In March, The New York Times Magazine published a special photography issue devoted to London ahead of the Olympic Games, offering its readers a feast of images shot and curated by Nadav Kander, Gareth McConnell, Idris Khan, Mark Neville, Chris Levine and Stephen Gill under the direction of Kathy Ryan
It has been a while since The New York Times Magazine commissioned a special photography issue devoted to a specific place, but in March, with the Olympics looming, it put the focus on the British capital, publishing the headline, "In this year of austerity and Olympic spectacle, what will London show the world?"
Featuring stories by Nadav Kander, Gareth McConnell, Idris Khan, Mark Neville and Chris Levine, plus archive images from Stephen Gill's personal collection, it was a major undertaking, but Kathy Ryan and her team put it together in a few weeks. "Hugo Lindgren, our editor, decided to devote an issue to London and make it a photography issue with one major literary essay," says Ryan, the magazine's director of photography. "Dean Robinson [one of the magazine's story editors] had the idea of commissioning [fantasy fiction writer] China Miéville to write that piece, and I took charge of the rest with my team - in particular, one of our picture editors, Stacey Baker, and Clinton Cargill, who set up all the shoots for Nadav. My first note on it was at the end of October, initiating the plan to publish it in January with a two-week lead time [though it was eventually published almost three months later]. For the first couple of weeks in November I was firing off emails to photographers, then we were full-throttle working on the issue."
Ryan says tight deadlines are the norm when working on a predominantly news-driven weekly, but, even so, commissioning the photographers to shoot new stories was quite a feat. Kander photographed some of the city's actors, McConnell shot young models for a fashion spread, Neville took fly-on-the-wall images of a cross-section of London society , Levine created a photo illustration of the Olympic Stadium and Khan took multiple-perspective shots of London's best-known landmarks.
The only exception was Gill's archive shots of kissing newlyweds, but even his contribution required thought and discussion. "I reached out to Stephen and he told me he had a collection of 9000 negatives he had bought on eBay," says Ryan. "He sent some over and I went through them with him. We zeroed in on the wedding pictures - it's a wonderful cache of work."
Ryan opted to approach photographers living and working in London, reasoning that they would know the city and would bring ideas to the table; she also aimed for a broad mix of styles. She's worked with Kander and McConnell before, but she also asked Kate Edwards, picture editor at the Guardian Weekend magazine, and Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers' Gallery, for suggestions of new contacts - she approached Neville on Rogers' recommendation.
His job was perhaps the most daunting of all as it involved both illustrating Miéville's mordant description of the capital, "Oh, London, You Drama Queen", and going beyond it to create a photographic insight into the capital. Ryan was keen to capture people from many social classes, and she and her team helped arrange permission for Neville to shoot in an adventure playground in Tottenham, the exclusive Boujis nightclub, a less exclusive club in Hackney, and the Lloyd's of London insurance market.
"Mark very much works in the documentary tradition, but he was also able to bring a sense of heightened reality to ordinary scenes," says Ryan. "I connected him with China, then he came up with a list of places, and Stacey helped with getting permissions. It was an incredible deadline, but he was able to bring in the humanity, the people who live in the city, and convey the energy."
McConnell's portraits of models convey a much gentler picture, showing the youngsters - all immigrants to this country - in natural light in their modest homes. He suggested the story and Ryan was immediately interested in it, confident it would bring both another style to the magazine and another story. "What a nice way to tell the story of immigration in London," she says. "Gareth had tried to shoot it before but found the bookers a bit wary. We were able to work with a casting director and get a range of young people who had come to London in the past year."
For Ryan, this is one of the most gratifying parts of both this project and of commissioning in general - helping photographers realise projects they already had in mind. Khan's images of the London Eye , Houses of Parliament  and Tower Bridge  are another example, as when she asked if he might consider a series on landmarks as seen through postcards, he responded he'd already been toying with the idea. "Sometimes I call an artist and find our interests intersect with something he or she is already thinking about," says Ryan. "For Idris, this assignment was a catalyst. Our intense deadlines meant he had to put everything else aside, which was actually liberating. He just dove right into it, looking at thousands of images online and buying all the postcards he could find, plus taking some of his own photographs."
Ryan also enjoyed working with Khan because of the conceptual nature of his series - the magazine usually prioritises documentary images, but putting together a photography issue gave her the opportunity to include a broader range. Even so, Khan's images also contribute another facet to the photographic portrait of London, including its famous landmarks, in a fresh way. "The result couldn't have been a better melding together of our need, as a journalistic paper, to show London and his own vision as an artist," she says. "When I saw the London Eye image, it stood out for its cover potential, and I'm very happy it got used in that way."
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