An Interview with Jim Colton, former Sports Illustrated Photo Editor

This summer I had the chance to attend JCamp, a great program hosted by the Asian-American Journalists’ Association. During my time at Washington DC, I was fortunate enough to attend Jim Colton’s lecture explaining the current state of photography, and what makes a great photo great. When I got back to Austin, I knew I wanted to share some of Jim’s knowledge, wisdom, and experience on Teen Photo.

How did you get your start in your photography? What was your education/background like, and how did that set up for your current career?

I tell everyone that it was genetics that got me into the business. My mother and father met when they were both working for the Stars & Stripes newspaper in Tokyo, Japan. My dad was a photographer and my mother was a board artist. They married and I was born in Tokyo. My father went on to retire as the Director of Photography at the Associated Press and my mother retired as the Art Director for People magazine. So growing up in a household of journalists, it didn’t surprise me that I wound up following in their footsteps.
I went to work right out of high school, which in those days was not uncommon. I learned how to read color negative by working at Kurshan’s Color Lab in New York City. Shortly thereafter, I worked in the photo library at the AP and my boss was good enough to arrange my schedule so I could also attend and graduate from Manhattan Community College.  I wound up moving to the photo desk and eventually became their color picture editor (newspapers were just starting to use color photography back then)

That ability to edit and read color negatives landed me at Newsweek magazine where they also were just starting to publish more and more color pages. I became their Senior Photo Editor for International News before leaving to run a news photo agency called Sipa Press and then returned to Newsweek as their Director of Photography. It was a total of 17 years at Newsweek before I joined Sports Illustrated as their Photography Editor which I enjoyed for another 15 years. Last year, I took a “buyout,” and have been writing columns about photography for the NPPA: https://nppa.org/page/photo-journal , lecturing, and doing some freelance photo editing in my “semi-retirement.”

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What were the three most memorable experiences of your time at SI?

There were many. I had the great fortune of covering many Olympics games in places like Sydney, Athens, and Salt Lake City. I love the Olympics as those athletes are technically amateurs (with some exception recently) and they have not yet been jaded by the professional theater. They give it their all in the name of sport.

But my favorite story was one that had a tremendous positive result. We published a series of photos by Lynn Johnson of kids playing baseball in the little town of Bayaguana in the Dominican Republic. They were using rocks for balls, and tree limbs and pieces of wood as their bats. But they were proud, and you could see that on their faces.

Our readers were so moved by the images that they sent dozens of emails and letters saying things like, “I’ve got old baseball bats and equipment that I would love to donate. How can I help?” So I contacted everyone who inquired, and told them in addition to baseball equipment, these kids really need school goods—pencils, paper, backpacks—so for every baseball you send, please also include some school supplies.

In six weeks, we gathered seventeen crates worth of donations. The photographer and I used our frequent flyer miles, went back to the Dominican Republic, found the kids in the photos, and gave them new baseball equipment and school goods.  We then donated all of the remaining goods to the local school for community use. Lynn Johnson and I were made honorary mayors of the little town!

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What piece of advice would you give your young adult self?

Times are different now. The industry has changed dramatically from when I was a young adult. So for the young photo enthusiast today, I would recommend that they learn as much as they can about new technology. Photography is no longer about going out and shooting one frame…or one story.  The internet changed all that and digital photography further accelerated the need for new media.

So you better know how to shoot video, record sound, create multimedia shows, and learn how to edit and be proficient with applications like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. Take advantage of the new technology as that is what will be driving our industry in the future.

Yes, these are photos I took during the first week of getting my Nikon D5000. No, I did not post them on Facebook.

Yes, these are photos I took during the first week of getting my Nikon D5000. No, I did not post them on Facebook.

I’ve heard you talk a lot about the proliferation of low-quality photography on the internet today. Do you think that the democratization of photography has made it harder to find good photography?

The ease of which photography can be taken has exacerbated our current visual condition. So many people think that they are professional photographers simply because they have the ability to take high resolution imagery with their iPhones and point and shoots. And the ease of which they can post them on the internet has created this proliferation of low quality photography. The problem is volume.

There have been more pictures taken in the last two years than all of the years in history before then.  And they say next year, it will be only one year to equal the amount of all previous photography. That is a scary thought. It means there’s a lot of crap out there. So the “democratization” has made it harder to find good photography simply because we are looking for needles in the haystack.

What we need today, more than ever, is better filters. This starts with the photographer, who needs to be a bit more prudent and decisive about what they put out there for the world to see. And then we need better editors to weed through the chaff and find those gems that are worth being published.

On the flip side, what are the best ways for an aspiring photographer to get noticed by an editor?

The first thing is consistency. A good strong consistent portfolio that actually looks like it was taken by the same photographer. Secondly; have a good attitude. Show that you are committed to your work and are willing to go the extra mile to satisfy a client.  Third, become your biggest fan and promote your work, be it on your website, emails, promo cards, blogs, whatever. No one will know who you are and what you are capable of doing unless you get your images out there!

Pulitzer-winning photographs on display at the Newseum in DC

 

Good photography should inspire emotion. What kind of emotions make a photo most memorable?

My answer to that is simple, and I’ve said it often. “For a picture to be effective, it has to be affective!” A good photo will cause the viewer to have some kind of visceral response to it. It can may you cry, make you laugh, make you angry, make you wonder, but it has to make you something. If it doesn’t, then it hasn’t done its job.

My favorite pictures usually have the three C’s; Content, Composition and Color. Content is king. The subject matter of you image will always come first. Composition shows that you actually thought about the process before pushing the button. It should be esthetically pleasing to the eye. And color can be either literal use of color, or color as in “feel” or “emotion.” A sense of place, something that makes you feel like you are INSIDE the photo as opposed to looking at it from the OUTSIDE.

 

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