The Visura Media Blog

Essay & Interview | Spotlight with Joan Liftin, photographer and photo editor
Location: Brooklyn
Biography: The Visura (Vē-su’-ra: Be seen) Blog features Visura highlights, essays, and announcements—including grants, partnerships, events and open call opportunities and results.
Books News Spotlight v_features
Essay & Interview | Spotlight with Joan Liftin, photographer and photo editor
the visura media blog
Jun 12, 2019

Editor's Note: Visura "Spotlight Series" presents interviews with visual storytellers, photo editors, curators, writers, publishers, and other Visura members. Contributing writer Clary Estes sat down with photographer and photo book editor Joan Liftin to talk about her journey, vision, and work. Joan Liftin has edited many photobooks over her 45-year career, including Mary Ellen Mark's “Falkland Road,” Charles Harbutt's “Departures and Arrivals,” Jeff Jacobson's “Melting Point,” with Sylvia Plachy, and Magnum's “Paris.” Liftin has published three books of her own work: “Drive-Ins” (Trolley, 2003), “Marseille” (Damiani, 2015), and “Water for Tears” (Damiani, 2018). Liftin was Chair of the Documentary Program at the International Center of Photography (from l988 to 2000) and the Director of Magnum Photos library. In 2017, her archive was acquired by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. For this interview, Joan wrote an introduction to share her perspective on photography and editing. 

Introduction by Joan Liftin

Both as a photographer and as an editor, the photobook has been the thing that has involved me the most in photography and has aroused my greatest interest, because it is the clearest, and perhaps the only, means to express a personal vision about living and seeing. How you pair and sequence a stack of pictures in a book is what gives them meaning.

I find that the subject matter of a photography project is less important than the photographer's attitude towards his subject. There are just so many subjects, after all. The questions are: what does the photographer bring to the subject and how perceptive and profound is his or her take on it? And then, if the editor has carte blanche to form and sequence the book, how close, in turn, she can come to form a narrative that honors and perhaps expands on the photographer's vision, rather than diminishing it, or even worse, explaining or deconstructing it.

I started out after college as a modern dancer. In choreography classes, I had learned that dance cannot describe certain relationships such as who someone’s mother-in-law is or what the protagonist’s educational background might be. You're after bigger game. A dance does not lend itself to being a "story"; neither does photography. It's true of course that both mediums try for storytelling sometimes, like ballet's “Swan Lake,” or in journalism “Dog Bites Man, Man Bites Back” but these are lesser efforts.

For example, August Sander’s magnificent book, “Face of our Time,” first published in 1929, with portraits of Germans during the first third of the 20th century seems like a straight-forward presentation initially, but the narrative sequence is so much more. It involves class and the play of repression versus freedom through the stance, clothing, and expressiveness - or lack of it - in his subjects. With our knowledge of history, the reader can almost predict who among them was sent to the concentration camps. 

The play of pairing, sequencing, and placement on the page when editing is vital because that is how meaning is created in a book. Editing a photo book is like making a film. It's a voyage. But whether there's life to the book always depends ultimately not on the editor, but on the quality of the photographs, and what the photographer has to say.

Interview by Clary Estes

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CLARY: How did you get into photography from modern dance?

JOAN LIFTIN: Well, in my mid-twenties I began to realize that I couldn’t really earn a living as a dancer unless I wanted to teach, and I didn’t like teaching back then. I really only loved performing. Modern dance also asks that its dancers be able to choreograph, and I wasn’t very good at that. When I went to a studio to fool around and improvise, I never could remember what I did.

CLARY: You told me you had a journalism degree. Did you photograph in college?

JOAN: Not at all, but I thought I could get a job somehow in journalism. It was the late sixties, so I made a list of all the places — ten of them — that I thought were do-gooder organizations where I’d like to work.

CLARY: What happened?

JOAN: Only one even answered; the United Nation, UNICEF. I later learned that what caught their eye mostly was that I was a good typist — very fast — and I also spoke French because I had lived in Paris for a few years.  But I found the work boring until I began helping out the photo editor and that totally absorbed me.

CLARY: Your next job was as Magnum, correct? As head of the photography library?

JOAN: Yes, 1975, the best ‘real’ job I ever had. There were ten of us in a huge room surrounded by large legal file drawers full of wonderful photographs. We all did the same thing, picked a list of specs for a client, maybe a college textbook or a trade book or whatever, and then spent the day looking for the most imaginative and visually interesting way to fill the request. Of course, there were other short requests, like headshots or news events, but what we all liked to do the most was get our teeth into a book list that needed maybe 50 or 60 pictures to accompany the text.

