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Changing Time: How LightBox has renewed Time’s commitment to photography

Launched in 2011, Time’s LightBox has quickly established itself as one of the world’s best photography websites, but it has also dramatically altered the way Time Magazine uses and presents images online. BJP speaks with director of photography Kira Pollack

Each Thursday at 4pm, the photo editors at Time Magazine gather around a projector in one of the Time-Life building’s numerous meeting rooms in New York. Once divided across different silos – the print staff on one side and the online staff on another – for the past two years they’ve been working in unison, bringing their wide variety of backgrounds together to help improve LightBox, the magazine’s dedicated online photography website.

Time launched LightBox on 14 May 2011 – 18 months after Kira Pollack joined the news weekly as its director of photography. “When I came to Time, I had this extraordinary opportunity to build a staff of extremely talented editors,” says Pollack. “Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, has a terrific eye. He’s visually astute, so it was exciting to be in a place where you share the same point of view as your boss. And one of the big tasks I was confronted with when coming in was how to integrate the print staff with the digital staff. One way to do that was through LightBox.”

More than just a pet project for Time’s photo department, LightBox was the opportunity for Time to create a portal for great photography. “When I started atTime in 2010, it was something I felt was missing online,” says Paul Moakley, Timedeputy photo editor. “I felt Time didn’t have a strong photo presence, particularly for a magazine that’s mostly driven by photography. Before LightBox, Time.com’s gallery format was just not a satisfying experience.”

Pollack agrees. “When I came in, I believed it was crucial for me to change that,” she tells BJP in a phone interview. “It wasn’t a directive; it was something I wanted to do because I felt the canvas for photography was so limited and it needed to evolve to exist as a place where the great photographers we work with could exhibit their work in the best way possible. One of the first breaking news stories I was responsible for at Time was the earthquake in Haiti. We sent Shaul Schwarz and Timothy Fadek to cover it, and they came back with such terrific work, but we were limited with our player, with our galleries. We needed to make that a more dynamic experience for our readers and our photographers.”

When Pollack’s staff started developing the idea for LightBox, a list of requirements was drawn up. “The idea of having a full-screen mode was very important,” she explains. “And how captions were integrated into the images was also very important.”

The LightBox experience
In 2011, as LightBox was taking form, Time was also in the process of redesigning its website to put photography at the forefront of the magazine’s online experience. “But we knew we could make this happen in even more efficient ways before that redesign happened,” says Pollack. “We just kind of went ahead and built it on our own. We brought our photo editors together with terrific designers, sketching out what we wanted LightBox to be, and we were able to realise it and launch in May with Starbucks as an advertiser.”

LightBox’s quick genesis was praised at Time. “Management was thrilled when we came out with it,” says Pollack. “And we ended up inspiring other parts of the magazine in terms of how photography should be displayed.”

LightBox truly revolutionised the way Pollack’s staff worked together – “the photo editors from the print magazine were able to contribute to a whole new universe,” says Pollack – and approached photography in the first place. “What’s exciting with LightBox is that we’re not just showing what goes in the magazine,” says Moakley. “We really bring our interests to the site. Patrick Witty has incredible expertise on photojournalism, and my passion is with art photography and documentary photography. All of that comes together and we try to show what we do with the magazine but also what inspires us, and what the culture of images is – beyond the way we all take pictures today, and more how we see ourselves change. LightBox is this place where we write about all these things and put them into perspective for regular people; we try to get these readers to think about what goes on behind the images.”

That mass appeal was important to Time’s photography staff, and it has helped define LightBox’s editorial line – even if it wasn’t clear in the early days. “It took us a while to figure out what the editorial agenda was,” says Pollack. In the end, LightBox had to develop a dynamic sensibility based on Time’s 90-year history of news-gathering operations. “I think it’s important that everything we publish on LightBox stays relevant to the discussion,” she explains. “We’re a news site, so we want to make sure that what we present – whether it’s an art piece or a documentary work – has a reason to be there.”

Beyond her own staff, Pollack has also been able to harness Time’s extensive Rolodex of writers, photographers and contributors. “One of the great opportunities of being at Time is that you inherit a staff of contract photographers that include people like James Nachtwey,” says Pollack. “And when you have him on the phone, and he’s articulating a scene, you want to ask him to contribute with more than just his images. The week we launched LightBox coincided with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Nachtwey was there for us, and I was able to get him to write about his experience on the ground. Nachtwey is a great photographer, but he’s also an extraordinary writer and thinker. His words provide context to the images.”

Of course, Pollack is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean every photographer published on LightBox has to write for the photography website. “Some photographers are not interested in writing, and you have to figure out how you want to use the talent you have at your disposal.”

The public’s response, two years after LightBox’s launch, has been incredible, says Moakley. “We don’t want to be driven by traffic, but we’re incredibly flattered when we hear people say that they visit LightBox every day, and that our traffic continues to increase. We feel really positive about it.”

Pollack’s team continues to think about LightBox’s positioning and editorial agenda. “We’ve been talking a lot about that lately,” she says. “We’ve hired Mikko Takkunen of PhotojournalismLinks and we’re starting to do more profiles of major photographers. We’re rethinking the site altogether to improve the overall experience later this year. The goal is to offer different voices, to appeal beyond the community of photographers. We want to appeal to everyone who’s interested in photography and answer the question: ‘Why are these images important?’”

Visit lightbox.time.com.

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