Bill Black, Director of Photography at Readers Digest

I had a serendipitous encounter with Bill Black, DOP at Readers Digest and on a whim asked him a few questions about the magazine. I hadn’t seen it in awhile (mom’s house maybe) and was unsure what they were doing with photography, but boy am I glad I did and you might be as well.

I haven’t been following Readers Digest lately. Is it still the 2nd largest magazine in the country?

Yes. Reader’s Digest actually has the highest paid circulation of 8 million subscribers in the US.

Can you tell me how you got started as a Photo Editor and how you ended up as DOP at Readers Digest?

Bill Black and kids

Bill Black with his kids

I studied photography in school and had every intention of trying to shoot magazine editorial work. I had an incredibly lucky start when I was interviewing with Adrian Taylor, then Art Director of Travel & Leisure magazine. He was hectic and answering his phone during the entire 20 minute interview. On one call he was distracted and yelling while flipping rapidly through my portfolio, dropping cigarette ashes on my pictures telling the person “there was no way in hell his messenger had lost the slides.” Convinced he had only looked at one picture in my book I got a perfunctory “nice work kid ” and then he asked if I’d ever consider taking a photo staff position at a magazine like T&L. He laughed when I replied with an emphatic yes before he finished asking the question. I told him I would make sure they didn’t loose any more slides.

Taylor was a great mentor and with his introductions I was in some of the world’s best photographers’ studios talking shop and editing their work for a Tenth anniversary issue. I could not believe I was bringing Ernst Haas over a six pack of his favorite beer to discuss and edit his best color work of Venice …then over to Arnold Newman’s place to look at portraits. Burt Glinn, Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, Inge Morath, Elliot Erwitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Tom Hollyman–the list went on and on. Eventually I was promoted to Picture Editor of T&L and had the most amazing eight years that anyone could have had in magazine publishing.

The editor in chief, Pamela Fiore, was a firm believer in offering her staff opportunities to grow professionally. As a result I got to travel and photograph stories we published on exotic places like Papua New Guinea, Africa, Asia and regions north of the arctic circle. Even though I had such a rich and unique learning experience and had been given so much, I was still naive enough to think that I should pursue a freelance life of shooting for other magazines so I impulsively resigned my post. Big mistake. I really missed the comradery and the social interactions within a magazine staff and its contributors.

It was then I met Travel Holiday’s editor in chief, Maggie Simmons. The magazine was owned by Reader’s Digest and in the midst of being relaunched and redesigned. She was looking for a photo editor that had solid connections in Travel. I was so fortunate to have another incredible 7 year run with her at Travel Holiday. We racked up over a 100 prestigious awards for the photography alone and many others for writing and desig . She promoted me to DOP and gave me unprecedented creative license on hiring and directing photographers. Unfortunately, Reader’s Digest decided they couldn’t figure out what to do with an award winning travel magazine and sold it to Hachette. Hachette brought in their own staff and it subsequently folded. Reader’s Digest then asked me to become DOP of their flagship magazine. They wanted to overhaul the magazine and introduce more original photography. Voila.

I can imagine that one of your biggest challenges is assigning photography that’s compelling yet not challenging for your readers to comprehend, because isn’t the whole idea behind Readers Digest to take stories and compress them down so they’re easier to read?

Photograph by Kevin Horan

Photograph by Kevin Horan

You might be surprised to know we frequently run 10 to 12 page features that are photo driven. Our newly hired editor in chief, Peggy Northrop is a passionate supporter of great photography. She has made it a priority to articulate a mission and aesthetic we’re all proud of. I think she is less concerned with compressing previously published material and more focused on commissioning great writers to write powerful, inspiring stories and give the magazine a louder more authoritative and original voice.

The photography needs to mirror that quest. Its size certainly presents challenges for photography but our readers love it for it’s portability and convenience.

Photograph by Kevin Horan

Photograph by Kevin Horan

When producing photography we generally subscribe to the less is more concept as we want the images to have the most impact within our framework. This places a bigger burden on the images to engage the reader immediately with opener photos that reach out and grab you, that are uncluttered, appealing, well composed, graphically fresh, emotionally relevant and ultimately memorable. I don’t think it’s a matter of risking that our readers won’t comprehend the photography as much as will it hold their attention and pull them into a story. The magazine reader of this day is very demanding and highly sophisticated visually. They want to get into their story, absorb the information that’s important to them and move on. The photography needs to be the catalyst to that experience.

Your next biggest challenge must be attracting a younger audience to the title. Like most magazines out there I assume your demographic keeps getting older each year and we all know that the key advertisers want to reach the younger demographic so what can you do photographically to make this happen?

