Talking with Karen Mullarkey

Part 2

Jan 12, 2015 · 27 min read

Part two of my talk with Karen Mullarkey, who is one of the most influential and respected picture editors of all time. She’s a national treasure. Dozens, if not hundreds of photographers owe much of their success to her. Karen cut her chops at Life Magazine and quickly moved on to be the Director of Photography at Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. If you care about photography, photographers, the editorial world or history in general, read on.

You can read the first part of my interview with Karen here.

Kenneth Jarecke

Karen Mullarkey upon arriving at Rolling Stone in 1974 straight off the beaches of San Diego.

It’s all Rock & Roll

I was on the beaches of San Diego, California and it was wonderful, crazy fun. I had worked at Psychology Today out there, but it had just moved to New York and I didn’t have a job. I was doing some freelance styling and production work for a couple of photographers from Magnum when they had ad work. One day I decide to drive up to see friends in Humboldt County and stop in San Francisco to break up the long drive and stay with my cousins on my way up north. I decided to go to Rolling Stone and ask if they need a picture editor.

I asked the receptionist at RS if they were looking to hire a photo editor, and she calls someone from the Art Department who comes out and says, “How do I know you can edit pictures?”

I said, “Give me a contact sheet, a loupe and a grease pencil.”

So he does and I edit.

Then I say, “Look, I gotta go. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and I’ll stop by.”

When I come back, he tells me I’m very good and that they’ll get in touch with me.

This is in 1974.

I go back down to my little shack in San Diego. Living in a place called, I love this, “Normal Heights.” There was actually a neon sign across the street that said, “Welcome to Normal Heights.” I get a call out of the blue from Jann Wenner the owner and editor of Rolling Stone. Now when I was up at RS the person from the art department had showed me around a bit and I saw where the photo office was and how their photo collection was stored and it was a catastrophe. So Jann calls, and he knows he has a mess in there, and he has a proposal for me.

He says, “You and Annie (Leibovitz) and I will go into that photo collection and we’ll get it all straightened out over the weekend.”

I replied, “That’s an interesting idea, but I’ve got one too. Why don’t you get three elephants put them in that room and lock the door, and when you come back on Monday the same amount of sh*t will be on the floor as there would be if we try to do this in one weekend.”

I continued, “Here’s my conditions. I’ll come, but only if I’m in charge and we’ll do it my way or I don’t need to come there. I’ll go surfing. It’s fine.”

You see, by then I’d found my voice.

He was not happy.

Three days later he calls me back and simply says, “Okay.” and off I go.

Karen in President Ford’s Oval Office during her Rolling Stone years. Photo by David Hume Kennerly

Rolling Stone

When I get there the head picture editor decides to go off with Francis Ford Coppola when he’s making Apocalypse Now, so suddenly I’m the picture editor. Meanwhile, Annie is in South Africa doing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last Mr. Olympia competition. So I haven’t even met her. I’m hoping that she shoots him like a piece of meat, but I decided not to call her, because she doesn’t know me and I’m not going to intrude. She gets back, and by God that’s just what she did. I was so thrilled.

Then it got interesting.

Annie and I were the same height then, six feet. She was used to towering over people and being able to intimidate them. Part of that, I think, was because when she went to work on an assignment she did whatever it took, anything to get access to make the photo. So when she came back all that anger-energy would need an outlet and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience.

This was early in her career and Rolling Stone ran very little color inside the magazine. She was still shooting mostly black and white, say 90% of the time, but all at 1600 (iso)! At Life, you didn’t do that unless you were shooting in the worst conditions.

Before Annie got back from South Africa I meet a kid named Max Hellweg, who went on to be a very good photographer. At the time, he was on staff at the magazine and was Annie’s printer. I go into the darkroom area (Ken, it wasn’t even its own separate room just an area outside of where the cameramen worked to produce all the final film for the press) and I trip over some boxes. They’re right under the sink and the water is running.

I ask, “What’s in the boxes?”

He replies, “Annie’s negatives.”

So I say, “Really, and why are they there?” He tells me because its much more convenient.

Now, they actually had a fireproof safe with a lock, which I had the combination to. Sitting in that safe, I swear to God, was nothing but press photos, glossies, one-offs. So I tell Max to pick up the boxes and come with me. I open the fireproof safe and start taking all these glossy prints from inside the cabinet and throwing them on the floor. He’s kind of startled.

