The New Yorker. Photograph by Enrico Bossan
The New Yorker: Office Wall
Goodbye Dinner With New Yorker Photographers. Photograph by Joseph M. McCarthy
We meet Elisabeth Biondi in her home in New York, the walls lined with photographs and books. At her feet is Boris, a charismatic companion of long fur and short legs who keeps himself entertained with a green ball and an unswerving dedication to play. As Ms. Biondi relaxes into a chair, it becomes evident that the life she has crafted in photography is one that extends beyond the professional realm; it is a passion and a purpose that serves not only herself, but all that share in the legacy she has built since she first arrived in New York City from Germany in 1968.
Ms. Biondi recalls her first exposure to photography was in a little photography studio where she was an assistant. Soon thereafter she joined Bettman Archives, where she discovered what she truly wanted to do: be a magazine picture editor. Ms. Biondi recalls, "I had no experience whatsoever. I couldn't get a good job with a publication. Nothing was available for people without experience. But there was an offer from Penthouse. I applied for it and got the job. I was there for two years.
“Bob Guccione [the publisher] had a soft voice and was very sweet. All his business was done out of his house off Fifth Avenue apartment, which was Judy Garland’s old mansion. The office and the personal quarters were on the second floor and we always knew Bob was coming upstairs by the jingle of his jewelry.
“I worked there for two months, then moved to the office. I had nothing to do with the Pet shoots—Thank God! I organized the ‘Pet Sets’ for syndication and worked on the rest of the magazine as a picture editor. Whenever people asked me what I was doing, I told them I worked at a magazine. When they asked what magazine, I said, ‘Ohh, you wouldn’t know it.’ (Laughs).
“I went to Geo, which was just being launched in the States. I was hired as Assistant Picture Editor before the first issue had come out. The magazine lasted seven years before it closed, and I was there after it was gone; it was just me, the Editor in Chief, and the Managing Editor rattling through empty floors.
“I was extremely lucky. I loved my job. Work became more important in my life, I was through a divorce, and I was sorry when there was a long holiday weekend. I got my visual education working at Geo under Executive Editor Thomas Hoepker, now a Magnum photographer. In the first issue, one of the photo essays, ‘The Badlands’ was 30 pages. While there I learned the ground rules of treating photographs with respect, and more with everything I subsequently did.
“I went on to become Photography Editor for the magazine. That was another step: realizing what it entails to be in charge of the photography and what compromises are to be made or not be made. It was the golden age of magazine photography. Photographers were assigned stories which they could interpret and could work on for weeks. They would come back with their edit in carousels. We arranged a projection and the photographer presented his work to the senior staff. It was a great way to understand what the photographer was thinking and his visual interpretation of the story.
“In the end, Geo was too expensive; costs were too high--it used fabulous paper—and it charged too much per copy. The business plan did not work. At the time, there was a fiscal crisis in New York, money dried up, and it had to close its doors. From there, I went to Vanity Fair. I also had an offer from Stern, and I couldn’t make up my mind; they were very different publications.
“Tina Brown was the editor of Vanity Fair, but the magazine was not as yet successful. Stern seemed to be the established publication but it was more restrictive. I went to Vanity Fair, as Special Projects Editor and in the beginning had no idea what I was doing there. We used the same elevator banks as Vogue, and I saw these well-put together women and felt like a schlump. I didn’t know anything about the style world, it was one of many things I learned to understand working at Conde Nast. After a short time, I became the Director of Photography for Vanity Fair. I had my work cut out for myself.
“Working for Tina Brown was challenging—she was demanding and changed stories around regardless of deadlines. She was incredibly stimulating and charismatic. One of the biggest lessons I learned from her is that ‘no’ is not an option. You have to try and if it doesn’t work, fine, find another solution. For example, we talked about an idea and she thought David Bailey would be perfect to shoot it. I said, ‘But he lives in London,’ and Tina said, ‘Well, why don’t you call him and see if he happens to be in New York?’ Guess what?
“Tina was terrific with ideas. She would throw them up in the air like a ball and people bounced them around until a good idea emerged. “ She treated pictures and text as equals. If the story wasn’t really strong and the pictures were very good, she made more room for the pictures. This is quite rare for an editor-in-chief.
“I worked at Vanity Fair for seven years before returning to work in Germany. The Soviet Union had broken up, the wall came down, and Germany was uniting. I was ready for a change and went back. I had been away for 23 years and had not kept in touch with things German, including the language. It seemed a good time to reconnect. I thought I was leaving for good, but, just to be on the safe side, I kept my apartment, my bank account, and my green card—a good thing.
