Emily Shornick Interview: The Cut’s Photo Editor on Sociolinguistics, Nickelodeon, Frustration and GIFs

barbie experience with Emily Shornick

Photo: Amy Lombard

From Ask Polly’s advice column, which is one of the world’s most downright honest — seriously, go here now if you haven’t read her (goddamn, she’s so good! Polly writes as my drunk uncle would talk — knocking sense into you with little jabs of empathy and wisdom, hits so heavy since your record’s clean, your ego unbruised) — well, from Ask Polly to their coverage of the world’s fashion, New York magazines The Cut has become the go-to site for the latest beauty, culture, and celebrity news for millions of millennial women, and men.

I’ve been reading them since high school, nearly eight years ago, before their redesign in 2012. That same year, Emily Shornick was brought in as their photo editor to help their relaunch. Since then, Shornick has led their turn toward high-end glossy looks and high-res, in-depth photo features, overseeing nearly all images published there. Before The Cut, Shornick worked at Lucky magazine. She spoke to me over email, ahead of this year’s New York Fashion Week.

In this interview, Shornick talks about working at The Cut, explains her ideas on photography, and reveals how you should pitch yourself to magazines.

Emily Shornick at The Cut

Photo: Amy Lombard

You’re about take on another New York Fashion Week. It’s a very busy time for you. Right now, as you type, what other tasks do you have planned for your day? What about NYFW are you most excited for? Oh, and how’s the blizzard?

This will be my sixth fashion week season with The Cut, so I feel as prepared as anyone can be for the impending bedlam. It’s actually a quiet time right now in terms of NYFW preparation, since all of our photographers have been confirmed for weeks. That said, it’s still a very busy day! I am tying up a location shoot scheduled for tomorrow, and am rescheduling a four-day fashion editorial I had planned for next week due to another expected snow. I am also working on a few upcoming beauty shoots with beauty editor Kathleen Hou via email.

I am most looking forward to downloading files! During fashion week I usually am the first one in the office, arriving around 6:30 am. I have the privilege to be the first person to view photographs from some incredible talent. It’s like Christmas.

I did have a meeting planned with our go-to gifographer planned for today, which has now been postponed due to the blizzard. Otherwise, it’s business as usual, except I’m working with a cat in my lap. We have a stellar IT team at New York standing by to ensure working remotely is as seamless as working from the office.

gifographer planned by Emily Shornick

Let’s talk about your photography. I went through your print shop and found three photos that I’m really considering buying (above and below). They suit me perfectly. What do these photographs say about you, though? Do you remember taking them?

Thank you for your kind words. Of course I remember taking them! I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with my memory, which I think may contribute to why I love photography so much. The act of making a photograph formalizes the memory creation process — particularly with these photos sourced from my Instagram, essentially my visual diary. Instagram is like an external hard drive for my visual memories.

essentially my visual diary Emily Shornick

It’s hard for me to talk about myself as a photographer. I spent so many years fighting my desire to be a photographer. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that viral Ira Glass quotation on starting out as an artist: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” I felt that frustration in college. I decided to focus on honing my taste instead of honing my ability to form a picture, and I’ve found great satisfaction in the editing process. But the itch to take photographs is always still there. My fantasy is to kick off my retirement in an MFA program, and dedicate my golden years to the camera.

Emily Shornick as a photographer

In the ideal image, the aesthetic and the subject harmonize and inform one another. That’s always the goal. I think I’m drawn to photographic opportunities where there’s some blatant discord between the two — the word pain in a rainbow of neon, delicate pink flowers thrown into a garbage heap. It’s not so much irony or finding beauty in the every day as it is identifying dissonance. I have always deeply valued vernacular photography, and appreciate towing the line between high and low. I like mystery. I like saturated color, which I attribute to a steady diet of ‘90s Nickelodeon growing up. And I absolutely love signage. I’ve always been obsessed with words, etymology, sociolinguistics, the physicality of the characters. My life comes down to a dedication to the relationship between language and image. My work at The Cut focuses on an editorial application of that thinking, and the Instagram photos are my playground. Sometimes it’s just pretty landscapes, though.