CLARY: Did you work with the Magnum photographers?

JOAN: No, just with the other researchers. The photographers had their club, and we felt we had ours. We were rowdy and arrogant just like the photographers, we thought.

CLARY: How did you get into photo book editing?

JOAN: Well, it was a natural progression, but mostly it was because Mary Ellen Mark, who was in Magnum at the time (1978), asked me if I’d edit her book on prostitutes in Bombay, “Falkland Road.” I was thrilled. I loved the work she had done and enjoyed creating a visual narrative. 

My father was a wonderful storyteller. His stories were all fantasies and somewhat like movie serials, where the hero (himself) would go along happily until he had to contend with some terrible threat. He’d stop the story each night just when you didn’t know how his character would escape from the cannibals who were just about to throw him in boiling water - or some other frightening situation. 

When I was six, I was sick with rheumatic fever and each night, after my father came home from work, he would pick up the story from the night before. I’m sure I got my love of narrative from him.

CLARY: You’ve edited several books of other photographers, and three of your own books. Is there a difference in the process?

JOAN: Yes, I suffer much more with my own books than books for others. 

CLARY:  What is your process when editing a book?

JOAN: I have 5x7’s of all the pictures printed so that they can be laid out on the floor. Then, I start pairing pictures and pasting them together. Eventually, I notice pairs that seem to go together and phrases begin to be built. It’s a completely visual process. I don’t know the sequence of the book at the beginning; I just keep building. It’s like lego. 

With “Falkland Road,” I was working with slides, so I laid out pairs and sequences in slide sheets. It was harder, but it hadn’t occurred to me yet to have small prints made. That’s when I learned the value of prints. 

CLARY:  What are the elements that you look for when pairing images?

JOAN: You don’t want to pair pictures that cancel each other out or that repeat one another. I don’t pair for the subject. It’s a more form-based consideration. If you pair for form, you’re more likely to come up with surprising relationships in which the pictures play off one another and the reader keeps looking back and forth between the two pages because he’s intrigued. It’s the editor’s job to slow down the reader so he wants to stop and look and not just rip through the book. 

CLARY: Who is in the room when you are editing a book for a photographer?

JOAN: I always work with the photographer for the first session or two to learn which pictures are important and what the photographer’s feelings are about the work. Then I’m usually editing on my own for weeks trying to come up with a first dummy. 

In recent years, however, I’ve worked with designer Yolanda Cuomo on three books, one of Charlie’s, called “Departures and Arrivals,” and two of my own. (Photographer Charles Harbutt was Joan’s husband, who died in 2015.) It’s great fun to edit with Yolanda, who is wild and wooly. I’ve learned a lot from her.

CLARY:  How many books have you edited?

JOAN: About 16.

CLARY:  Did they all get published?

JOAN: No, two didn’t. One by Naomi Savage, Man Ray’s niece, whose book we named “My Family and Other Strangers,” and a book by Idalina Pedrosa, a Portuguese woman living in France, called “Enfants de la Patrie”.  But if any publishers are listening I still have the dummies and the scans!

CLARY:  What tips do you have for photographers who have very personal projects and want to edit their work for a book?

JOAN: Choose carefully who you show your work to. Don’t show it to too many people or friends because they’ll drive you crazy with their different opinions. Pick out a few people who you respect and take their comments seriously.  

The moment when the meaning of the photographer’s work becomes more clear is after you’ve edited out all the photographs that are either boring, imitative or dishonest in some way. Then what remains on the floor are the bones of the book. 

To connect with Joan Liftin about her books, please visit her website

 Joan Liftin
Joan Liftin has worked as a photographer, photo book editor and teacher for many years. She is the author of three photo books Drive-Ins (2004), Marseille (2015) and Water For Tears (2018). Liftin was Chair of the Documentary Program at the...

By The Visura Media Blog —

Featured Film News Reframe Videos

Video: Johanna Alarcón on the power of Photography

By Directed by Adriana Teresa Letorney for Visura — Visura founder Adriana Teresa Letorney interviews Ecuadorian photojournalist Johanna Alarcón..
Media News

on The Washington Post: Why some Black Lives Matter supporters are upset about the recent #BlackOutTuesday hashtag on Instagram

By The Visura Media Blog — Why some Black Lives Matter supporters are upset about the recent #BlackOutTuesday hashtag on Instagram A..
Featured Film Media News Videos

We Recommend: NPR Music Tiny Concerts: Coldplay

By The Visura Media Blog — This performance was recorded on January 23, 2020. We will continue releasing Tiny Desk videos of shows..
Events News