I tell him, “This is what’s going to happen Max. You’re going to put all these negatives into the fireproof cabinet and I’m the only one with the combination.”

He asks, “Well what’s going to happen to all this stuff on the floor?”

I replied, “Well, that’s a problem you’re going to have to solve. Isn’t it?”

Slowly but surely I started to get Annie’s work in order.

Annie and I kind of bond over the Schwarzenegger stuff, but we’re still sizing each other up. I only find out much later that she was anxious about me because of my background at Life, as I was about her because she was brilliant and I knew she had a temper. So we were both a little afraid but neither one of us wanted to show the fear.

At a gathering of the editorial and advertising staff of Rolling Stone which was organized by Jann Wenner after the magazine moved to New York City. The editorial staff was sequestered in an East Hampton mansion which allowed them to party like rock stars but also kept them away from the straight-laced business crowd. At a mixed gathering one of the ad people suggested pursuing the US Army as a client, this didn’t sit well with the editorial side. Karen is glad Hunter Thompson wasn’t there as he probably would have shot the guy. Photo by Annie Leibovitz

So one day I say to her (maybe about a month or two after she’d gotten back from South Africa), “Why do you always shoot Tri-X at 1600?”

She does this thing, when she gets nervous, puts her hands to her hair and goes, “That’s how I do it. Ah. That’s my style. That’s who I am. Why do you ask?”

I said, “I asked because I thought the reason you did it was because you didn’t know how to shot it at normal.”

Well, at this point we’re about four inches apart. She looks at me, I don’t think you can print her reaction but it had a reference to a female dog.

I agreed, “Well yes I am, but be quiet for a second and listen. Don’t say anything that you’re going to regret and have to apologize for later. I accept that I’m a f*cking b*tch. I am, I tell you that.”

I continued, “Here’s the deal. I’m going to try and teach you stuff you don’t know, technical stuff. If I have to I’ll hire assistants to do all the lighting, I will. You won’t have to think about it. You’ll only have to be brilliant, which you are. At the same time, you are going to teach me, through your photography how to see better. So we’ll each be learning and teaching at the same time. What do you think of that?”

She thought about it and came back shortly and answered, “I think maybe that’s a good deal.”

So we shook on it. From that point on she started calling me “Choo Choo”, because my trains, unlike hers, always ran on time.

Annie started out wanting to be a painter. Not unlike (Henri Cartier) Bresson. That’s how he started. She took a photography class at the San Francisco Art Institute. That’s when she really discovered how much she loved photography. Technically when I first met her she was a novice, but her eye, her instincts, she was like … well, she was the finest tuned predator I’d ever met. Which is a great skill to have, an asset as a photographer. She had a great eye and it just got better.

Shortly after I left Rolling Stone and before I went to Newsweek I got every negative and slide of Annie’s out of RS. Then I made sure (Robert) Pledge (of Contact Press Images) had it.

The Family © Richard Avedon/Rolling Stone

Richard Avedon’s Family

The idea for “The Family” was Jann Wenner’s. Richard Avedon might have approached him. I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to that. I was told this is the idea for the United States Bicentennial. Dick had his list. He went off and did it. I worked with him when he came to San Francisco when we were beginning to put the issue together. I was very nervous. I was sure he was going to be one of those people who had seen everything and done everything and we were going to be like hicks (in comparison). He was exactly the opposite.

I had a ’55 VW. It had nothing. No heat, nothing. I use to drive him around in that. The first time I took him over to Sausalito I made the classic mistake of doing exactly what you fear that someone else is going to do to you. So I’m driving him over to Sausalito. The sun is going down and it lights up the Trans American building. This happened every evening when the sun went down, but he sees it for the first time. He’s like, look at that.

Then immediately out of my mouth comes, “Oh yeah. It happens every night.”

The second I said it, I realized that was exactly what I was afraid he was going to do to me. At which point I told him I was really sorry.

We spent a lot of time together. I had a luncheon for him where I was living in Mill Valley and afterwards we went out to see Christo’s Fence, an art piece that he had constructed that came up out of the ocean in West Marin and it stretched East almost to Highway 101. Avedon went bezerk for it. He kept raving, asking why he hadn’t been assigned to shoot a Vogue fashion story there. The light was, well, it was magic light in the morning and magic light in the evening, it was unbelievable. The fabric was that orange tone that Christo uses.