I’m also excited to be turning something purely digital into a small object. Collage is having such a moment, and I think it’s because people are really craving something tangible right now. I like that my prints are small and cheap. I think of them like baseball cards, something viewed individually, something inexpensive but treasurable. It’s a disposable preciousness that I’m after.

(If you want to purchase any of Emily Shornick’s photographs, go here to get 10% off. All you have to do is use the promo code Whoa. It’s good through Valentine’s Day. They’re really awesome and come signed, too!)

mattress day columbia Emily Shornick

Photo: Amy Lombard

What’s a good photograph to you? What’s a good photograph for The Cut? Is there a difference?

Personally, I tend to fall for photos that are both funny and sad at the same time, or that make me a little uneasy. Sometimes photos that I like are more subtle than the kinds of images that work online, but I love the photos we run! In fact, I’ve purchased prints of many of them for my home. I like photographs that are immersive, so often when I’m looking for a fashion photographer I’m thinking, “Could I live in this photographer’s work?” And then I want to live in the pictures, so I end up putting them on my wall. A photo that is good for The Cut is also good to me, but the reverse is not necessarily true. It’s a rectangle-square thing.

For The Cut, much of our readership is looking at our images on a tiny cellphone screen. I look for images that will still read at 190 x 190 px, so for The Cut I tend to favor graphic, saturated styles. There’s a lot of handheld flash going on, too.

Amy Lombard

Photo: Amy Lombard

Is it true that all the images published on The Cut end up on your desk? If so, how quick is your editorial judgment? Is it a thumbs-up, thumbs-down ancient Rome sort of speed? For example, in your Normcore feature, what was your process to selecting the published photos? I’m sure Amy Lombard had many that were great. What factors other than visual interest did you consider for this project?

I do oversee the images for the whole Cut website, but we’ve grown so much in the past three years that it would be physically impossible to personally select every single image like I used to before we relaunched. We’ve beefed up our web photo department, so there are plenty of hands pitching in with market slideshows and runway galleries. Photo editor Kelly Chiello joined our team in the last year and has been immeasurably helpful in handling the day-to-day photo requests so that I can focus on larger initiatives, meeting with photographers and producing shoots.

Photo Amy Lombard

Photo: Amy Lombard

As for the photos we commission, it’s a collaborative decision between me, editorial director Stella Bugbee, and often someone else who can weigh in on the fashion in the images, usually Isabel Wilkinson. They each have a stellar eye for photography in addition to studied fashion knowledge, so it’s very easy to work together. I approach those meetings as if we’re lawyers advocating for distinct clients. I am there to advocate for the strongest photographs, Isabel is there to advocate for the strongest fashion, and Stella is the ultimate judge. Anything that runs in print of course goes through the print photo department’s own process.

strongest photographs

Photo: Amy Lombard

The logistics can vary, depending on time constraints and the scope of a project. If it’s a portrait, for example, and we have hundreds of images of the same person, I will usually edit the photos down to a few options before we head into a meeting to make the final decision. If it’s a 15-image editorial, I usually make recommendations by starring certain images, which are then edited down further from the full set. We might make a board (tack printouts to foamcore) to get a sense of how the story feels as a whole, or sometimes we do the same thing in Bridge. I usually make a unilateral decision for anything using stock art, or go back and forth with the editor on the story if it’s complicated or an important feature story.

Photo Emily Berl

Photo: Emily Berl

What’s the photographer and photo editor relationship like? Is it anything like the writer and editor relationship?

