Former Time Photo Editor Jay Colton Dies, Age 57

Conor Risch

Photograph of Jay Colton by William Coupon

Longtime TIME magazine photo editor and photographer Jay Colton died suddenly over the weekend while attending a photography festival in Brazil. The cause of death is not yet known, but according to friends, Colton’s younger brother, James, said that early indications were that Jay Colton suffered a massive heart attack or stroke. He was 57.

“We are still in a state of shock,” James Colton told News Photographer magazine. “It’s very hard to fathom.”

Before retiring in 2007 from TIME magazine, Colton won numerous recognitions for his work as a photo editor there. He was part of a TIME team that won ASME National Magazine Awards for coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

MaryAnne Golon, director of photography at TIME until 2008, who was also Colton’s close friend, says that Colton “was a great picture editor who thrived in the news environment.” When news would come in Colton would work the phones ceaselessly tying up material for the magazine, Golon recalls, and he was a calming influence when deadlines pushed people to the breaking point. “He was the calm in the storm,” Golon says. “Whenever there was trouble Jay was always at his best.”

“It was almost as if he was lit from within,” recalls Jim Kelly, who was editor of TIME magazine while Colton was there. “His manner was so peaceful and serene, he just created a very comfortable environment in which to look at the pictures he was showing you and to persuade you why this picture is better than that picture, and why this picture would work for the readers in a way that this other one really didn’t.”

Colton grew up surrounded by photography. His father, William J. “Sandy” Colton, who died in 2008 after a battle with cancer, was a writer and photographer for Stars & Stripes magazine during the Korean War, and was later a photography editor for the Washington Star and Associated Press. Colton’s mother was a longtime art director at People magazine. Colton’s younger brother, James, worked as a photo editor at Newsweek and is currently a photo editor at Sports Illustrated.

Colton’s close friend Fernando Castro, a photographer and curator, recalls that the Colton household was filled with photography books, and that famous photographers’ images hung on the walls. “I learned photography at his home,” Castro recalls. The two met in eighth grade art class and attended Jamaica High School together in Queens, NY.

Jay Colton began his career working as a photo editor at the agency Gamma Liaison. In 1981 he moved to Time, Inc. as the associate picture editor of Money magazine, and in 1989 went on to work as a special projects editor and then associate photo editor at TIME.

Throughout his career as a photo editor, Colton also worked on his own photography, maintaining a studio and printing his photographs in the darkroom. Golon recalls that he would work all day at TIME and then go home and work late into the night on his own images. “He had this incredible boundless energy and enthusiasm,” Golon says. “It was like he lived and breathed [photography].”

“Jay was compassionate about photography, people and life,” recalls photographer and filmmaker PF Bentley, who worked as a contract photographer at TIME during Colton’s tenure there. “There was always laughter and his wonderful photographs in his office at TIME. I will miss his spirit, and insight about our craft.”

"He had a wonderful way of answering the phone: 'Jay Colton, how may I help you?'" remembers photographer David Burnett, who worked with Colton on several projects for TIME, remembers. "And in the end for so many of us, that was what Jay was all about, a certain dedicated sense of selflessness, wanting to aid and assist the people he worked with."

Friends also remember Colton as a voracious reader, who could speak about nearly any topic, and as an incredible hobbyist chef who would cook fantastic meals.

When Colton retired from TIME in 2007 he focused on his own photography. Castro says Colton was experimenting with several camera formats, and had a particular interest in panoramic images, which he shot on black and white film and printed himself.

“He was always trying to strike a balance between beauty and information [in his photography],” Castro says. “He had this great penchant for beauty. He constantly was photographing. He died doing what he liked, that’s my consolation.”

Colton is survived by his son, Christopher, his wife, Moira North, his brother James, and other family members.

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