How a Freelance Photo Researcher Finds Photographers

April 4, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Alyssa Coppelman began working for Harper’s magazine as an art intern in 2002, and stayed. She became the art assistant and later served as the assistant art director until 2011, when she moved to Austin, Texas. In addition to providing art research for Harper’s, she is an art researcher for The Oxford American, the quarterly literary magazine devoted to writing from the American South. Coppelman has also consulted on the design and editing of books by Justin Cook, Preston Gannaway, Sandy Carson and other photographers. Here she talks to PDN about the role of the freelance photo researcher, her approach to editing and sequencing photo books, how she seeks out new photographers and what she looks for in the photographers she recommends for publication.

PDN: What are your responsibilities for Harper’s and The Oxford American?
AC: With Harper’s, I’ll get the text at the beginning of the publishing cycle, read through it and then send ideas to [art director] Stacey Clarkson James, and we start batting ideas back and forth. If I think a story should be researched, or if there needs to be some preliminary research before deciding if we should commission work, I’ll do that research. If we’re going to commission photography or illustration, I’ll suggest artists, and Stacey takes it from there.

I started working at The Oxford American in 2013. The editor at the time, Roger Hodge, who was previously editor-in-chief at Harper’s, brought me on to do freelance photo research for them. I do the art research for each issue, as well as suggest photographers and illustrators for commissions, collaborating with the editors and art director.

PDN: What’s the editorial mission of the publications?
AC: There’s some overlap. Each is a liberal, literary magazine with a strong streak of wit.

Harper’s includes current events, criticism, politics. That allows me to research reportage and long-term documentary projects. Both publications take art that has a tonal connection to the text, but is not explicitly illustrating what’s written. This makes it fun to work with both of them.

The Oxford American is more focused on personal essays, fiction, short stories. They publish some reportage, but not often. One issue a year is focused on music. For each music issue, they pick a state and commission writers who are from, reside in or write about that state. The most recent one featured music and writing from and about Kentucky, so I looked for artists who are from or working in Kentucky.

© Sandy Carson

An image from We Were There, a book by Sandy Carson, who is working now with Coppelman on the edit of his second book. © Sandy Carson

PDN: And you work on books.
AC: I’m currently working with Sandy Carson on his next book. Daylight just published an expanded version of his first, self-published book. We’re at the point where he’s bringing me 200 photos and I’m saying, “Let’s see what you have and what you left out.” We’ve reached the stage where he’s printed everything out so we can tape them to the wall, which is my favorite way to sequence images. I have to see them the way you’ll see them in the book. I can’t effectively do this on screen.

PDN: Any photos or photographers you’ve found that you’re particularly proud of?
AC: For the summer issue of The Oxford American, there was a story about Florida oranges that was kind of atypical, weird and a little eerie. I have started searching quite a bit on Instagram since they made it possible to save and catalogue images. I braved the hashtag “oranges” and  came across the Instagram feed of the blog A New Nothing, where I saw a photo by Alex Catt of his shadow on a heap of oranges. It fit the tone of the story perfectly. I don’t always tell the editors, “This is my favorite image for a story.” I’ll just put it in our Dropbox. This time, the art director and editors chose the same photo. That was one of my first Instagram finds to get published. I love sourcing images that way. It’s such a quick way of seeing where photographers are or what they’re working on—so much faster than websites.

About a year and a half ago, Rose Marie Cromwell emailed me. She was on my “I should get back to her” list—for a full year. Luckily for me she kept me on her list and let me know when she was going to Cuba. It just happened that I was starting to work on an issue of Harper’s that had a story about Cuba. I did my due diligence, I researched and looked around for anything that might fit the story, which was about the effects of the U.S. embargo on food. I mentioned her to Stacey, who ended up commissioning her. That was all thanks to Rose staying in touch, and she made beautiful work for us.

PDN: As a freelancer, do you get fewer promos from photographers? Is it harder for them to find you?
AC: For the most part, it’s all on me to do research and keep notes when I find good work. I’ll say that I don’t get a ton of pitches for Harper’s. I’m always encouraging photographers to really, really reach out to people. It’s a job in itself. There’s so much work out there, it’s hard to keep on top of where everyone is and the work they’re doing, so when they reach out with suitable projects, it really helps.     

PDN: What are some of the ways you find photographers?
AC: Portfolio reviews are great because you get to hear exactly what a project is about. It’s a great way of connecting with a photographer and seeing what they’re working on that they’re not showing yet. It fixes their work in my mind better than if I’m going over it quickly while researching. Honestly, I’m still suggesting work for publication by photographers I met at Fotofest Houston four years ago.

I also like photo editor networks. I don’t reach out to them a lot for recommendations but I save a lot of lists that other people make. Somebody will say, “I’m looking for this type of project,” or “I’m looking for a photographer in Bend, Oregon.” Comments will ensue, and I’ll save those lists for possible future reference.

I also search Blink for photographers based on location. And I look at photo books, and when I’m able to go to book fairs, they are a great resource for what I do. Imagine going to a photo fair and every photo on the wall is actually 100 photos. I’ll also look on Flickr for The Oxford American to find work from specific regions.

PDN: Are there particular qualities you need to see in the work you recommend?
AC: If I’m looking for someone to recommend for a commission or a photo essay to publish, it’s important to get some idea of what the story is without relying on text. If I’m looking for a one-off, the photo has got to be beautifully framed and lit.

I’m always looking for diversity of representation and whether [photographers] know their subjects well. If they’re dropping in and then leaving quickly, that appeals to me less than someone who is taking the time to learn about a subject.

© Preston Gannaway

A layout from Preston Gannaway’s book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which Coppelman helped design. © Preston Gannaway

PDN: Any examples of photo projects that show the photographer spent time with their subject?
AC: The first time I saw Preston Gannaway’s work on Teddy Ebony, which is part of her long-term project on queer youth, I was transfixed. I saw it through Critical Mass. I loved it. I was writing for Slate’s Behold blog at the time, and I got in touch to interview Preston. Later I worked with her on the hardcover edition of her book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I loved her work and I wanted to be involved, so I sold myself to her as a designer.

I’ve done other book projects. One, on Icelandic horses, with Lindsay Blatt and Paul Taggart, was the first one I worked on where I said: OK, I can pull it together as a designer.

On other books, I’ve played a more traditional photo editor role, sequencing and editing.

PDN: Good editing and sequencing are hard. Do you have a particular method?
AC: I learned sequencing working on photo essays at Harper’s, then I leapt into books. Whether you’re editing 16 pictures or 60, I always think the first image has to grab the viewer in some way. It has to draw you in and make you want to turn the page, especially now that we’re just visually inundated.

I usually start by thinking: What are good options for the first image and the last image?

I find myself wanting to have, say, three strong images at the beginning. Then it’s like a movement, with acceleration and then a deceleration, where you can draw out the pace of the story. I want to have pauses throughout. Sometimes the pauses naturally appear and other times it’s a shuffle of images to figure out the right place for them to fall.    

The books that I’ve edited aren’t telling a specific story, they’re not tied to a timeline, so the edit is very much about building a feeling or mood.

I tend not to want outside opinions until we’re near completion. When we’re approaching finalization, it’s OK to show it to fellow photographers or photo editors and get feedback.

If the photographer wants an image in and I don’t, it’s probably going in. When I’m working with a photographer, it’s a collaborative effort and I have to listen to their reasons for wanting an image in the mix. In the end, it’s ultimately their say on how they wish to present themselves to the world.

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