In Conversation with Kathy Ryan

The storied photographer reflects on her career.

One day a couple years ago, Kathy Ryan woke up and saw the light. Specifically, on Nov. 14, 2012, at around 2:40 p.m., she saw vivid lines of zigzagging light pouring onto a stairwell inside the Renzo Piano–designed New York Times Building. Ryan, who for the past 27 years has run the photo department of The New York Times Magazine, paused in her tracks. She took out her cellphone, captured the image before her, and posted it on Instagram. More than 100 likes followed. So did comments from colleagues like “Uta Barth-esque,” “Wow,” and “Killer!”  It was her 56th image posted to the social-media platform.

Ryan has since added more than 1,000 images to her feed. She now has a hash tag for the series—#OfficeRomance—and Aperture has just publisheda book of the pictures under the same name (with a forward written by Piano). Her number of followers has ballooned to 47,000.

In her “Office Romance” images, thanks in large part to Piano’s architecture, light appears in almost otherworldly ways; it functions as a material element, just like the structure’s glass and steel. The series also includes playful—and yes, decidedly romantic—still lifes of everyday office objects, from Post-it notes to X-Acto blades. Surface met with Ryan at her sixth-floor office to discuss how the medium of cellphone photography has helped her form an attraction to her daily surroundings in a way she never considered possible.

When you started at The New York Times in 1985, you were working in the old Times Building, which was built in three stages between 1912 and 1937. What were your experiences like there?
It was thrilling. I loved the old building. It was very rundown and kind of shabby, but it was fabulous in its grittiness. It definitely had a sense of the old newspaper era. The lighting was dark. And you could smell the ink in the stairwells, because the presses used to be underneath the building.

I loved it because when writers and photographers would come in—in my case, photographers—they obviously just felt right at home. There was something about it that was so comfortable and not pristine or design-y. They felt like it was a space of creative energy. In that sense, I felt that the old building was terrific, because it just seemed like exactly the right environment to be doing journalism in.

When we first moved into this building, I didn’t like it at all. I was upset. It felt so corporate and clean and crisp and new. I really missed the grungy old building. I was attached to it. There was just something about it—everything was sort of makeshift, and there was no design sense encompassing the layout. It was all these years of history. It was much more crowded. There was a great energy in it.

What was your experience like transitioning into the new building in 2007?
It was extremely hard for me. Initially, I didn’t understand this building. But then I noticed that the great heartbeat and gift of it is the window walls. Once I realized that, I suddenly felt this was the most beautiful building in New York. I moved out of my office here in the building’s inner core to a cubicle out there [points to a row of cubicles adjacent to an east-facing window]. All the charge of this building is the window walls.

So it was simply one moment of just noticing something in the architecture?
Yeah, and it has to do with Instagram, because I was walking by one of the staircases—we have these two inner staircases that are quite beautiful; they go up along the window walls—and I saw a zigzag of light on the carpet. It was so beautiful that I took out my cellphone and took a picture. Then I posted it on Instagram, which I had just recently gotten into, and I was hooked.

I started suddenly realizing there were these unbelievable light patterns everywhere because of Renzo Piano’s brilliant decision to put up these white ceramic rods that sheathe the exterior of the building. Those rods create incredible, constantly changing and moving patterns of striping light that evoke film noir or a minimalist, modern, hard-edged painting. There are so many things you can do with these patterns.

Because of the cellphone, this ridiculously easy and fast technology, somebody like me, with a demanding full-time job, can just quickly make a picture in the pauses of my day. And with the immediacy of Instagram, I do a quick edit, ask which is the best picture, and post it. It’s fun as a picture editor to be able to have the discipline to post really quickly regardless of if I know it’s the right one. It’s like a personal challenge.

You’ve previously said you don’t consider yourself a photographer. Is that because you don’t consider what you take on a cellphone to be photography?
I don’t consider myself a photographer because I have not committed myself to it in the way that a serious photographer would. I haven’t spent years making pictures, developing my craft. I’ve never worked as a photographer, so I don’t think I can consider myself one. I’m a picture editor. The vast majority of my day is spent thinking about picture-editing issues. But clearly that crosses over into thinking about making pictures. When this cellphone technology surfaced—you didn’t have to set up a camera, you didn’t have to make lens choices, it was in your pocket—I suddenly realized that I could make pictures.

