Editors, Photographers, and Slides: Three Stories, One About Anna Wintour, One from Terry McDonell

“The translucent surfaces got smudged with Brie and spilled wine. . .”

Anna Wintour’s slide show for editors was memorable.

For those of you born after 1990, a “slide” was a positive photographic image recorded on 35mm film—usually either Kodachrome or Ektachrome, which were the best when it came to color accuracy, tonal range, and sharpness. . . .

The two-by-two-inch cardboard or plastic mounts on the slides both framed and protected the images when photo editors dropped them into plastic carousels. The ensuing slide shows brought together various editors, researchers, and designers working on a particular story.

These shows could be shocking and disturbing, with the thick silence in the room as you clicked through Jim Nachtwey’s combat images. You could also be moved while viewing an old slide of a teenage Marvin Gaye when you were looking for an obit picture after the singer had been shot dead by his father in 1984. It felt like theater in those so-called color rooms.

Depending on the time of day and the proximity of deadline, the shows could also turn suddenly boisterous, impromptu captioning sessions, like one I remember at Newsweek, when an image was shown of vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle holding up a golf club with a particularly stupid look on his face: Tennis, anyone?

Slides had a physical reality that you could play with, move around and sequence and move around again on that light box. A short stack of slides felt good in your hand, like poker chips. Some editors held slides up to overhead lights and blew on them, as if that was a smart way to get rid of dust. Others wore thin white editing gloves all the time.

The big light tables at magazines like Rolling Stone and Esquire became editorial watering holes where people would meet to socialize, and the translucent surfaces got smudged with Brie and spilled wine, some of which dried in the lines scratched from chopping cocaine with an X-Acto blade—a standard art department tool. Slide culture threw good parties.

—From the book The Accidental Life, by Terry McDonell, about his career as a magazine editor.

Anna Wintour hit the remote button to show the first slide and it was like the room exploded.

It was at an all-day American Society of Magazine Editors conference in New York where the star attraction was Anna Wintour. A Brit, Wintour had moved in 1987 from editing British Vogue to Conde Nast’s House & Garden. After a year there she became editor of the American Vogue and began to change its covers, using younger models, mixing lower-cost clothes with high fashion, and for the first time dressing a model in jeans.

Editors are always looking for ways to come up with magazine covers that are talked about so there was a good crowd. After a glowing introduction, Wintour went to the podium, made a few remarks, and pushed a button on a remote to show the first slide.

In those days photographs were taken with a camera, usually 35 mm, the film was developed, and each photo became a small slide that could be put in a slide projector and then shown on a screen.

Wintour hit the button to show the first slide, the top fell off the slide projector’s circular tray, and the slides went flying into the air. Then the slides hitting the floor, the gasps, and the attempts by other editors not to enjoy it too much.

Wintour handled it pretty well, going on about Vogue covers as an assistant took 10 minutes to reload the circular tray and the slide show resumed.

Back then Wintour didn’t have The Devil Wears Prada reputation she has now and after I saw Meryl Streep play her in the 2006 movie version of the 2003 novel, I often wondered what happened when Wintour returned to the offices of Vogue on that ASME day to deal with the assistant who had loaded the tray of slides.

—From a Washingtonian editor who was there.

Why editors worried about all those slides sitting on desks in the photo department.

One of the most celebrated lost-photograph lawsuits ended with an out-of-court settlement of better than $1,000 a slide.

Ric Ergenbright, the Oregon travel photographer who sued American Express Publishing over the loss of 248 original slides, is barred by terms of the settlement from revealing the amount, but insiders put it at over a quarter-million dollars. The slides were lost by Travel & Leisure magazine in 1987 during an office move.

The settlement’s not seen as a victory, however, by freelance and stock photographers. Notes Richard Weisgrau, president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers, Amex magazines continue to request original chromes yet reject an ASMP delivery memo setting a $1,500 liability for each slide.

—From Popular Photography magazine, January 1991.

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