I found out last week that Susan White, Vanity Fair’s long-time Director of Photography, was leaving to join Trunk Archive as their Executive Director of Licensing. I sent her congratulations along with a couple questions for the blog:

APE: Tell me how you got your start as a photo editor and how you ended up at Vanity Fair?

Susan: I had been a fashion assistant to Polly Mellen at Vogue Magazine when an assistant photo editing job with Elisabeth Biondi opened up at Vanity Fair. Then I worked my way up through the ranks.

Do you have any techniques for dealing with the outsized personalities that Vanity Fair specializes in?

It’s a cliché but I try to stay calm and flexible…and give them as much room as they need.

If you had to pick one picture to be remembered by what would it be and why?

It’s impossible for me to boil my years down to one image. I’ve had too many collaborations with too many great photographers to single one out. I suppose I’d like to be remembered as a supportive presence for all of the photographers I’ve worked with over the years. I certainly learned that my aesthetic had to be modified to a certain point to suit the magazine. In the beginning I was eager to work with very creative and painterly photographers like Jahvier Vallhonrat but the truth was that this kind of work was often too rarified for a commercial, general interest publication. I considered it a small triumph when I was able to have Nick Knight shoot Bridget Fonda and it actually made it to print (this was so long ago, I cannot give you the year off hand).

Still, the one photo that stands out and had a fairly significant impact was Annie Leibovitz’s cover of a pregnant Demi Moore. That may seem obvious but it really did seem to shift things a bit not only for its beauty, but for the impact it seemed to have in terms of so-called celebrity photography. As I remember it, that shot was never taken as an actual cover. Annie sent it in because the image was so stunning it had to be seen. I believe it was taken as a personal photo for Demi. The shoot was actually one of two and was the follow-up sitting. Our intention was just to get a head shot for the cover. Charlie Churchward, the art director then, laid it out as a cover to be provocative, not realizing that the female staff would have such a strong reaction. Every woman in the office who saw that photo with the VANITY FAIR logo lobbied hard to get it to the newsstand. It was a memorable moment.

Trunk Archive seems like a good match for you, but you must be feeling bullish on the future of stock photography. Can you tell me why?

I am not sure that I am as bullish on stock photography as I am on Trunk Archive. I am very bullish on them. In fact, I never think of the word “stock” in relation to what they have and what they do. I think of “luxury option” instead. As to the future of stock photography, well, let’s accept that dwindling budgets will continue to have an impact on how much original assigning can happen. The budget tightening we’ve all experienced these past few years is now the norm. No one seems interested in bringing back bloated shoot budgets. We’ve learned to do fairly well by artfully combining existing imagery with assigned work. Because Trunk has such high standards it seems to me a safe and sure resource for editors and art buyers to locate selective imagery.

Are you excited for the change after so many years working on VF?

It’s certainly a thrill to take on something new after the long tenure I’ve had at Vanity Fair. I’ve got quite a bit to learn, so I’m looking forward to working with the incredible team at Trunk Archive.

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  1. Wonderful interview, and congrats to Susan. It is interesting that her perspective is broader than one would think. Big budget shoots for those who had become accustomed to them are following the economy. It is a natural course.

    I would imagine in this day and age that stock images would be doing better. I wonder how many are willing to continue to front the costs associated with complex images.

  2. This is not a swipe at Susan White who is an amazing photo director but i do take issue with Trunk Archive. Yes I believe that it is a great concept in theory but I do think it has killed off a little part of the photo industry. Trunk has taken the front of book and feature photo assignments away from the young new photographers.
    Before Trunk magazines would hire up and coming photographers to shoot single page feature content and it was a struggle because model agents never gave the best girls and there were production issues but in the end you could get some really nice images for your book.
    Now we have Trunk serving up Greg Kadel and Inez and Vinoodh sloppy seconds for feature photos, who wouldn’t say no to supermodels shot by superphotographers for their stupid how to apply mascara page, do these photographers need the money? no . Do the models need the exposure?no. I don’t see this as a benifit to the creatives but just lining the pockets of Trunk.

    I understand there are other areas that Trunk is involved in that are large profit centers, I just wish that they would stay from the chump change that could make a huge difference to a young photographer.

  3. I think JBG Photo were recently rolled into Trunk.
    I’d put them alongside Art & Commerce, August, Contour, Outline, JME and a few others for quality celebrity portraiture.
    Nice interview, would be interested to read a more in-depth one at some point. She’s bound to have some interesting tales.

  4. Susan White was such an amazing photography director and former boss.
    I thought she would be at VF forever! But congrats on the new adventure….

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