These three ladies, tourists were there, and one of them asked, “Will somebody take our picture next to the fence?”

So Avedon takes their camera, a point and shoot thing, and he has his glasses on his forehead, and asks my housemate who is also a professional photographer, “How does this thing work?”

Avedon was used to seeing everything upside-down and backwards (with a view camera). Laurence shows him and I swear to God he practically shot the whole roll. He’s having them do different poses and the whole nine yards. He wanted to do a fashion shoot there so badly.

When he was done he gave the camera back and the ladies never knew their pictures were taken by Richard Avedon.

The Family © Richard Avedon/Rolling Stone

Just to see how he worked on “The Family” and see all of those photographs. I still have a complete set of stats, and all the layouts, the different ways the images were laid out. It was an incredible experience to work with him because he was so available. In other words, everybody was equal. He had no attitude. There was none of that, I’m Richard Avedon and you’re not. And I’ve definitely encountered that in some other famous photographers. So that was a great lesson, a life lesson.

Especially after I did that Trans America crap. I had to think about not doing that, and about being like him. I’d keep him in mind so that whenever I’d see a photographer and even if their work wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t just say, oh that’s not any good. I always tried to tell them what they could be doing better. You know, a lot of times when you dropped your work off at a magazine nobody even looked at it. That’s the truth. That’s a disservice. You’re not doing your job if you don’t tell the truth.

Editors Note — At this point I asked Karen how long they spent laying out the issue.

He was shooting over a long period of time. I think we were still a bi-weekly at that point. Also Bea Feitler (she was a brilliant NY Art Director, Brazilian, stunningly gifted) came out to help. Dick didn’t really know us, so he had Bea there as a fallback. He learned to adore Roger Black the Art Director at Rolling Stone and really trust him. I mean, (at the time) what did he know? He didn’t know us and he wanted to have his safety net too. That’s when I started working with Bea and that was fantastic. She had been trained by Marvin Israel for God’s sake.

The Family © Richard Avedon/Rolling Stone

I’m going to guess it took us at least three weeks to layout the issue. We kept moving things around. Not everything could be a full page. Then one page would have four images. The question was are they, the people in the photograph and the image themselves, strong enough, important enough to be a full page or would they be better as a group of four.

My favorite part of those pictures, among other things, are the ties. Look at the ties. The big, wide ties. So seventies, one of those little elements that is just spectacular.

That was the first time I’d seen someone working really well in four-five. I don’t remember many assignments at Life being shot in 4x5. We certainly didn’t do it at Rolling Stone. It taught me something about portraiture that I never knew.

The Family © Richard Avedon/Rolling Stone

There’s a great line that Cartier-Bresson has, which I love. “Portraiture is hard because you need to get between somebody’s skin and their shirt.” If you look at Dick’s stuff, that’s what he did.

Editors’s Note — I asked Karen if it was frustrating to see this groundbreaking work mimicked by magazines today that don’t even know the source material.

Oh, it makes me nuts!

Serving as both captain and mother to Newsweek’s photographers. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith


One of the things I think a really good picture editor is about, and you’d have to be Jewish to get this, as much as you have to have a good eye, you have to be a yenta. You have to make really good matches. Its like an arranged marriage.

When I went to Newsweek, I was the first woman to ever have that job. Before you always had to be a guy from the wires and you needed to have risen through the ranks of the magazine. They (Newsweek) broke the mold in 1984 when they went outside of the magazine and hired me. I hadn’t done hard news since the mid sixties at Life during the Vietnam war period. I had been doing fashion, feature stories and rock ‘n roll.

When I started at Newsweek they had staff photographers who had been there for a very long time. They weren’t what I was use to. Because of working at Rolling Stone, Look (during its brief revival) and New York Magazine I was use to assigning photographers such as Annie, Larry Williams, Herb Ritts, Hiro, Harry Benson, James Hamilton and new photographers like Andy Levin who I got to know when I was at New York Magazine.

I was attracted to certain photographers when I could smell their hunger and I could sense their desire, their intensity. All I ever wanted to see from any photographer who came to show me their work was a contact sheet or a number of slide sheets. I didn’t want to see a series of single images. Don’t give me single prints that aren’t related. I want to see the full take. Bring me contact sheets. I want to see the mistakes as well as the successes.