Each type of editor has the same aim: to direct talent and pull the best possible story out of the existing material. It’s similar, but I think what differentiates the two processes is that writers have the luxury of more back-and-forth. If a photographer is covering an event and the images that come back are weak, I can’t tell the photographer to go back and rework them. What’s done is done. The photographer-editor relationship is more front-heavy in the process, with a lot of pre-shoot direction conversations. Even when I’m on set, I try not to hover too much — an important tip I learned from Michelle Egiziano when I was interning at Spin — but I do take advantage of the opportunity to provide feedback as the shoot is happening. Even so, studio time is expensive and limited. So we try to do as much as possible in advance of a shoot, and I provide feedback when I can. I like to keep in touch with the photographers on my roster, go out for drinks, grab coffee. It gives us an opportunity to talk about their personal projects and to ask for feedback.

strongest fashion

Photo: Amy Lombard

I read you’re open to pitches. How should a photographer pitch you? What makes a successful pitch?

I love to be pitched! Photographers usually do their best work when it’s a project in which they’re personally invested. In addition to the obvious details of who, where, and when, a photographer should also make a case for why they are the right photographer for the story and why it is relevant for our readers. “I want a press pass for Coachella” is not enough. Pitches should also address money. Photographers should be prepared with a real, researched, reasonable budget estimate.

Which networking skills should every photographer develop? What’s a good way of getting noticed?

The most important thing to keep in mind is not to harass photo editors. Showing up at our office unannounced and cold calls are faux pas. Most promo mailers end up in the trash, so be careful to target the recipients. Personally, I prefer a personalized introduction email with a link to a web portfolio, with follow-up emails every few months to jog my memory and let me know about new work. I don’t always respond, but I do always look! Photographers should do their homework and only contact potential clients who are a good fit. I also pay special attention to photographers outside of the New York Metro area. If someone emails me to let me know they are in town for a limited time, I am more likely to meet with them.

Which blogs would you try to get featured on if you were an emerging photographer? What’s your method to finding new talent?

I look everywhere — blogs, galleries, portfolio reviews, agency websites, indie magazines, fashion lookbooks, Instagram wormholes. Most recommendations come from word of mouth, though. My favorite photo blogs are Featureshoot, Flakphoto, Itsnicethat, Paper Journal, Cult, Lintroller and FAQMagazine.

barbie experience

Photo: Amy Lombard

After spending your entire adult life with images, you must have developed some routines behind analyzing them. Is that so? What’s your process to judging a photo, exactly? Do you pull out a notepad and jot down questions? What do you do?

I’m all about Adobe Bridge. I usually start with a folder of images, then flip through and star the photos that hit the mark. Then I just go through the starred images, flipping back and forth and weighing each one against the next. I ask myself, “Which of these two is the stronger image choice?” I repeat with each victor until I’ve settled on a winner. Sometimes I’m looking at a larger set of images for a story that requires multiple photos, in which case I can look at the selects as a group, rearrange them and think about how they flow.

Adobe Bridge

Photo: Amy Lombard

Have you realized any truths about yourself from the photos you’ve liked?

In the summer of 2001, my parents took me to Mass MoCA. It had only been open for a heartbeat or two. A selection from Sophie Calle’s Double Game was included in a group show, and it blew my mind wide open. I’ve always been interested in photography, but it was the first time I had ever seen performative photography. It was the exact moment that I realized there was more to a photograph than lines and density. Her work resonated with me so deeply, and still does. I have long-debated a tattoo referencing one of her images. (Editor’s note: You should get it, for real. That would be awesome.)

performative photography

Now to the important questions. Which of The Cut’s astrology gifs is your favorite? You can’t pick this one. This one is my favorite.

Ha! Well, I’m a Capricorn, so I always look forward to seeing Maggie’s selection for me each week.

Also, do you dream in color or in black and white? And, finally, in 140 characters or more, what is beauty to you?

Color! My dreams are always long, detailed narratives in vivid color.

Beauty is an aesthetic pleasure that transcends joy to illuminate a truth or ideal. That was only 57 characters, but I’m an editor. I find brevity beautiful.

aesthetic pleasurePhoto: Emily Shornick