I met Allyson Torrisi, the Director of Photography at Popular Mechanics, for lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Columbus Circle. We’re fellow foodies, so we could have talked about that for hours in addition to the business at hand, which is to say the business of photography and storytelling and that special rush of excitement you get from bringing just the right mix of people together. “If my next job could be collecting the right people for the right dinner parties,” Torrisi said, “That would be my absolute favorite thing to do.” For more on craft, curation and creativity, read on!
I’ve been told you’re a photo editor. Is that how you would describe yourself, and if so, what does that mean, exactly?
I’m the director of photography at Popular Mechanics, and that means I assign and commission a photographer based on the tone and character of the story being created. If the piece is funny, I’ll look for a photographer who has a sense of humor, someone who sees the whimsy, captures the wink. If the piece is straight journalism, I’ll look for somebody who’s going to give me the facts, someone with a straighter style. If it’s a still life piece, I look for composition and styling choices. I have a carrousel of photographers that I work with, photographers who tell stories in different ways, stories of different lengths, with a different number of photos. Some people can tell a story in a single image, and some use a longer visual narrative.
So, your job is to support a written narrative with a visual narrative. Did you study literature?
I studied photography and design, but I do read a lot. That’s very helpful. We also work with really great writers whose work is really easy to match to great photographers. When I graduated from high school, I went to RIT—Rochester Institute of Technology—and when I got there I realized I absolutely loved photography and photographers, but I was never going to be the photographer that I really wanted to be. You go from being a good photographer at your high school to the college that’s filled with people who were the best photographers at their high schools, and you look around and think, oh right, there weren’t all that many people at my high school who were photographers. That’s when I realized that I wanted to work with photographers and work with photography, but that I didn’t necessarily want to shoot.
Was there a defining moment when you had that revelation?
It was in M&P, Materials and Processes, where we were learning about the physics of light. Photographers really, really need to understand light and the physics of light. You have to understand how light works, how it bends, the temperature, how to manipulate it, how to capture it. It’s not all just standing behind the camera and shooting. It’s much more technical than that, even more so now with color curves and everything that’s happening in the digital sphere. I realized that I wasn’t necessarily interested in the math and physics, that I was much more into the creative end of things, the storytelling end. I didn’t want to be inside the darkroom—well, actually, I do love the darkroom. It’s one of those disappearing spaces. People in the industry don’t have that kind of quiet space anymore.
It’s funny that you say that. I agree that you don’t have those kinds of spaces. You also don’t have the kinds of limits you used to have. When you could only shoot with film, and you were on a budget, you had a certain number of frames you could take, and that was it. Now that’s not the case.
I have two stories about that. The first is: There are a couple of people I work with who shoot a lot. They shoot fast and sometimes from the hip. I have given them assignments where I have asked them to shoot with a 4×5 in order to slow them down. I wanted them to be more decisive about the photographs, so I only gave them 20 sheets of film. I wanted film because I wanted some discipline from it, and I wanted a finite number of images. I do think that the limitlessness of digital doesn’t make people think. I think has made some people lazy, because a) they can fix it in post, and b) they know they got it, because they shot three thousand pictures instead of having to really, really work to get the shot. All three of the people I’ve given these limitations have thanked me.
What’s the other story?
It has to do with the first time I saw Robert Frank’s The Americans. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but the show has both prints and contact sheets, so you can see frame by frame how Frank shot it and what he did. And I don’t remember if this was my noticing, or if it was remarked on in the commentary—but I noticed that when he was funding himself, the 36 images on each roll of Tri-X were pretty decisive. As he got funding, he started shooting more frames of the same image. I don’t know if it was because he had more money or had someone else in his head that he had to bring back options for. But when he was out there doing it on his own, there were fewer versions of the same shots. The editing was tighter—he was editing in-camera, essentially.
How did you end up working where you do—you’re a woman working at what is, at least in the popular imagination, a male kind of publication?
When I realized I wasn’t going to be the photographer that I wanted to be, I transferred to RISD and started studying textiles. I worked for Liz Claiborne designing men’s fabrications for their suits and ties, etc. I didn’t like it at all. I quit and went to Europe to travel, where I met a guy who was a producer. I always thought that producers were just the people who financed the production of movies, but when he explained to me that producers were actually the people who create the crew, I got really turned on, because I really love bringing people together. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I realized that that was what I wanted to do. I came back from Europe, and within a month or two I got a job producing fashion shoots for catalogues. I became friendly with some of the art directors, and one of the art directors went off and opened his own business, and I ended up following him. He was one of the first people doing desktop publishing and doing it in house. A friend of mine who had a magazine was trying to buy a computer, so I put them together, and they ended up hiring me at the magazine. I started by putting together these fabulous crews to go on location and shoot things together, and then one job just led to another. I’ve mostly been in men’s magazines, or in the men’s end of the business.
What are the three elements in a successful photograph?
- It has to nod to the past, be current, and have enough life to it that it still leans toward the future.
- You can look at the photo without any text surrounding it. I used to have an editor who said, “A photo should read to somebody who’s from Mars as easily as it does to someone in Brazil or Portugal. It shouldn’t have to be wrapped in a headline or a pull quote so that you get what it’s about.”