The problem with digital now is young photographers erase their mistakes. That’s a huge error.

Jimmy Colton was the Foreign Picture Editor at Newsweek. He knew Peter Turnley. He had been working with him. Jimmy showed me Peter’s work. I give all the credit to Jimmy. He auditioned all these people for me. Jimmy gets full credit. Once the photographers were signed, I never doubted that they could do it. I simply told them I had complete and total faith in them.

I had made a couple of requests before taking the job at Newsweek. One of them was that I wanted a public coronation. As the first woman to do this job, I wanted everyone, particularly the senior editors to see that I only answered to one person and that was the editor in chief Richard M. Smith. I didn’t want any crap.

The other deal was that I wanted to cut the world into pieces and put a contract photographer into each piece. Each photographer would be responsible for their piece. That’s how it started.

I gave Peter Europe. I gave Andy Hernandez the Far East.

I gave Mark Peters, who was about to sign a contract with Time, all of Africa. Jimmy got him on the phone just before he was going to sign with Time and I said, “Darling, don’t go with those people. There are 55 of them. Sweetheart, stick with me. You don’t even know me, but I’ll tell you that I’m much more fun.”

I said to each of them, “When stuff breaks out in your territory, call me from it. Don’t call me from your home. Just go.”

I added, “If it’s wrong and we made a mistake I’ll take the heat. Nobody gets to you through me.”

I think that’s one of the reasons they brought me in from the outside. I made it very clear to the senior editors that if you pick on any of the kids that work for me, you would have picked on me.

Arnold Drapkin (the Director of Photography at Time) did a big dinner for me at Germaine’s in Washington at the beginning of my job at Newsweek. In his toast he said it will be interesting to see if she can bid blind and how we’ll see what she’s made of. Every time he referred to me it was as “she.”

I got up. Thanked Arnold for hosting the dinner and picking up the tab (because it was huge). All the Time, Newsweek and U.S. News photographers based in Washington were there as well as some of the freelancers.

Then, with all those guys there I toasted Arnold, “You know it will be interesting to see when these boys are out in the field and somebody has been trying to kill them, if they want to talk to their dad, because of course with their dad they have to stay so brave all the time, or whether they’re going to want to talk to their mom. Who will be understanding, a dead letter office where they can let their hair down.”

Then I stared him square in the eye and said, “You know what Arnold, my money’s on the mother.”

I looked over at Wally McNamee and he had the biggest smile on his face. After that Wally and I were bonded.

My contract photographers who were covering conflict situations would call me up after terrible things had happened all around them. They had witnessed awful stuff and (with me) they were allowed to get emotional. I’d never tell anybody. It was a great relief for them. (Ken, you well know, in those situations, where you have photographed death and destruction like the extraordinary photograph from the Gulf War of the Iraqi solder coming through the window all burned up.) Those images live in your brain forever.

They live with photographers. They live with photo editors also because they see the raw take and they decide what civilians can see. So all those pictures live in my head. When sh*t goes down like the bombing in Boston, they all come out to visit. (I would imagine, Ken, when some dreadful event occurs, you might remember those pictures and they come back to say hello to you.)

This is why I was looking to hire photographers who would be like guerillas. People I could still dress up in a tuxedo and send on a lovely dinner with Mrs. Graham, but guerillas. Nobody would be looking over their shoulder when they were shooting. If a staff photographer showed up in their territory, that staff photographer would be working for them. Which was the exact opposite of how it was run at Time.

I had six contract photographers and Time had fifty-five. Newsweek told me I could hire away one photographer from Time as a new staff photographer. I choose Arthur Grace. Everybody asked, why?

I said, “Arthur is like Annie. He doesn’t stand where other people do.”

Like Annie, Arthur hates to be behind the rope or anywhere else that other photographers are. It’s part of how those two are wired visually. My experience with Annie taught me a lot. I knew to always look for people who went and shot things differently, who took risks.

When Arthur and I did Choose Me in 1988. It was his idea. A brilliant idea. He decided he wanted to shoot the presidential campaign not with thirty-five, but with a Rollie in 2 ¼ format.

Choose Me by Arthur Grace

He said, “When you have a 35mm and the TV light goes on they give you that face. With a Rollie, they’ll never know when I’m making a picture.”

