Smithsonian Magazine, published 11 times a year, covers all the subjects that are studied and exhibited by the 19 Smithsonian Museums: art and culture, science, history, innovation and popular culture. Chief photo editor Quentin Nardi joined the magazine in February. An 18-year veteran of magazine publishing, she previously worked at AARP the Magazine, and was on the staffs of Outside and Ski. We asked her about finding and assigning photographers around the world to cover the magazine’s wide-ranging subject matter.
Q: What’s your role at Smithsonian Magazine?
Quentin Nardi: My main duties are working on feature stories and, if the cover is a photo, producing the cover. The photo department is me; Jeff Campagna, the photo editor; and Donny Bajohr, the junior photo editor. We report to Maria Keehan, the art director, who manages the photo and art departments.
Q: For people who think Smithsonian only covers Smithsonian exhibitions, can you explain the magazine’s mission?
Q.N.: There is a connection to the 19 Smithsonian Museums, but we have a fairly free approach to covering science, technology, art and culture, which makes for a compelling and interesting feature well.
In terms of photography, every story is completely different. That’s one of the most wonderful things about being here, just the diversity of subject matter.
Q: Are you relying on a stable of contributors, or looking for new talent?
Q.N.: When I stepped into the amazing shoes of Molly Roberts, who had been chief photo editor here for 15 years, I was extremely cognizant of the photographers she’d used before, and was impressed by them. The short answer to your question is: It’s a combination. There are a lot of photographers who Molly brought on who are amazing and get what we do here. There are up-and-coming photographers I seek out, and there are people I’ve worked with in my past. The first week I got here, I met with [photographer] Daniella Zalcman. When I discovered [the database] Women Photograph, I made a commitment to myself to use as many women in the magazine as I could.
I wish we had more [photo] assignments because there are so many great photographers.
Q: How do the website and Instagram takeovers fit into what you do?
Q.N.: We have a separate web team. We work with them, and they pick up our content and do their thing with it. The way I’ve intersected with the web and Instagram is that I get pitches that I can’t get in the magazine, but if I think [they] will be a good fit for online, I’ll go to bat for the work with the online editor. I have a good track record for that so far. And we pay for web stories.
Donny Bajohr runs the Instagram feed. We’ll let a photographer do a takeover for a week at a time. If we like their work but it’s not right for the magazine, we’ll let them do a takeover. That raises their profile. I’m always looking for ways to work with photographers and establish relationships with them, and these are ways to do it.
Smithsonian Magazine's Instagram
Q: What makes a good pitch?
Q.N.: What I want to say first is: Know who you are pitching. I get so many pitches on environmental degradation and social justice issues, and as amazing and important as those stories are, it’s not what we do here. In a sense I think these pitches hurt the photographer more than they help. I have a lot of choices in assigning, and I want you to know the magazine. If you’re pitching a story that’s way off the rails, it can affect whether or not I assign you.
Because I’m new, I want to cultivate relationships with up-and-coming photographers and I want them to think of us when they send out pitches for unpublished work. If there’s a historical, scientific, technological or art and culture bent to the work, it could be a successful pitch. But the pitch has to be relevant to us to work.
Q: What genres of photography are you looking for?
Q.N.: A lot of the stories we assign require a reportage approach. But we’ll do portraits of scientists, doctors and others in the field, so I’m looking for portraiture. Also, I’m looking for conceptual photography to use as openers, as well as still lifes.
Q: Are there skills—besides great image-making—you are looking for from photographers?
Q.N.: When I first started here, we had to send a photographer to Mosul to follow the story of a woman archaeologist. As ISIS was being driven out, she went back in to look at the state the artifacts were in.
I hired Alice Martins. Looking at her website, I could see she’s [been] in a war zone but there’s something still and thoughtful about her images. When I was thinking about the story, I thought: Here’s a person [the archaeologist] saving what she loves. I wanted the photographer’s style to mirror that thoughtfulness. [Martins] did an amazing job.
Alice Martins's 'New York'
Q: Where do you look for photographers?
Q.N.: Instagram is useful not necessarily for finding photographers but for seeing photographers’ most recent, up-to-date work. When I go to a photographer’s website, their Instagram feed is often better and more current. I use Instagram to double-check the talent I’m interested in.
And I go to the usual places: PDN, Diversify, Women Photograph, Washington Post’s Insight blog and The New York Times Lens Blog. I haven’t used it recently but I love looking at Blink. It has a nice interface. It makes finding a quality photographer anywhere in the world easy, not daunting.
Q: Is a photographer’s location important?
Q.N.: Roughly 50 percent of our stories are international. I need to find a photographer in northwest China to do a story about dinosaur fossils, I need a photographer in the UK to do a story on the Lake District.
Recently I needed portraits of three scientists in three different cities in the U.S. for a story on the search for a universal flu vaccine. What I said to each of the photographers separately was: Do your thing, I’m not going to tell you how to take your photo. But what I want out of the photo is some dramatic effect created by using light or shadow. We printed three portraits by Bryan Derballa in New York, Eli Meir Kaplan in DC, and Nate Ryan in Minneapolis. It felt coherent.
When the idea of photographing relics from St. Anthony’s Church in Pittsburgh came to us (which was included in a three-part photo essay on Faith) immediately it seemed to me that an interesting and respectful approach to the subject matter would be to use a larger format. I have always been intrigued by the work of Joni Sternbach. Even though the subject matter was not necessarily her usual [fare], I like to pull artists out of their comfort zone. And I think the effort resulted in a beautiful portfolio.
Joni Sternbach's big format photo
Q: History is one of the magazine’s subjects, but how do photographers shoot that?
Q.N.: I don’t want to show history by showing gravestones. It’s about showing the present day, but keeping the past in mind. We recently published a story on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Donny Bajohr worked with Olga Ingurazova, who was tasked with showing the effects of Lenin on 2017. She basically had 28 pages.
These stories are thoughtful and layered. There’s more here for the photographer who likes to take a more cerebral, not literal approach to photography. Those are the photographers I want to form relationships with.
Olga Ingurazova. Project Title: “Scars of Independence”