“I Didn’t Know It Was a Job”: A Life With Images and Words

By Catherine Brewster

"Couldn't you have picked one that would make you employable?" Cora ’09 remembers her parents asking when she settled on her double major—English and art history—at Bard College. She hastens to add that they went on: "You're an industrious person. You'll make it work."

Cut to 2020: Cora's story "How Dev Hynes Went From Being in 'We Are Who We Are' to Scoring It," about the artist also known as Blood Orange and his role in Luca Guadagnino's new series, ran on the front page of the Sunday Arts section of The New York Times. She had a day job as a photo editor at The New Yorker and was steadily amassing freelance writing gigs. More than paying the rent, she's becoming an authoritative voice on the vast array of culture she hungrily consumes. Her story is a joyful one for humanities junkies, including me (I'm not only an English major but a journalist's daughter and fan of Cora since she was my student in ninth grade), and for their parents.

At Commonwealth, the visual arts were the center of Cora's experience. Since then, she says she's learned that she can't do without either art or writing: "Every time I've tried to focus just on one, I've missed the other." So after college, even while she was making ends meet with a retail job at a jeweler on Newbury Street, she was going to openings and running into people who made and wrote about art. One day she met a WBUR editor with a blog and "somehow conned him into letting [her] write a book review," which led to theatre reviews and finally her Commonwealth classmate Alex Strecker ’09 asking her if she'd like to work for LensCulture (a bastion for contemporary photography artists and enthusiasts). That became a full-time job helping photographers with artists' statements, visiting studios, and producing exhibits in the U.S. and Europe, as well as running the Instagram account Alex had started.

She kept writing—most consequentially, about the photograph that accompanied the 2018 short story "Cat Person" in The New Yorker. Like the story itself, the photo could be read as suggesting either consensual intimacy or assault. With the #MeToo movement in full flower, Cora was fascinated by her friends' visceral and divergent reactions: "That's what made it a great photograph," she remembers. She interviewed the photographer, Elinor Carucci, unpacking for readers the arduous creative process that led to the image—the photo editor's and the photographer's understanding of the story, the tricky logistical and ethical dimensions of working with the models on the shoot. To her shock, Cora got an email that week from her future boss at The New Yorker, a stranger who'd deduced from her thoughts and questions about Carucci's photograph that she'd make a great photo editor. Six months later, she moved to New York to do just that. "I didn't know it was a job," she says of photo editing.

If this sounds like the kind of story—hustle and virtue rewarded—that English majors and moviegoers alike recognize, it goes on. "I learned so much just by watching," Cora says: photo editors participate in envisioning, and then commissioning, the art that will accompany a story. They often see the texts of stories before they're shaped by the editors themselves, who tackle drafts "truly like a Commonwealth teacher," responding to raw material with questions like "Is this really what you want to say? Figure out what you mean by it and whether you do mean it." Cora, who was producing a steady stream of profiles for the "Photo Booth" feature on newyorker.com, says she was lucky to have had Alex Strecker's encouragement at LensCulture: "He was instrumental in my believing that I was a good writer and a good editor." As she continued to generate her own stories, including "cold pitching" the Dev Hynes profile to the Times, it gradually became feasible to make a living freelancing.

That's what she did for much of the pandemic, shuttling between New York and Boston, until another offer she couldn't refuse came along from The New York Times Magazine last spring. Now she works as a photo editor for the magazine and continues to write for both the Times and The New Yorker, as well as other publications, like Aperture.

At The New Yorker, her work included coordinating photo shoots in war zones. She wrote about photographers who took pictures of the plants grown by the residents of refugee camps and of life in Arctic Alaska during winter. Since then, she's become someone who writes mostly, she says, "about culture": profiles of all kinds of artists, many of them in the world of TV. They've recently included Lisa Hanawalt (creator of BoJack Horseman and Tuca and Bertie), Rose Matafeo (Starstruck), and Kaitlyn Dever (Dopesick).

When Cora talks about needing "a regular diet" of all kinds of art to thrive, she's being inclusive. I remember her having to take a breath and hold back tears when she described seeing works like the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre on a Commonwealth trip to France. But she's just as passionate about rejecting snobbery about "trash TV": if she knows a lot of thoughtful people who've watched every episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, it follows that there's something there worth thinking about. The only shows she really doesn't have time for, she says, are the ones that "assume stupid viewers who only want familiarity and comfort," missing opportunities to generate strong reactions. Another way she recently put it, on Twitter, was "I love it when television pisses me off."

One of the photographers Cora interviewed for Lens-Culture was Bruce Polin, who roamed Prospect Park in Brooklyn with a mechanical large-format camera, asking strangers if they wanted to be part of the portrait series he called "Deep Park." His subjects are New Yorkers, every kind of person, and a lot about Polin and his work reminds me of Cora, with her gift for connecting with people, her rich curiosity about their surfaces and depths. "I think there's a connection between my affection for photography and interviewing," Cora notes. "I really like to understand the motivations and emotions
behind someone's actions, and there's a lot you can learn about those things from either a photograph or an interview. So in that way it makes sense that I've created a life for myself where those two elements are central to my day-to-day."

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Catherine Brewster is an English teacher and twenty-one-year veteran of Commonwealth School. This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.