Photograph by Tamara Reynolds

Photograph by Tamara Reynolds

Hire young minded photographers who want to help us. These are photographers who have studied us and tend to be highly creative, collaborative professionals who are constantly reinventing the norm, staying away from formula and coming to the table with fresh ideas for new approaches and solutions to breaking out of familiar patterns. This is a two way street and if we can team up with photographers on every project with this kind of joint energy and passion then I think you have the ingredients to produce quality in pictures that will transcend any generational differences or sensibilities.

You mentioned that you were assigning more photography than ever. Why is that?

It’s a requirement of the new direction and design of the magazine. Fewer pick up articles less stock photography and more original content that needs to be illustrated.

How much emphasis is on the website now? I see you have rd.com as a website, so somebody must have thought way back when, that the web was going to be useful to have the foresight to register rd.com. Any thoughts on how photography on-line will change in the coming years?

Yes our web forefathers were smart to do that and the current web team is also evolving the url to www.readersdigest.com. Right now both addresses will get you there. Currently we are producing a minimum of one slide show or multi media presentation from one of our features every issue. I strongly believe the web will become more and more of an outlet for quality photography. I love that photographers and magazine publishers/editors are thinking together in those terms. I think it can really enhance what is accomplished in print. There are those who forecast that the web will ultimately replace print. Not having a crystal ball, I think the mediums will both remain valid and offer different experiences for quite some time.

Tell me how you like to be reached by photographers and what types of photography you’re actively looking for?

We really aren’t staffed up to handle hard copy portfolios via mail or make appointments to review individual books at this time. I would highly recommend email and web links. We can’t always reply as our emails are overflowing but we do bookmark work we want to consider for future projects and are always adding to our talent pools. We’re a general interest magazine with a mass audience. Our visual DNA at its core is people. People in every spectrum of the human experience. The photographer’s work that can show us he/she can navigate easily through difficult emotional landscapes gaining trust and access with their subjects quickly is usually someone we will watch closely.

Email linda_carter(at)rd.com or bill_black(at)rd.com

There Are 9 Comments On This Article.

  1. I was in the grocery the other day and saw up copy and was surprised by the the cover. And then walked away because for some reason it didn’t register
    for possible contacts. There seems to be a lot redesigns going,but not only are they redesigning but also repurposing. I guess it’s time to take a new look at the news stand.

  2. When the largest magazine in the country decides that more original photography is what’s needed to prevent a slide in advertising and readership then I see nothing but blue sky for photographers.

  3. Great subject Rob. I must have read nearly every issue of RD throughout the 1990s, but never really considered it as a potential client until recently when a friend of mine shot for them and had nothing but good things to say…

  4. This will sound ridiculously cheesy like a 2am home made TV commercial.

    But this is the fact, for someone who has known , and works, with Bill Black for many yrs this was a WONDERFUL article to read.

    At RD Bill and Linda Carter are a rare jewel to be found in the photography world.
    There is nothing arrogant, brash or unfriendly about either one and their fair treatment towards photographer is like no one else.

    Folks they are the real McCoy. And besides their talent, the creative freedom they give to photographers makes it the perfect formula.

    I remember the first time I met Bill when he worked for T&L after reading an incredible article on him on a photo trade magazine. With all the cynicism and with the regular BS brush off “I love your book will be calling you soon BLAH BLAH BLAH…” my thoughts were “This is just crap for nobody can be this nice in our business specially in NYC.” One phone call and, boy! was I proven wrong!

    If any of you ever get to work 4 ONLY ONE CLIENT then you will be LUCKY if his name is Bill Black

    Great pix with the boys! This morning Ileana Bellovin told me about this article.

    Manuello Paganelli
    http://www.ManuelloPaganelli.com
    Los Angeles California

  5. Julie Litrov

    Like Manuello, I’ve known Bill for many years. I, too, found this article interesting.
    What I like about Bill is his passion for photography, not for a photographer. And, it translates in to his work ethics. Meaning, the well know name doesn’t mean EVERYTHING to him. He always gives chances to new and fresh unestablished photographers as long as he sees substance in their work. To me, this is highly admirable! I really detest the attitude of “lets-use-well-know-names-to-shoot-everything.” Unfortunately, this type of lazy, unfair, but “safe” outlook is being practiced way too often among Art Directors and Photo Directors resulting in tons of new young talent getting discouraged or overlooked.

    When I met Bill, I was a designer who liked to take pictures. Bill inspired me to become a designer with a passion for photography by sharing his knowledge and his experiences. I learned to “see” substance through observing and listening, Bill is a huge part of that transformation. I trust his keen eye and opinion as it proved to be on point on too many occasion.

  6. Sssshhhhh!!!! Don’t let the secret out!!! I second Manuello’s post whole heartedly. Bill and Linda are simply amazing to work with.

    Rob, thanks for shining a well deserved spotlight on their efforts to really push for and encourage new, good work. At a time when publishers are tightening the reins and pushing photo editors harder and harder with less and less, it’s exhilarating to see a commitment to photography and photographers.

    JG