I said, “Go.”

The first time we laid out one of his pictures an assistant managing editor thought he’d crop it. My God I had a big fight. I was fearless because I knew I only had to answer to the Editor in Chief, his boss. If I had to, I’d go into Rick Smith’s office.

I asked the assistant managing editor, “Do I come down here and edit your copy? Do I come in here and start cutting copy?”

He replied, “No.”

I continued, “You know why? Because I’m not qualified to do that. Editing Photographs are what I’m qualified to do and you know what, you’re not. You should trust me. You’ll benefit from it. So you don’t get to crop this picture.”

I didn’t use Mrs. Graham’s name, the Publisher of the magazine, in this situation. But I definitely played the Kay Graham card when I had to empty my savings account to get Peter Turnley enough cash to fly back to the Soviet Union with Gorbachev, who was on his first visit to the US when the Armenian earthquake occurred.

Aftermath from the earthquake in Armenia. © Peter Turnley

Peter and I ran into her in the lobby of 444 Madison coming back from my bank. She asked how I was, so I went bonkers and told her how I had to empty out my own checking account because the accounting department wouldn’t give Peter enough f*cking money! Damn, she fixed that fast. She got him all the cash he needed. Then she had me come up to her office and wrote me a personal check to replenish what I had taken out. That’s when she gave me her private number and told me if I ever had that kind of problem again to call her. I adored her. She couldn’t have been more supportive and helpful to me. I think she understood my position, as she had broken a major glass ceiling when she became publisher of both the magazine and the Washington Post.

So anyway, of course, they ran Arthur’s images exactly how they were composed.

Newsweek’s post-election issue was filled with Arthur’s work. Then we did the book Choose Me. It’s a great book. We laid it out in the order of when people dropped out of the race. It’s like an obit. It’s a stunning book and that’s why I picked Arthur because he’d have those kinds of ideas. That’s like an Annie idea. That’s also what I was looking for in my contract photographers. They had to be fearless and not always in line with the 55 other guys (at an event).

That’s the secret and that’s what you should look for now.

These photographers today have no mother. That’s a loss. I’m telling you, the photographers I hired, every single one of them is still in touch with me. Our connection has never been broken, ever.

Mark Peters and I Skype. Bill Gentile, Peter Turnley, we exchange emails and FB notes all the time. It’s just how it is. Andy Hernandez is married and has a restaurant in Lithuania and we’re in touch all the time. Charlie Cole lives in Bali and we are constantly in touch also.

I was fair but tough. A couple of times the Washington photographers would fight with me and ask why they had to do things a certain way.

I’d reply, “Two reasons, I have the captain’s hat and more importantly because I said so.”

They made me a little sign, funny, I still have it. It’s a mother duck, with all her ducklings following behind her in a line and it said, “Karen’s Law — Because I said so.”

That’s missing today. There are times to be loving. Like with children, there are times to love them and hug them and then there are times when you have to pat their fannies a little bit. Knowing which one of those things to apply at the right time is the secret to being a great editor. You don’t need to spank fannies too often. Nobody likes it. They learn quickly. It’s like house breaking a dog (laughs). What it does is really free them. That’s what I told Annie. I got her assistants so that she didn’t have to think about the technical stuff, because that wasn’t her gift at the time. Her gift is how she sees things.

I told her, you can tell if it’s what you want by the Polaroid and keep yelling at the assistants until you see what you want. Then you are in charge and it’s all what you see. Annie does a lot of homework. There are paintings and other references in the images she’s making.

She’s an artist. I think of Arthur, he’s an artist too.

While shooting the famous Sports Illustrated hologram cover of Michael Jordan, Karen took the opportunity to squeeze tighter into his lean frame when he threw the bunny ears.

On Photographers

There’s an eighteen minute video which I watch all the time. It was done by Scholastic and ICP, an interview with Cartier-Bresson in 1973. It’s on YouTube. It’s brilliant. HCB says: “You don’t overshoot because it’s like overeating and over drinking.” The point is, people who shoot that much aren’t looking. They’re just machine gunning.

I think that part of this (being a great photographer) is an innate gift. I think that all artists, whatever the medium, have some genetic luck. That gives them the drive for whatever the talent is, painter, writer, musician, photographer. There’s something that’s deep within their soul.

