We visit Studio Stauss in Berlin, “a laboratory for documentary photography”
The creation of Barbara Stauss, alongside fellow picture editors Miriam Zlobinski and Winifred Chiocchia, Berlin-based Studio Stauss was set up as “a laboratory for documentary photography, a space to host the exchange between photo editors and photographers, agencies, graphic artists, curators, journalists and academics”, discovers Michael Grieve.
I meet Stauss and Zlobinski at the studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. (Chiocchia is absent as she currently works full time as a picture editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.) Both are very much involved in the world of documentary photography. Apart from her role as a picture editor, Stauss also mentors young photographers and is a regular jury member of international contests. Zlobinski is currently researching her PhD at the Humboldt University on the subject of ‘the political image in photojournalism within the Federal Republic of Germany’, based on the example of Stern magazine.
The light is streaming through the blinds into the studio within a large, open-plan apartment, complete with a library of photobooks, and a corridor displaying prints from notable photographers. From the roof, there is an impressive panorama over Berlin, and from the studio, we overlook Viktoriapark, the centrepiece of which is the actual hill of Kreuzberg, the highest natural point of the city. Stauss serves coffee and exquisite hand-made Swiss chocolates, which prompts her to tell me that she was born and raised in Switzerland, moving to Berlin in the heady days of 1988, initially to study Russian, before moving on to photography and visual communication.
Zlobinski explains the backstory to why they launched the studio. “I began working with Barbara in 2016 when I was studying in the picture editor class at Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin, and together we always discussed theoretical issues regarding photography. We wanted to create a mindset regarding the role of the photo editor.” Stauss chimes in: “We started to think about the history of photo editors and understood that the profession is often blurred in the minds of others compared to that of a photographer or graphic designer. And so one key aspect of Studio Stauss is to sharpen the profession to ourselves first of all, and by extension to others. But essentially it is a process we do for us.”
Stauss is the photo director for mare, the celebrated magazine she co-founded in 1997, dedicated to stories about the sea. She is employed there three days a week, and spends the rest of her time working on projects through the studio. “When I started as photo director at mare, I began to understand that editing is not necessarily about choosing good pictures, but more about the sequence of images to tell a story. And so I began to develop my own process and ways of thinking. But working at mare, which has six issues a year, and working on other projects, such as editing for Reporters Without Borders, I realised I simply had too much to do. And so then I found Miriam, who is from a new generation of photo editors, and she began to assist me on my numerous projects, and then the studio structure developed on equal terms as a place of dialogue and harmony. Studio Stauss is not a brand, nor is it for marketing reasons, but rather it is a home for like-minded expert individuals with a common interest.”
Although they work as part of an editorial team, picture editors are often freelance, working alone. Zlobinski explains that, “Photographers are solitary individuals, but they can be part of agencies, such as Noor or Magnum, and they have many moments when they can meet collectively to discuss their work. And so in this regard, Studio Stauss is a collective [working] towards a dialogue for photo editors that also extends to everyone else, photographers, graphic designers and editors, who are all part of putting a project together.”
On one level, photographers attempt to organise the chaos of the world into a single frame, and picture editors are similar in their compulsion to find meaning and “order and make sense of things – it’s an obsession”, explains Stauss. “When you are a photographer with your own work,” says Zlobinski, “you have your emotions in each picture, and you are very close to your work. And although we can share your feelings, we can be more objective. We are feeling with you, but we are not behind the camera. Then we are in a position to bring your emotions to other people. We are like mediators, and the challenge is to work with the photographer but also be with the reader.”
The art of editing pictures is to understand the selection process and make it appropriate to the given context. And, as Stauss explains, it is helpful to always work within limitations. “When I was a child, my parents were very progressive and sent me to a free school, but I wanted to go to a boarding school so that I could know what the rules were in order to rebel against them! There’s no freedom when you have too much choice.” This analogy is not only an indication of Stauss’s character, but by extension offers an explanation to her editing process. “You cannot always apply the same key to solve the riddle of editing. You have to always decide within the context that you have, whether you are working with the limitation of three images or 24, and liking or not liking [certain images] does not necessarily make a narrative.”
Narrative is the key to the art of great photo editing, she believes, and whether it’s a book or a short feature, communicating the story is the chief obligation of any picture editor. “Without reading the text that anchors the work, there needs to be a sense of the meaning from just the photographs; through the rhythm and flow, the right amount of pictures, the right size, and the sequence. You need to be able to think ahead, although conversely, we only really understand in retrospect, because when you are looking at the final version you are also looking back.”
Stauss brings a curious little blue book to the table titled Chamberlain and The Beautiful Llama and 101 More Juxtapositions, by Stefan Lorant, published in 1940. It is a collection of two-page spreads, illustrating how completely opposite subject matter can work side-by-side through repetition, form and subliminal as well as more obvious association. A portrait on one page of the prime minister Neville Chamberlain, snarling, mid speech, appears similar to the teeth of the llama on the opposite page; a photograph of the fascist, Oswald Mosley, posturing in Nazi salute, is presented against the Tibetan greeting of a young boy with his tongue sticking out. This is the art of persuasion, and like the principle of montage, the limitation of two images can create a third meaning and lead the viewer into another way of understanding what they are looking at. It can be subtle and nuanced. Zlobinski adds that, “The pictures are talking with each other, and for us to arrange the images is not a quick decision. When it comes to deciding what image will make a great double-page spread, we spend considerable time making that decision. The analysis of why and how this works is interesting. It can be led by light and dark, colour, form, and for us it’s a bit like a game to see what can happen, what is possible, because it is never the same.”
Of course, much has changed in recent years, with the digitisation of images, and with the drastic reduction in editorial commissions for photographers. Print magazines simply do not exist as they once did, and the ones that have survived rarely have time or money in resource. Many operate without photo editors at all. “We are extremely aware of the changes that have happened in more recent times, certainly since I became the photo editor at mare,” explains Stauss. “My father was a press photographer in Switzerland working during the 1960s and 70s, when being a photographer was more fruitful financially. But rather than being down on how the situation is today we are always talking about doing the work at hand and finding new possibilities and outlets. For example, we work for a publication for the German ministry [Forschungsfelder, which translates as ‘fields of research’, published four times a year since 2016, and distributed with Die Zeit]. We saw an opportunity to work with the creative agency who manage this magazine, using our knowledge and experience to make it special. We encourage them to commission photographers to produce fresh work rather than buying images from Getty.” Zlobinski adds: “We are in a very good position because we can essentially consult and use our expertise to bring ideas, and still work within a budget, and advise also that the best way is not always the easy way. We are in ‘good’ trouble: on the one hand magazines are disappearing, but on the other there are new outlets, particularly online.”
As I leave Studio Stauss, walking through the Viktoriapark, I am filled with a fresh appreciation of the importance of the picture editor. Studio Stauss is doing vital work in trying to define the role, and through their work they illustrate that the specialist picture editor is still entirely relevant – even more so, perhaps, in this era of image overload.