It’s not that I don’t consider cellphone photographs pictures—I absolutely do. I have no issues with that at all, and I never did for a second. It’s crazy to think cellphone photography is illegitimate. In the same sense, when the SX-70 Polaroids came out, Lucas Samaras, Andy Warhol, all sorts of people immediately seized it and realized, hey, there’s another kind of image-making we can do. You don’t have to know if it’s art with a capital A or not; you just make the image. And then later, the images have meaning, relevance, speak to that time period. Why not embrace it as art?

What do you like most about the cellphone as a photography medium?
Its memory quality—that you can somehow make pictures that represent the day: the moment and what was going on in this incredibly newsworthy place, this building that’s so extraordinary. I like that the cellphone gives you a loose, responsive way to make pictures. You don’t have to set up anything on a tripod. I absolutely think cellphone pictures qualify as photographs on their own terms. You’re not going to be able to blow them up super-big, but you don’t need to—we have tons of super-big photography right now in the world. We’re coming through an era of bigger, bigger, bigger. There’s lots of that, so there’s no need to do it. Whereas we have this brand-new, exciting media that is the cellphone picture—a small, intimate picture that has built into it this revolutionary idea that you send it out immediately. You can now have a visual dialogue in real time with people. It’s crazy!

Perhaps there’s a distinction to be made between a photographer and a cellphone photographer.
I think there could be. There’s something magical about seeing the Instagram image on your phone, illuminated from behind, light coming through it. Part of the charm of the image, I think, is how small it is. Your brain has to fill in the blanks sometimes. We’re so flooded with imagery in the modern age. We see thousands and thousands of images. Everyone comes to it with a tremendous reservoir of references and images, whether they’re cinematic or photographic or real life. What I think is kind of cool with the cellphone is that when somebody makes an image—let’s say it’s an urban scape I shoot through the window at the Times Building—there’s detail in it and you can recognize it, but I have the hunch that a viewer’s brain fills in the detail. It’s a given now that they know what an urbanscape in New York looks like, so my mission now, when I go to make a cellphone picture of it, is to try to make one that’s particularly extraordinary. I know that if I’m doing an urbanscape or skyline picture of New York, it’s a cliché. There are a zillion out there. Everybody’s seen them. Which doesn’t mean don’t make one; it just means that if you’re going to make one, you have to try to figure out how to bring something to it that makes it worth looking at.

I don’t think of reasons not to make a picture. I always think there’s a reason to make one. It’s just about charging ahead. Which is part of the fun with the cellphone. There’s something about it that’s so liberating. You don’t have to be serious about it, even if you are. When I’m making pictures—I do think about photography all the time—there’s seriousness. I don’t want to post something that’s boring. I want to post a picture that I think is interesting. I like romantic imagery. I like the fact that there aren’t many contemporary artists trying to make romantic imagery. There’s more of a kind of intellectual, topographic approach to photography right now—which is fine. I just like making pictures that are delightful to look at.

Do you bring your photo-editing skills to Instagram, and if so, how?
As I make pictures now, I see them in terms of an overall group. As I’m making them, I’m aware of ones I’ve done before. Things naturally start to fall into a series: There’s the striping light; there are the close-ups, when you go super tight in on a detail, which I love and want to do a lot more of; there’s the closely observed object; there are the playful still lifes I sometimes do out there on the table first thing in the morning, with ordinary office objects found in the office, whether it’s a bouquet of flowers, an X-Acto blade, a paper cutter, or a stack of Post-it notes.

“Office Romance” became an ongoing series, and at a certain point a book began to take shape. I began to see this could be a small, intimate book that’s just a reflection of the beauty and poetry of office life. I realized this was starting to happen naturally. The Instagram program is so great because it archives the images in order as you post them. With my busy life, I’m not sure I could have done any of this if Instagram hadn’t made it so simple to just go back in the sequence and see what I posted.