I use to tell photographers that I believe great photographers, artists, whomever, have a third eye. Many decades ago I was weaving and doing rugs I remember looking down at my hands and being in wonder of what they were doing. I’d say to myself, just stay out of their way. Get out of the way and let them do what they do. I think the same thing is true with photographers.

When they are really good it’s intuitive. This is what happens when they don’t over think it. That is what Bresson says.

I believe you should just let the third eye run the show. The ones that can do that produce photographs that make you … they startle you. They make you have to look twice. Maybe three times. Then when you go back and look again it still has that value.

Bresson was a painter. He had great patience. He also moved like a cat. He was always on his toes. There’s video of him and he’s literally moving like Fred Astaire.

I use to gallop horses, bareback when I was younger, when it went right you and the horse were one. That’s the same thing with photographers. When you and your camera are one and you’re connected into your third eye. That’s when magic happens.

The pieces of the puzzles are; You’re given a gift. You discover the gift. You perfect the gift.

Each photographer discovers it differently. Something happens in their life. Salgado found the camera (as I understand it) his wife Lelia was using in a class she was taking. That’s how he found the camera. Once he discovered his gift he perfected it by traveling with Doctors Without Borders, slept in a hammock and stayed a very long time in every place.

Really good photographers work every day. Where’s that next picture? That’s what they want to know. Great photographers are like children. They’re always curious. They don’t want to grow up, on a certain level. They want to keep that childlike curiosity. That’s another gift great photographers have.

I just had my fiftieth high school reunion and we had to write about what we did in the last fifty years. Most of the pieces were like, Bob and I got married. We had our kids and now we’re retired in Naples, Florida. I started writing mine and my classmate who was editing this reunion edition of our yearbook said, “Holy sh*t keep writing!”

At the end of the piece I said, “I never got married and never had children so instead I raised photographers.”

With Sports Illustrated’s current DoP Brad Smith in the good seats at Yankee Stadium on her 71st birthday.

The best thing about photographers is they never grow up. The good ones never grow up.

Look at (David) Burnett. Every time he goes somewhere it’s like the first time. The point is that for the best shooters, each assignment or moment is as exciting as the first one.

(I think the same was true with you Ken, Whenever you went out on an assignment, whenever I sent you out on an assignment, for you it was something brand new. That’s why you take the kind of pictures you do, because you’re constantly wanting to be surprised.)

That’s the cream that rises to the top. Lots of photographers don’t have that. They’re tradesmen.

That’s what is missing today because the beginners they’re starting out on digital. You’re f*cked on digital. I hate it. They do center focus because that’s what the f*cking camera does. Pardon me. Then they get to erase their mistakes, which means they’ve learned nothing.

I just told a whole bunch of kids up in Syracuse that if they erase their mistakes they’ll never learn anything. You don’t learn from your successes. You learn from your errors because you don’t want to do them again.

I have a picture of Annie’s hanging over my desk she shot in 1981 of Lauren Hutton, buried in mud, naked except for a little G-string and clover where her you-know-what is. She’s completely buried, all you see is her face, that famous gap toothed smile. Now think. Whoppi Goldberg in the milk. Bette Midler in the roses. I sent her out on an assignment when I was at Newsweek and she was shooting for Vanity Fair to do Sting. She covered him in mud. You see what I’m saying? That concept stayed with her and she played with it a lot.

You don’t always get to make the photograph of the idea you had at the moment, but if you’re creative it stays with you in the third eye. You do it over and over again until you get it right. It is your visual unconscious.

European photographers are wired different. They go to a place. They see a place. It’s like that shot of the little girl going up the stairs in Greece by Cartier-Bresson. He said he took just a couple of pictures. One of a priest with a conical hat and the little girl. He saw the spot. He saw the light. He stood there and waited for the right person to come. He wasn’t going to be looking at the back of his camera. He was waiting for the moment. All these kids who are constantly looking at the back of the camera have probably just missed the moment.

The problem is there aren’t as many photographers coming up who in my opinion who are as brilliant as the ones who started out on film. There’s some of course. This gal, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz who won a number of awards at World Press, Alexia Foundation, Perpignan, and the Sony World Photograph, for her remarkable photographs documenting domestic violence. She was just a college student, in Ohio when she began to shoot that story.

