Been everywhere, knows everyone, can pull off anything. Lonnie Schlein, master New York Times photographer-photo editor, shows his stuff.
BY SUSAN SPANO | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LONNIE SCHLEIN
From left: A street-food chef grills mouthwatering beef and chicken skewers in the red-hot shopping and entertainment district of Myeong-dong in Seoul, South Korea; at a market high in the Peruvian Andes about 20 miles north of Cusco, Chinchero village women prepare feasts for visitors.
Most of us are deeply compelled—and sometimes fundamentally changed—by the work of photojournalists. Take, for instance, the indelible 1972 picture by AP photographer Nick Ut of a naked child running down a road in Vietnam after a napalm attack. The people who take such photographs roam the world seeking a way to visually express complicated political, moral, and emotional issues. And the right moment—or second—to photograph them. Some do it by instinct. For others, like Lonnie Schlein, getting the most vivid and meaningful shot comes from deep knowledge and broad experience.
Schlein has spent a lifetime looking at photos and shooting them. As a photo editor for some 35 years at The New York Times, he was assigned to the Metro Desk the morning of September 11, 2001, when his editor called him in to the office ASAP. But first he ran to the rooftop of his Midtown Manhattan apartment to capture some of the most achingly tragic images of smoke pluming above the World Trade Center towers before they fell. With Schlein as photo editor, the paper’s 9/11 coverage won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Times was a lodestar even when he was young. “It was always around the house. I clipped and saved headlines. I have my own archives,” he says. Schlein was born and raised in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. He got his first camera, a twin-lens Argoflex, around 1956. At the time, his Uncle Izzy was director of photography at CBS and, as a teenager, Schlein rode the subway from the far reaches of Brooklyn to the television studios in Manhattan, where he hung around the photo lab watching the pre-digital age techs “doing magic,” as he says.
After college, he started at The Times as a copy boy, running across West 43rd Street for cigarettes and coffee at the behest of editors and columnists. As he became one of the paper’s most respected photo editors, he made sure he could keep taking pictures, too. He traveled around the world with a camera. The more he saw, the more he knew.
Sometimes the image would fall in his lap. Right place, right time, as when he shot an ice climber dangling precariously from a rope in Ouray, Colorado. Or his just-born daughter emerging into the world halfway between womb and obstetrician’s hands. Or the look of indescribable joy on the face of a young Black woman when Barack Obama accepted the nomination for president at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Schlein always gives luck its due. Nevertheless, he says, “You must not shoot wildly. Wait for the right moment.”
When you look closely at some of his most powerful images, you see that something more than right-place-right-time is operating. You’ll see a studiousness and informed eye for composition in his photo of a Havana cigar factory worker with a dog-eared photo of Che Guevara propped up in the background. The same intensity marks his shot of two boys on a stoop in Ghana who had just escaped from two years of slavery on fishing boats. He couldn’t get them to look at him or into the camera. “They had these empty expressions,” Schlein says. “They were totally destroyed.”
Schlein remembers the decade he was The Times national photo editor as the most exciting time in his tenure at the paper. He convinced Coretta Scott King to let the newspaper use a never-before-seen portrait of the King family and arranged exclusive Times photo ops of then-President Clinton. Getting reluctant subjects to allow photographers to take their pictures became his forte. “Just ask Lonnie,” coworkers would say. “Lonnie can pull it off.”
The story of how he got the last portrait session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on November 3, 1980—just a month before Lennon’s fatal shooting on December 8, 1980—has passed into Times lore. The famously secretive couple had repeatedly refused the paper’s requests.
Finally, Schlein contacted Yoko and convinced her and John to sit for the portraits, though the paper had to break a cardinal rule and give them photo approval. Moreover, the shoot had to take place at 3 a.m. and only photographer Jack Mitchell was allowed in the studio. When Mitchell finished the contact sheets, Lonnie took them in a cab to The Dakota, where Yoko pain-stakingly selected 10 shots that she and John agreed the paper could publish. Around 5 a.m. Schlein’s wife, Monique, called. Yoko answered. “I’m sorry I kept your husband so long. He’s on his way home now.”
Photojournalist? Photo editor? Manipulator? Cajoler? There is simply no way of pigeonholing Lonnie Schlein. Never mind. When we look at his images, we see the world recorded by a photographer who has been everywhere, done everything, and seen it all.
In tiny Oakland Valley, New York, about two hours northwest of New York City, a woman on the banks of the Neversink River takes in the fog and sound of the rushing waters.
A visitor takes a break on a visit to Seoul’s ornate Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 for the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea for more than 500 years.
On a summer day in Copenhagen, a crowd gathers at Nyhavn Harbor to soak up the sun.
From left: Beached fishing boats line the Gold Coast of Ghana, where “slave castles” built by traders held captured Africans headed to slavery in the Americas. Slavery of other kinds persists in the region.; Brothers Joe, 10, and Kwame, 12, were sold by their mother to a fisherman in 2014. After two years of hard labor, they returned home and were adopted by a family in Senya Beraku, Ghana.
From left: Top: A child wades across a playground flooded after torrential rains in Middletown, New York.; A worker strolls past a stone arch along the banks of the fabled Li River in Guilin, China, known for its otherworldly karst mountains and terraced rice paddies.
Looking up at an eave at 14th-century Jogyesa Temple with Seoul’s electrified cityscape in the background.
From left: In the Libyan Sahara, travelers converse as the sun sets near Ghadamès,a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “the pearl of the desert.”; In one of Havana’s largest factories, a worker rolls cured tobacco leaves, the old method of making cigars by hand.
A joyful delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver learns that Illinois Senator Barack Obama was nominated for President of the United States.
LONNIE SCHLEIN’S YOUTH COULD BE THE PREMISE FOR A VINTAGE MUSICAL COMEDY, not least because his father, Irving Schlein, was a musical director for Broadway shows by the likes of Cole Porter. Dad took the family along on the 1956 national tour of Porter’s Silk Stockings, traveling in luxe railroad sleeper cars. When the company reached a destination, Jan Sherwood, the actress playing the lead, would pose for the press, pulling up her skirt to adjust her garter. After arriving in Los Angeles on the Santa Fe Super Chief, Schlein, a plucky 10-year-old at the time, took a shot and gave the picture to Sherwood. He still has her thank you note saying he was “an excellent photographer.”
With anyone else that would be just an endearing story, but it prefigures Schlein’s longtime fascination with celebrity photography. Over the years, he has photographed everyone from Mickey Rooney to Al Pacino to Paul McCartney.
In the 1980s, as the first photo editor of Arts & Leisure, then one of the fat Sunday feature sections of The New York Times, he and his wife, Monique, were one of the most sought-after couples in New York’s art world.
Clockwise from top: Schlein (far right) and top editors of The New York Times gather on the evening of September 11, 2001, to decide what the next day’s momentous front page will look like.