Meet Our Photojournalism Coach Karen Mullarkey

  • By Newmark J-School Staff
Leonardo March

By Hiram Durán
Class of 2019

Outside of the Newmark J-School photojournalism department, Karen Mullarkey is simply known as the coach with the rainbow-colored hair. However, to students like myself who met one-on-one with Mullarkey weekly over the course of a semester, she is a photo industry icon who has an uncanny ability to get inside our heads to guide us in our work.

She can also regale you for days with stories about her association with legendary photographers Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, and Robert Mapplethorpe; her years as chief photo editor of Rolling Stone, New York, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated magazines; and her world travels.

Before the world was upended by a pandemic, I met Mullarkey in the small New York apartment where she has lived for 42 years to turn the tables on her and get inside her head. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Recently you received the National Press Photographers Association’s highest honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award for individuals who advance photojournalism in significant ways. How does that feel?

I am really delighted. I’ve had such an interesting career. I never thought about awards. I just did what I did because it was so much damn fun.

I’ve done so many different things that revolve around two things, photography and storytelling. After doing this for 50 years, and each step being a little different than the one before, I came to CUNY to help, mentor, and coach.

I was mentored when I was starting out and the idea of doing it for others is really wonderful. Here I am at 77. It keeps me young.

You were a top photo editor at a time when the medium was dominated by wealthy straight white men. Can you tell me how that shaped you professionally?

I learned to handle difficult situations with humor, how to get what I wanted in a way that was non-confrontational. There were some advantages to being a woman: When men are dealing with men, they’re like walruses bumping up against each other.

Through hard work, I broke the glass ceiling when I moved to Newsweek in 1984. Editor-in-chief Rick Smith reached out to bring me there. He wanted to shake things up, and this was a groundbreaking hire, as no woman had even been head of a photography department at any of the three major news magazines. So I asked for what I called a “public coronation.” At the meeting where he introduced me to the Newsweek staff,  I wore a crown of silk roses as a symbolic gesture because I knew it was an inside joke between the two of us. Before he spoke at the lectern, I pointed to it and said, “See, I wore my crown.” He cracked up.

You’ve worked with some of the greats, including your fellow NPPA award recipient, (documentary photographer) Maggie Steber. How different is it managing photographers of their caliber versus a student who’s just starting out?

On some levels I manage you all the same. When I managed (Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer) Brian Lanker, he would ask, “What do you want me to do?” And I said, “Here’s the story. Basically what I want you to do is make Brian Lanker pictures.”

When I’m working with student photographers, I try to get them to overcome fear. The other thing is to shoot every day so that it feels like the camera grew out of your hand. Once you’ve mastered both fear and technique, then all you have to do is go out there and be creative.

One thing you’ve taught me, and it scares me a bit, is that each photographer leaves a bit of themselves in each image. How do you get inside a photographer’s head?

It’s something that years of working with photographers has taught me. Each one of them has a different personality and a thing that makes them tick. I need to know what that is. That way I can relate to them and understand what made them see the way they see.

Now, when I start with students, I ask to see their personal work first. It tells me a lot about them. It told me a lot about you.

For example, your first photo essay with Ron Lyons, a wheelchair user, showed me a great deal of empathy, trust, and enough distance to render images accurately. Mix that with your directness and zero frills compositions, and I started to see that you’re the type of person who keeps to themselves. When you do speak, it’s because you actually have something to say.

What was one of your career highlights?

I was in my 20’s, a secretary at Life Magazine, and I wound up being in charge of producing the moon landing in 1969. I got the credentials, ran the teletype machine, and rented hotel rooms for our team. Then came time for the launch.

Life had the rights to the astronaut’s profile stories, but we wanted to do something different with Janet Shearon Armstrong, astronaut Neil Armstrong’s wife. So I suggested we put her on a boat up the Banana River to watch liftoff with her kids and a photographer. She loved the idea. But NASA wanted Ms. Armstrong to watch liftoff with all the other astronaut families. They couldn’t find her. They knew I had her, but all I said was, “You’ve lost her? How could you possibly have lost her?”

After liftoff, a helicopter flew over the boat to airlift the film from our photographer. We needed to get the film back to New York, fast. So I collected the film and loaded it with the managing editors aboard a private jet in less than 25 minutes. After that, I went back to run the teletype machine and thought, “This is the greatest job anyone has ever had, and I’m only 26 years old.”

Do you remember the role you played in getting me a summer internship in Johannesburg, South Africa? 

I called my friend Mark Peters, contract photographer for Newsweek, who once bought a cow for the King of Swaziland as a gift to acquire the one Swazi Olympic credential. I told him about you and asked if he knew anyone at the Mail & Guardian. But of course, there’s a line to get in line, so I asked him, “Can you help me get around that?”  He never met a blockade he didn’t run. I swear, in 1994 I was in the car with him when he ran a police blockade in Cape Town, South Africa, and it was an eye opening experience.

So he called a person who used to be an editor there and said, “I want this kid to get a break, how do we make that happen?” You were going through all the proper channels, but by the time you got an interview, someone had already mentioned your name, Hiram, and that always opens the door.

I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you for this but you were the rock that kept me grounded throughout the J-School program. Thanks for the advice, seltzer, and pizza.

Trust me, I got as much from you as you think I gave to you. When I fell a few blocks from my apartment in the East Village and was injured, each student came here, to my apartment, to check on me. You came over and said, “Let me empty the trash, grab the mail, and run some errands for you.” It meant so much.

I always want to be your rock. I know the feeling of desperation, but I’ve seen you climb out of that hole. You graduated a different person. I take full credit. [Writer’s note: She was laughing when she made that last statement.]