Guest Blog: Photojournalist and LIFE Magazine Picture Editor John Loengard


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2010 and has long been one of my favorite articles in this long series of guest blogs. I wanted to share it here again as a reminder that while we’re not all magazine photographers with writers, very often we are our own writers and can improve our work by heeding the tips shared here.

Mr. Loengard was one of the most influential people in the world of photography, and for me personally, because his books helped me learn to see in a different way. Sadly, Mr. Loengard passed away in 2020, but his influence lives on through everyone he worked with or encountered his work and books. I hope this post brings wisdom and guidance.


The role of the image editor

It is not important that the photos are “good”. It is important that they are interesting. What makes a photograph interesting? I’m going to count the paths: it can be our first look at something. It can be fun. It can evoke deep emotions. It can be fun or exciting or intriguing. It may be proof of something. It can refresh memories or raise questions. It can be beautiful. He can transmit authority. More often than not, it informs. And, it may surprise.

People lay on the sands of Long Beach as fog covers most of the cityscape in front of them.

Nothing is more important than the confidence of photographers. As they are not employees, but freelancers, photographers often operate from a disadvantaged position. Do not forget that :

  • You are the lawyer for photographers. No one else will.
  • You are the adviser to the photographers, explaining the magazine to them and them to the magazine.
  • You are the final arbiter in disagreements with other staff members.

Smooth the way for the photographer. Make sure that the proper research has been done before a mission and that there is actually something to photograph. (It seems incredible to say that photographers can happen to discover that their subjects don’t exist, but it does happen.)

You need to support photographers’ good ideas with conviction and protect them from erroneous suggestions: often something that looks smart doesn’t look good in photos. Clever thoughts are often better in the mind’s eye than in the camera.

Other editors, with the text of the story in hand, can judge the photographs by what they have read. Don’t join them. The reader sees before reading and may never read if there is nothing interesting to see.

A good subject for one photographer may not be for another. Some photographers create a graphic and dramatic structure of a scene and then record it. Others leave a scene alone, intending to catch the sound of truth in the natural activity of a moment. Some do a bit of both. Label the extremes “posed” and “candid.”

Alfred Eisenstaedt at Jones Beach, New York.

We must identify young talents and encourage them, giving these tyros more than one-off missions. Give those you select enough work to allow them to grow, but remember that when photographers start out, they often imitate one famous photographer or another. Challenge them to be themselves. When a photographer like Alfred Eisenstaedt or Annie Leibovitz makes a name for himself in your publication, everyone, including the reader, benefits.

Wizard Robert Bean and Annie Liebovitz on a gargoyle extending from the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building.

Treat all photographers equally, those you become close friends with as well as those you don’t. Remember:

  • React quickly to photos you like when photographers call. Don’t wait days or weeks to satisfy their curiosity. Be an audience without flattery. Photographers rarely get informed reactions to their work.
  • Do not guarantee photographers that their photos will be printed if they are not.
  • Be clear about the expenses you are going to pay. Don’t quibble over the photographer’s expense report. Pay quickly. Photographers are usually one-person businesses, hardly businesses. They have to pay the airline and rental car bills the following month.
  • If you need to assign two photographers to do the same subject, make sure the reasons are known to everyone.
  • Don’t cling to a photographer’s work just to protect it from your competitors.
  • Do all of this, and when the time comes for you to hold a photographer’s feet to the fire – to inspire them to keep pressing on a difficult subject or to try a new approach – your mutual trust will be gold.

Since you wouldn’t ask a photographer to take pictures by the pound, don’t present their work that way. Take their photos and narrow them down to the best. It’s your job to show their work so others can clearly see its quality.

Learn to view photographs to scale and understand the constant concern of art directors to fit photographs, titles, body type and captions into the space of a page. Appreciate their solutions. Do your stitches before the layouts are done. Nobody wants to tear up the finished work.

Layouts of an essay by Georgia O'Keeffe in the March 1, 1968 issue of LIFE Magazine.
Georgia O'Keeffe sitting by the fireplace on the roof of her home, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.
Georgia O'Keeffe holds her favorite rock.
Georgia O'Keeffe on her bed.

When a story is proposed, the editor should be guided by the newspaper’s editor’s handbook – the part that little reporters should memorize and recall when starting a story. Who (or what) is interesting to watch? When is it worth watching? And or? And how?
To be interesting, a photograph must show something distinctive. A two-headed cow is unusual. A bride in her wedding dress standing in a kitchen is a bit odd. But there can also be something special about what might otherwise be a common image: the yawn of a child, for example, or the gestures of a man or the shadow of a tree. The crisp detail of a large format camera’s print can define a subject’s uniqueness.

“Particular” means distinctive, individual (we say “particular like the nose on your face”), as well as aberrant, bizarre and absurd. That’s a good word to use when thinking of photographs. Before doing an assignment, ask yourself, “What’s special about the topic?”

Allen Ginsberg in a cloud of smoke, half of his face in shadow, the other half in light.

Before becoming a photo editor, I assumed that “good photographers” took “good photos” because they had a special eye. What I’ve discovered is that good photographers take good pictures because they strive to have good subjects in front of their camera. (Think for a moment about what cameras do, and it makes sense.) Good photographers anticipate their shots. What good image editors do is help them.

Louis Armstrong with Tyree Glenn in the Steel Pier Atlantic City Ballroom.

Don’t try to tell a photographer how to take a picture (except possibly suggesting a special effect). You want the photographer to follow their own instincts. You should, however, let the photographer climb over your shoulders for a better view. In other words, explain your thinking about the story. Talk about what might happen. I wonder if the man who invented “post-its” would stick one on his nose. Elevate possibility without demanding to see it. Instead, expect to see something better.
Encourage good photographers to work for themselves, for posterity, for their grandchildren, and not just for you. A photograph that solves a magazine’s problem is more interesting when the solution is something you remember after the problem is forgotten.

Text editors do their job after the fact. But because photographers have something in common with Babe Ruth – they either hit the ball or they don’t – almost everything an image editor does is done before the photos are taken. What can you do after a home run but smile?

No photographer can go out today and take a picture that sums up a president’s entire administration. The photographs do not generalize. But a detail, when photographed, often gives the impression of a whole. One finger, man. A leaf, the tree. A border, the city.

A ranch foreman's hand around a rope while riding a horse at Whistle Mills in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Louis Armstrong applies balm to his lips after a performance in Las Vegas.

Photographers don’t like to leave their photos to chance. When photographing people, they lean towards making portraits – strong, static images that they are sure will command attention – not riskier images that catch people doing things. As in a novel, the action is always paramount. And in truth, most subjects are static. Encourage photographers to take risks. Will the 100-year-old lady want to bend over and touch her toes?

How to choose a photograph ? Personality is not important. (Like barbers, photographers have to get along with almost everyone to make a living.) But the photographer’s way of working is important, as is the lifestyle of the subject. You must merge the two to ensure success.

Take responsibility when missions fail. (Your job is to see that they don’t.)


To see more of Mr. Loengard’s work, visit his website at johnloengard.com

Leave a Comment