Jim Kenney, Picture Editor

Back in the day, when us photo folks toiled away in blessed obscurity, off in the corner of the corporate picture, there were characters. Jim Kenney, the picture editor of Newsweek, was certainly one of these.

To be sure, just like today, the accountants and honchos of that time would continuously fume at this dark art of picture making, wondering why it was necessary, and further, why it cost any money at all, but, blessedly, they didn’t understand it. And, like a child who’s gotten a toy for Christmas they couldn’t really get the hang of, they would poke at it occasionally, look at it from all sides, then realize they couldn’t find the on-off switch, get bored, and drop it back in the jumble of the toy chest along with other misunderstood and forgotten gizmos.

This was a blessing. The lack of intense corporate scrutiny back then allowed for all manner of risk taking and outright shenanigans in the magazine picture game, and a blustery original like Jim Kenney could flourish, to the benefit of us all.

Of course, the accountants shouldn’t have worried, really. None of us were making any money. Magazine assignments back then were rated at 250 bucks a pop, usually attended by limited expenses. But, as opposed to today, when budget boogeymen have choked off the assignment spigot, magazine jobs were readily had.  Especially at places like Time and Newsweek, which were magazines that maintained competitive journalistic mandates to cover many more things than they could possibly publish. The phone rang aplenty, and jobs would seemingly drop from the trees. You would shoot the gig, drop off the film, and pray your slides would hit ink. Then, when the mag was off the stands a week later, you would drop off the pix at your agent, who would try to sell them to someone else. No contracts really existed. It was all just handshake deals. I would always get energized by a call from Newsweek photo. I got assigned all over the lot, from Popes and politics to actors and moguls to characters at Disney. 

As a shooter, you could do what was referred to as “the 50th St. shuffle,” as Time was located at 50th and Sixth, and Newsweek was over at 50th and Madison. There wasn’t overwhelming security at the buildings, so you could always find somebody to buzz you up, and you could grab coffee and hang out in a picture editor’s cubicle, hoping they would get so exasperated with your lunatic picture proposals they would give you a day rate to go shoot something just to get rid of you.

Picture agencies did the same shuffle, too, toting packages of slides back and forth to the newsweeklies, hoping to entice interest in a photog’s enterprise take of this or that. The big Paris based agencies, Sygma and Gamma, would emblazon their offerings with exclamatory stamps that screamed, “EXCLUSIF! MONDIAL!” Then they would go crosstown to sell basically the same set of slides to the competition. Some of the agents had, well, let’s call it a broad definition of the word, “exclusif!”

Two giants were astride all this mayhem, John Durniak at Time and Jim Kenney over at Newsweek. Newsweek was always the budgetarily disadvantaged of the two. Jim Colton who, over in his estimable blog, wrote about Kenney last week, always said that “Time was a hospital, and Newsweek was a MASH unit.” But being Avis to Time’s Hertz made Newsweek a formidably scrappy competitor, whose nimble picture troops would routinely outfox their bigger adversary.

My earliest adventures in the news game, as limited as they were, came at the behest of Jim, and he was great to work for. I spent time in Northern Ireland for Newsweek, during the troubles, and when things got calm, I dropped down to London and called Kenney to tell him of the move. I remember the conversation. He closed with saying, “If things heat up again, shag back in there and I’ll cover you.” With Kenney, you always knew he had your back, out in the field. It was a good feeling.

He was a competitor in the best sense of the word. During the JP II’s first papal trip to his home country of Poland, we were a Newsweek crew of maybe eight or nine to Time’s fourteen or so. Thing was, no matter how many people any pub could muster, nobody in the photo press corps really had the inside track. That belonged to the papal photographers. All of us would be a flyspeck with a huge lens out in a crowd of a million or so Poles, viewing the Pope in miniature despite all the glass we had jammed onto our cameras. The papal shooters, such as Arturo Mari, would be there with him on the altar using a 20mm lens, fer chrissakes. Kenney would rail about this lack of access, and referred to the papal photogs, always clad in a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie, as “the fucking penguins.”

He was an original, larger than life. He was a great editor, at a great time in magazine journalism. And, he was also a good guy to sit and have a beer with when things finally calmed down after a Friday night close. He had a nose for news and a swashbuckling knowledge of what it really took to get good pictures of the news.

Rest in peace, Jim. But then, there’s a part of me that hopes not. It’s fun to think he might be up there in the great beyond with his intercom phone, barking at some lost soul in accounting who’s wondering why a first look at Sygma’s output on the royal wedding was gonna cost 30g’s.

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