We recommend: MOMA's Cooking with Artists Series by Mina Stone

By The Visura Media Blog — Mina Stone welcomes you to a series of interviews with artists about her favorite topic: home cooking. In..
Featured Film News Reframe Videos

VIDEO: Sara Hylton on the importance of stories that capture strength, resilience and beauty

By The Visura Media Blog — Visura founder Adriana Teresa Letorney interviews Canadian artist Sara Hylton for this new video series..
Events News

Catchlight presents webinar: COVID-19 Safety Training for Visual Journalists

By The Visura Media Blog — The Catchlight organization is presenting a webinar titled COVID-19 Safety Training for Visual..

Reframe | Fred Ritchin & the Post-Photographic Challenge, Part I

By written by Clary Estes for The Visura Media Blog — Editor's Note: For the first installment of this multi-part series, writer Clary Estes sat down with..
Events News

Visura announces a Relief Effort for Visual Storytellers

By The Visura Media Blog — The Visura community is supporting visual storytellers worldwide who have been impacted by the COVID-19..
News Reframe v_features

Reframe | Stephen Mayes & The State of Photojournalism, Part I

By Written by Clary Estes for The Visura Media Blog — Editor's note: The Reframe Column is a series of essays and interviews aimed at examining new media and..

Helpful Tips: How to confirm your submission entry

By The Visura Media Blog — Here is a step by step guide to confirm your submission entry was successful after applying to an open call..

Deadline to submit to the IWMF Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award is March 1st, 2020

By The Visura Media Blog — Visura is honored to welcome the  International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) to the Visura..
News Reframe

In conversation with Jin Ding at IWMF about The Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award

By The Visura Media Blog — The International Women Media Foundation (IWMF)— —  is a 501(c)3 non-profit..
Events News

Submit to 2020 IWMF Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award via Visura

By The Visura Media Blog — Visura is honored to welcome the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) to the Visura community..
Books News

Pieter Hugo book signing for La Cucaracha on Thursday, Jan 16 at Dashwood Books in NY

By The Visura Media Blog / 33 Bond St New York, NY — Dashwood Books invites you for a book signing with photographer Pieter Hugo on Thursday, January 16th from..
Events News

Exhibition: La Cucharacha by Pieter Hugo at Yossi Milo Gallery

By The Visura Media Blog — La Cucaracha January 10 – February 29, 2020 Yossi Milo Gallery 245 Tenth Avenue (between 24th &..
Books News

Books we recommend: The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion By Antwaun Sargent

By The Visura Media Blog — In The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion , curator and critic Antwaun Sargent..


By The Visura Media Blog — Dear Visura Family, Thank you. Thank you for being a part of the Visura community—and for standing..
Events News

Join us at the VISURA ANNUAL BOOK SIGNING HOLIDAY PARTY on Thursday, Dec 19, 2019 at Foley Gallery in New York

By The Visura Media Blog — Hosted by Foley Gallery on Thursday, December 19th from 7:00 pm -10:00 pm— Visura & Foley Gallery..
Events News

Exhibition: Yamamoto Masao at Yancey Richardson

By The Visura Media Blog — Yamamoto Masao Itteki December 12, 2019 - February 8, 2020 Opening Reception and Book Signing: Thursday,..
News Videos

V-Talks: Journalist and activist Ahmed Benchemsi at the Visura Salon

By The Visura Media Blog — Watch Journalist and activist Ahmed Benchemsi share his personal story and views on how the Middle East and..
News Reframe

on The Daring: Visura Founder Adriana Teresa Letorney - Parts of a Whole

By Interview by Ioana Friedman for The Daring — “From a tech perspective, we always have a choice. Do we want to foster respect, integrity, kindness,..
Events News

Festival: FotoMéxico 2019

By The Visura Media Blog — An initiative of Centro de la Imagen: The FotoMéxico Festival presents over 100 exhibitions in..
Events News

Exhibition: #InHonor: Monoliths by Ervin A. Johnson at Arnika Dawkins Gallery

By The Visura Media Blog — ARNIKA DAWKINS GALLERY #INHONOR: MONOLITHS 11 OCT 2019 - 7 FEB 2020 Arnika Dawkins Gallery presents native..
News Reframe

SPOTLIGHT: Antonio Pulgarin & The Sun that Frightens the Cold

By Interview by Clary Estes for The Visura Media Blog — Antonio Pulgarin is a Colombian-American lens-based artist who uses photography, photographic collage and..
Join us
for more access