, but very loose ones, so that they could do what they wanted but keep an idea in their head; I love seeing how people interpret an idea given to them in their own way.
TA : The design of Jen Cogliantry really defined the first issue. How did you both come to this look and feel?
KO : Finding Jen was one of the best things that happened for the magazine. She was recommended by a friend when I put a post up on facebook asking for designer recommendations. I knew that the design would be fundamentally important to the overall feel of the magazine. The photos speak for themselves but the magazine needed to feel really special and different. What I really wanted—and why I think Jen was perfect for this—was to find a designer who would bring in their own ideas but would also be open to ideas and collaborate with the whole lot of us. Especially since this wasn't going to be a huge monetary gain for anyone working on this, I wanted the magazine to be beneficial to the designer for his/her portfolio as much as it was for any of us.
I basically gave Jen free range with the design. She knew that I wanted the photos to run large, that there needed to be both spreads and singles, and the text needed to flow in a way that felt like a conversation. Our back and forth communication was mostly her sending me designs and checking on the flow of the images and words. Jen is based in Portland but she was in New York when she had just finished the final version, so we got to have lunch and go through the issue together and I was just stunned at all of the work she had done and how strong the photos looked and how the design held its weight all on its own.
I don't have a favorite page, but what I love most is the transition between photographers. That was a tricky thing to figure out; we wanted the issue to feel connected but make sure that the work was really separated and not only by a name. I love that Jen utilized the triangle design, then opened with a spread and then we get a name and the start of an interview. I love having that moment to just look at a picture, without knowing the who or the why.
TA: So the magazine comes out and then here I see you are having a baby. Is there any parallel here? As an outside observer, I had to wonder if you wanted to make this project tangible before life changed radically for you?
KO: I wasn't actually planning to have a baby when I started the magazine. But I did start planning the magazine when I quit a staff job at Inc. that I had for over four years. I loved it there, but I needed to challenge myself so I decided to go freelance. It didn't take long for me to miss the cushy lifestyle of having a staff job; friends at work, regular hours, not worrying every other week that I would never get hired again.. insurance! When I started the magazine I was freelancing pretty regularly but I had the nagging feeling that this could all go away at any moment. When you are staff at a magazine, you are constantly talking with photographers and agents on a regular basis and in some funny way they become your friends; I felt like the minute it was known that I had quit my job at Inc., I stopped hearing from a ton of people. It kind of hit me that there are so many false friendships in this industry; I have my own friendships and wasn't dependent on these professional friendships, but its hard to always remember that most of the time people want something for you, and when you are an editor and you are hiring, of course people want you to hire them. When that role was gone I had a momentary freak out—I didn't want to lose photo editing because it was something I love doing, I figured if I could keep doing it no matter what, whether I was employed or not, I would have one thing going on that kept me a bit sane. I also wanted to experience working with photographers instead of them working for me.
Also, not to sound too negative, but the industry for all of us, photographers and editors and art buyers and agents, well, its tricky. I think everyone, no matter what they do to pay their bills, wonders if that's all there is too it. Sometimes in the interviews on This is the What I ask photographers, 'what else would you do if you weren't doing this?' That is my most selfish question, because as much as I love being a picture editor for a living, I know there is more that I want to experience but I have no idea what it really is. That's the thing that I am jealous of, that passion in my parents, that passion in you. I might get a little of that on my best days; when a shoot comes in and you feel like you hired the right person, gave them the right direction and enough freedom to make their own pictures, and it turned out amazing. But there are days, weeks, of self-doubt. I certainly love to work, and I have no choice but to bring in an income, but I have a strong dislike to being in an office building forty plus hours a week. There is a moment every day where I look at the clock and think, what else could I have gotten done today if this day had just been mine? Probably a thought that everyone feels, whether you are in a corporate setting or your living room. The blog and the magazine come completely from my love of looking at pictures but it is definitely motivated by wanting to make sure that I can always be in this world whether I am employed by someone else or not. Perhaps, sort of, like the way photographers make their own assignments when paid assignments slow down. Thinking that doing what you want to do is up to someone else is terrifying and its also the best motivation to do something yourself.
Buy This Is That Magazine HERE.
Photography of Kate Osba by David Lawrence Byrd, 2012.