Editing with Amy Wolff

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley KauschingerJeff RichMiska DraskoczyKevin WY Lee, Aya Takada, and Jessica Dean Camp and Cole Don Kelley.

Today we continue the series with Amy Wolff.

Amy is the photo editor for Photo District News (PDN) and co-founder of CoEdit Collection, an online photography gallery. Amy grew up in Easton, PA, and after receiving a BA in Communications & Art History from Goucher College in Baltimore, she moved to San Francisco. After a short stint in advertising, she switched gears to become an employee of the federal government, working in a national park as the staff photographer and producer of art exhibits and public programs, and in her spare time shooting bands in exchange for concert tickets or free beer, and weddings that actually paid. Leaving her cushy government benefits behind, she moved to New York City in 2007 to pursue a career in photo editing. She began as a photo assistant at Fortune magazine. 

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Amy Wolff: I'm the photo editor at Photo District News (PDN), and I also run an online print gallery, CoEdit Collection.

The best part of working at PDN is that we need to know what's going on in ALL areas of photography. I contribute ideas for stories, help identify trends and issues in the photo industry, and suggest sources for articles and interviews. My contributions are based on what I know about what's going on in the photo industry as a whole: I am in constant contact with photographers and photo industry folks (emails, meetings, portfolio reviews, openings, events).

One of my biggest roles is providing content for our photo blog, PDN's Photo of the Day (POTD). POTD's audience is much broader than the magazine. Simply put, it’s a place to celebrate great imagery, without regard to specific usefulness or story themes. I have discretion over the selection.

I also use our Instagram account (@pdnonline) to post promos we receive, which engage people on Insta, but also serves as a gallery of inspiration for other photographers. It gives the promos a permanent place to "live."

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

AW: It really depends on what I'm editing but the process is generally the same. I drop the image files into Bridge, and make a wide edit, marking images that I'm immediately drawn to with a star. Then I'll go back, sometimes a few times, to look at everything again (if I'm in a rush, admittedly, sometimes I miss things), and then narrow down the selection again, adding and deleting stars. I look for a mix – like this Photo of the Day example.

Rob Hammer let me pick any of the photos from his 120-page book, Barbershops of America. I looked at geographical locations, tight shots, pulled back shots, details, single portraits, group portraits, action shots vs. posed, etc.

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

AW: In PDN (the print magazine), the editing process is much more concrete. We usually show images specifically referenced in the text, but if there's extra room on the page or in the expanded galleries published online, I pick images that complement the story, show variation and show the range of the artist’s series or portfolio.

f: How do you consider the balancing of formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

AW: For magazine editing, I consider everyone's roles, including my own: the photo editor is responsible to please his/her own personal taste, more-or-less, the art director's need for images that work with the text and page design and the editor's needs for the images to complement the story they wrote. It's a balancing act.

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying images out?

AW: Oh man, well, there is never enough room for photos. Magazines seem to have fewer and fewer editorial pages these days. 

This is a common issue for us: if we run larger images, there's fewer room for them (and text). If we run a lot of photos, the photos run small. What works best? What tells the best visual story?

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

AW: Photography and art, in general, is subjective…so I think a layout is done when everyone involved, on both the edit and design side, is (at least relatively) happy with the layout for all of their various reasons.

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

AW: That photographers make? That editing is not always taken seriously. Editing makes or breaks a single image story or larger photo story.

I think photographers can get attached to certain images for personal reasons instead of what is best for their overall portfolio. Sometimes you need to let go of that image you love if it doesn't fit with the rest. It's always a good idea to have someone else help with editing – someone not personally connected to the work.

f: Finally, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten about editing?

AW: To trust my instincts.