“I was Director of Photography of Stern in Hamburg. It is a big magazine with lots of stories and most accompanied by photographs. My brain was on information overload. I had to learn fast—the details of politics, arts, and society in Germany--and I did a lot of listening. Putting out a weekly news magazine is quite different from a monthly. The deadlines were brutal. But I loved working at a news magazine, it’s lots adrenaline and it is fascinating.”
“When The New Yorker asked me to return to the States to work for them, I was thrilled as I had decided that New York is really my home. I was working with Tina once again and I thought, ‘wow. This is a piece of cake’, so few photographs. Once there, of course I wanted to have photography take on a more important role and I was certainly wrong about it all being easy. Two years earlier, the magazine had finally introduced photography, and Richard Avedon did most of the photographs. It was a good decision. But once I started Tina opened up the magazine to other photographers and we took on new staff photographers.
“The challenge was the use of photography for a writer’s magazine and how to tell a story visually, often with one image only. It took a long time to figure it out. I always talked to photographer before starting an assignment and have a conversation about the story, after talking to the writer, or reading the story. Making good pictures related to the text often is a challenge. It is essential to mesh the perfect photographer (or picture) with the story. It has to be the right combination in terms of talent and personality. You don’t send a relatively young, trendy photographer to photograph Senator Harry Reid, for example—too risky. One has to think about it carefully and I believe it is crucial to spend a lot of time discussing details. Most of the time I did not go on the shoot—I believed that it was my job to give the photographers the perimeters to make intelligent decisions. The photographer was in charge of the shoot.
“Getting good photographs to be published in The New Yorker was my aim. having photographs ‘killed' upset me and I blamed myself. In the pre-digital age, we’d get photographs from an assignment in envelopes of varying sizes. Before I opened it up, I’d think, ‘The envelope please.’ My heart would start beating. If I felt it was fine, I was happy, but if not, my heart sunk. Then the editor-in-chief, of course, has the final say and might agree or disagree. I had a pretty good track record.
“David Remnick [the Editor in Chief at The New Yorker following Tina Brown] is a writer and I worried that he might do away it images when he was appointed editor-in-chief. He collects photography, and likes pictures. He learned quickly as he is incredibly intelligent. He is the perfect editor for The New Yorker. In terms of photography, in the end, I think his heart is more with words. When David became Editor in Chief, he worked as a journalist for the magazine. I remember walking down the hallway with a worried face, and he said to me, ‘Don’t worry Elisabeth; pictures will be in the magazine. I guarantee it!’
“Tina changed The New Yorker, she was fearless and made many uncomfortable changes. David came, he understood the essence of The New Yorker, and shifted it successfully back a little closer to its roots. When stories change changes to the photography follow. The transition took a little while but everything fell into place.
“I started at The New Yorker on April 15, 1996 and left on April 15, 2011. I had worked for two strong editors and, as a result, I didn’t have to go anywhere to be recharged. But eventually, it was time to leave my magazine life behind. I think I was very lucky to work in magazines when I did and to leave when I did. Much has changed during a relatively short time. There is less money to spend, more content on various platforms, a smaller staff, and less resources to do it all.
“Before I left The New Yorker, I wondered if I would wake up and say, ‘Oh my God what am going to do!’ but I woke up the next morning and everything was fine. I immediately curated an exhibition showing eight photographers for the New York Photo Festival: 'Subjective/Objective' and a slide show 'Under the Bridge' together with Enrico Bossan. It lasted only four days, and when it went down, I felt I had lost something very important for me. I worked on an exhibit about New Yorker fiction images with Steven Kasher Gallery and I started working with Howard Greenberg on an exhibition. The exhibition was called, ‘Beyond Words: ‘Photography at The New Yorker’—it presented the photographs without words to prove the picture can stand alone. I loved doing it!’
“I went to portfolio reviews, did judging, wrote, and worked with photographers. I was so busy, it didn’t seem like I was doing less work. But I had reached a different point in my life. It felt good. I did not miss the magazine world—I missed having an assistant and tech services.
“I travel a lot in my ‘new life’, and in between I always see photographers, and often advise them. I’m particularly interested in photographers who are not on anyone’s radar yet, and like working with young people. It is important to me to champion photographers and their work. I am happy that now in my post New Yorker life, I am able to take time to give something back. The image world is so large now, but it’s narrow for serious photographers.”
“All my professional life I had to deal with words and pictures. I always thought that I’d better know what the story to enable me to argue for photographs intelligently. I think of verbalization of visuals as my brain and my eyes working together. My brain thinks visually and verbally.”
Portrait by Mauricio Lima