It’s telling of the times that you took this Instagram narrative and turned it into a book.
I certainly asked the question, “Will taking it out of this phone and putting it back into the old-fashioned book make it lose some of the magic?” But I thought it just felt like a book. There was something about how the images were starting to speak to each other. I thought I’d go for it. In a way, I feel like the transition from the cellphone to the book made total sense, because the book is about the whole. It’s not about individual images; it’s about the sequencing and how the images speak to each other. It’s whole in a way that sometimes exhibitions are not.

It’s going to be interesting to watch as we move forward how well cellphone pictures translate into being exhibited on the wall—which is, of course, possible. There are going to be some excellent exhibitions done of cellphone photography. But I think it’s slightly trickier, because they’re isolated images, whereas a book is this visual dialogue that’s more simpatico with a cellphone. It wasn’t hard to sequence this book at all. It was pure pleasure. It just unfolded.

You seem to be visually attracted to a lot of things. What catches your eye?
It’s a little bit of everything. I would say it’s overwhelmingly the light. I’m not interested in making pictures when there’s not strong light. When there’s that powerful, bright, direct sunlight on the eastern side of the building in the morning, it’s my siren call. I can’t resist it. I’m like an addict. I just need to make a picture, and I race to do it. I’m always racing the clock because I have so much work to do, and then, at the end of the day, if I can—and the light’s out—I go upstairs, where there’s great western light coming in. Then, sometimes, I just have an idea in my head. I’ll see an object and go, “That has resonance. I could do something with that stack of Post-it notes.” There are just endless possibilities. If it’s a particularly banal object, I like to challenge it and see if there’s something that could be done with it.

Has how you think about architecture changed throughout the process of creating “Office Romance”?
I definitely have a better appreciation now of how light in a building moves. I look at buildings now constantly, and from the outside, I try to figure out how the light moves inside them. “Office Romance” made me fall head over heels in love with skyscrapers in a way I had never been before. I really love skyscrapers now—the notion of them, the idea of them, the possibility of pictures to be made inside of them and looking out from them. I wasn’t thinking about those things until I started this.

Has your view of New York City changed at all in photographing it through the windows?
It’s a lifelong love affair between New York City and me. The love just deepens. Seriously.

It’s also one of those things I get a kick out of with Instagram: When there’s one of those days when the light is particularly spectacular—maybe it’s just incredible sun or a particularly wild sunset—I love when I get home that night and see how many New Yorkers posted pictures inspired by the light in that hour. It happens all the time. You’ll see a number of Instagrammers all over the city posting pictures that come from being deliriously in love with light at that particular moment. That in itself is a way of communicating that didn’t exist before.

It seems like you also have a bit of a love affair with Instagram.
Instagram is a very positive, supportive, upbeat, democratic medium. I’m talking about Instagram in the hands of picture-makers, image people, visualists. I realize it’s a big, big community, and there are lots of other demographics using it for different uses. But when we’re talking about the visual crowd, it’s just a great communication vehicle.

Has “Office Romance” made you more excited about coming to work?
For sure. I now come in earlier and leave later. I even sometimes come in on the weekends. There are a number of pictures I’ve done on a Saturday. Oddly, though, I feel the pictures are better that I do under the deadline pressure of the workday. It’s like a weird, almost perverse thing: If I know I’m racing and only have 10 minutes, somehow I have a clarity of vision that kicks in. I do a little bit better with tremendous deadline pressure on me. Which is a weird way to make art. If I had too much time, I don’t think I could get any of it done.

Your use of the word “romance” in the title is interesting. Do you see your feelings toward the Times Building changing? Is it really a romance?
Yes! I like that I’m going a little against the current. Romantic pictures are not in vogue right now. They’re not the kind of thing serious photographers generally are doing. I think, “Why not?” There’s so much wonderful cinematic collective imagery in our minds to draw upon. Even if you’re not thinking about it, it’s there. The romance of the building just gets deeper.

Up until now, I would say 95 percent of the “Office Romance” photos have been taken on my corner of the sixth floor and on the 14th and 15th floors. I just started to venture into the newsroom, where the real heartbeat of the Times is: floors two, three, and four. But it’s hard, because I don’t work down there, and therefore I can’t make many pictures there. I’m not there seeing the light as it changes. This week, I started going up to up to other floors altogether. I just get out at 19, 22, or another floor and wander around. There are unbelievable vantage points out windows the higher up you go. There’s a lot more to be explored. I’ve barely started.

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