She took her work to Donna Ferrato, naturally. It wasn’t yet a completed story, it was about half done. Donna immediately saw that this young woman had great talent and potential and she called me while Sara was there. She told me to get dressed.

Donna said, “I don’t care if you’re in your pajamas but come down here right now. I want you to see this work and give this girl some help.”

So I did and the work was fabulous.

She asked me to go through her stuff and I asked her, “How tough is your skin? How thick is it?”

She said, “Very thick.”

So I went through it. I’m throwing prints on the floor. I laid out a sequence and to this day Sara says that’s the basic sequence she still uses.

I could see that this was a photographer who did not look at the back of her camera while she was shooting. She’s from the old breed.

They (the new photographers) also have those cards that let them shot a couple of thousand pictures at a time. When I was in Syracuse to do the Alexia Foundation one of the students told me his buddy overshot (I’d already told them I hated that). So I told the guy your assignment for tomorrow is you get to shoot twenty pictures, total. I told him that he better be sitting right here the next day and those twenty pictures are what I want to see.

The next day I saw him and asked how he was doing. He said, “I shot fifteen.”

I said, “I bet you’re really scared to death. You’ve only got five left. I bet you’re terrified you aren’t going to find the right five.”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Wonderful, fear is a great motivator.”

The fact that you can look at the back (of the camera) takes away from that. When you couldn’t look. When you had to trust your judgement. You thought before you pushed the button. Especially if you had to process and pay for your own color processing. Thank you. Doing that you had to be very thoughtful.

When you’re being challenged to be better than you think you are, that’s why I say fear is a great motivator. When you’re scared that you’re not going to pull it off, the adrenalin kicks in. If you’re gifted, that adrenalin makes the third eye open up that much wider.

With photographers Frans Lanting (L) and Seth Resnick (R) at The Tech Museum of Innovation Gala in San Jose. Karen has organized the One Night Only presentation of images for the past six years.

That’s why I love Bresson, because he says in that documentary if you are shooting too fast, too much, the decisive moment might be right in between the moment when you are pushing the button.

Great photographers are problem solvers. Nothing you put in their way is anything more than a speed bump. That’s another thing I learned from Annie. Diane Keaton wouldn’t let her in the house, so she sat outside her door in the hallway. Diane called me up and asked me how to get rid of her.

I said to her, “There’s only one way I know that works every single time. Open the door.”

That’s the deal. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s why Sara’s work is so great. There was somebody in the house when a very nasty domestic violence incident happened who called 911, but Sara never put her camera down. She made sure the call was made but she just kept shooting.

In 1968 while working at Life I was sent to Newark Airport to meet Joe Lowe who had taken the photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King after he was shot.

Afterwards Bill Eppridge looked at the contact sheet and said to me, “You can tell the photographer wasn’t a pro because he waited until the towel was placed over Dr. King’s head.”

I was still very naïve and green and said, “You mean to tell me if Bobby Kennedy was shot in front of you (this is April of 1968, Bobby was shot in June), and you adore him and you’ve been following him for years, you wouldn’t reach down to help him?”

Eppridge told me, “That’s not what I do. My job is to record what happens. I don’t edit in the camera. There are people here (at Life). They edit. My job is to record what happens in front of my face.”

Then in June I’m at home and I see the assassination happen. I got dressed and went to work. The only good thing that happened in 1968 was they went around the moon at Christmas time. Besides that ’68 was one horrible event after another.

Bill was never the same (after photographing Bobby being shot). He did what he was supposed to do. You look at the contact sheet and there are maybe six frames that are out of focus. That’s in the middle of the take. He’d already made the show stopper. It took that long for his brain to register and then it came right back in. So out of 36 frames, I’m going to tell you maybe six were out of focus.

I read it took him forty years to be able to look at that contact sheet again. He was a pro but he paid a price.

We all gave a lot. If I gave out a lot, trust me. I got just as much back. It makes me want to cry because I think how f*cking lucky I was. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Pollard. What did Pollard see in me? I never saw it. So if later on I saw potential in beginning photographers or editors and helped them it was because I had been mentored well. My responsibility was to give that back.

Kenneth Jarecke’s work can be seen here.

Just Another War by Exene Cervenka and Kenneth Jarecke.

Husker Game Day by Kenneth Jarecke.

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Kenneth Jarecke

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I'm a husband, dad, photographer, a writer (sort of) and an occasional rancher.

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