Growing together with Leonor Mamanna and Marvin Orellana

Leonor and Marvin are two beloved photo-industry luminaries known for, among other things, being absolutely delightful to collaborate with. Their friendship was forged within The New York Times Magazine at the start of both their careers and has only continued to expand as both the magazine biz and their roles within it have shifted. What has been consistent is their mutual love and respect for each other’s creative ideas & determination. That’s why it’s no surprise they decided to embark on a new project called Foto Chisme, highlighting Latin American creatives in conversation visually. In this interview we discuss their career paths, their long standing breakfast dates, & the gossipy phone call that kicked off their latest endeavor. 

Elizabeth Renstorm

Can you tell us a little about yourselves? How did you get into your careers and how did you grow into the people that you are now?

Leonor Mamanna: I fell into photo editing mostly by accident. I was hired to be the photo assistant at the New York Times Magazine when it was more of an admin job, which was great, because I had no background in photography. I was very lucky that Kathy Ryan (photo director) allowed and encouraged me to learn the ins and outs of photo editing. I was also surrounded by insanely talented photo editors who were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. That was way back in 2006 and since then I’ve worked at many other publications, each place helping develop different sides of my skill set, while introducing me to new photographers. It’s been an incredible education. I’ve worked hard and learned so much, and I am always excited to learn more.

Marvin Orellana: My love for photography started during my senior year in high school. A product of me trying to skip lunch (don’t ask me why lol), I had asked my guidance counselor if there was anything else I could do during that particular time. The only class open and willing to take a lost soul was the photography class. I fell in love immediately, shifting my focus from applying to medical schools (the sciences had always been a passion for me in high school) to photography schools (a surprise to my parents but nonetheless always supportive). Around the same time, I had been applying to various scholarships, including one offered by The New York Times, which gave it’s recipients tremendous opportunities to work with them while connecting them to their vast network of resources in addition to providing financial aid to any school you wanted to attend. I was very lucky to be one of those recipients. Once I graduated high school I basically started at The New York Times in the paper’s photo department. I was paired with long time staffer Ruby Washington, who was the sweetest, kindest human you could ever meet. We’d go to everything together, from The Met Opera to shoot the ballet, to the courts in Brooklyn to catch the latest perp walk. I learned so much from her. Usually after a shoot I was lucky enough to also hear from her editors about how they would edit the film and the things they would look for in the photos. It was basically an education before even stepping into any kind of formal photography school. After that I went to photo school where I learned all the things, worked on personal projects, learned so much about all kinds of photography, even the technical, while going back to the Times every Summer. Eventually I started at The New York Times Magazine, where I met Leonor, and the likes of Kathy Ryan, Jody Quon, Kira Pollack, Clinton Cargill, Joanna Milter and so many others. These experiences and people truly changed how I saw and consumed photography and the rest is history. My love for the medium has only grown bigger with each day.

What draws you to each other? How did you first meet?

LM: Marv and I met when I was that baby photo editor at the Times and he was in college. He’d done some scouting for a real estate themed issue and the pictures were so good and illustrated the story so well, that we wound up running them. I sent him copies of the mag along with a note, and we kept in touch. I took him to lunch when he came back home from school. We just really took to each other and became fast friends. We joke often that he is my little brother and many times people believe us. His positive energy is infectious. He’s like a walking ray of sunshine. I dare you to try to be sad around Marv. It is IMPOSSIBLE! I’ve roped Marv in on a variety of projects over the years as a creative collaborator, as a photographer, as a sounding board. Before he abandoned me to move to the West Coast, we used to have a weekly breakfast and would always be bouncing ideas off of each other. I MISS THAT AND HIM. MOVE BACK MARVIN. I respect him so much as an artist and would feel absolutely incomplete as a creative without his energy.

MO: There is so much to Leonor—her creative spirit, her determination to start new projects, and with each one she finds ways to push their limits, making each one count and giving them true purpose, her caring and loving nature. I don’t think I know anyone more dedicated to her craft, to her family, to her friends, and somehow she still finds time to manage everything about her in her life—it’s impressive. These are the qualities that I think have always made me attracted to her. Perhaps also our shared “latinidad” – I think having met another Latino early in my career had its own special impact: that of belonging and seeing yourself in a place. We met at The New York Times Magazine, where she was the photo assistant, and beyond what I wrote above, there has always been a sibling chemistry to the relationship. As we’ve both evolved and jumped around in our careers, I think the bond has only gotten bigger. She is someone I can always reach out to and ask things like “Does this sound dumb?” when writing to people. She is my soundboard, my collaborator, and one of my closest friends.

What made you want to start Foto Chisme? Can you talk us through the concept and current iteration of the project?

LM: Foto Chisme began on a catch up phone call. I think we were probably literally being chismosas when we came up with the idea of this telephone-style project. We knew we wanted it to be a Latin-forward project. But it took us a minute to think about how we wanted to approach it, what the initial prompt would be, each photographer getting a short amount of time to be inspired by the previous image, how many people to include in the first round. Before we even began we asked on our socials for Latinos to tell us what the word “chisme” means to them. In some cases there was a negative connotation, so we wanted to make sure we approached the project as a whole from a positive place.

MO: LOL, I might piggy back on Leonor’s response—definitely being chismosas. And overall I think the idea was to truly celebrate creatives in the Latin community. A way to create space for new and exciting voices, a platform that felt fun, allowed for interesting collaborations, and gave us opportunity to approach creatives that we admired that maybe in other capacities of our everyday jobs wouldn’t have allowed for this kind of collaboration. Plus it was a project we could own and say was ours.

What creative communities inspired you along the way to building both your prolific careers?

LM: It took a long time for me to find a solid community in the photo world. I’ve always leaned very heavily on mentors and coworkers. Last year, I was lucky to meet Nicole Motta (through Marv, naturally) who, in turn, has brought me into the network she is building of Latin American creatives. If you’re out there—hit up Nicole on instagram!

MO: Having gone to photo school and having had a lot of those friends move to NYC was definitely part of my community from the start, aside from other photo editors that I would meet at places like The Times early on. From the start I also made an effort to seek events where other photographers would hang out that ranged from book launches, gallery shows, volunteering for said events, and anything that would involve photo. To this day, some of my closest friends are photographers themselves. They’ve become collaborators, muses, and some of my biggest inspirations. I have a habit of reaching out to people on IG to thank them for their visual contributions, and sometimes that’s all it takes to start a collaboration and find those new friendships that add to your community.

What advice do you have for photographic artists seeking community? How do you get started?

LM: This is a tricky question because I think everyone approaches community in a different way. I think it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open for people who share similar values and passions. You have to be forward—send a nice note to someone. Do not ask to pick their brain. I am all about organic community, real connections can’t be forced.

MO: Sort of the same as what Leonor is saying above. Seeking those that share your values and passions is a great start. Seeking those whose work you admire, sending them a nice note, being genuine. Going to events where you are likely to meet other photographers and visual creatives. There is no real formula and all it takes is trying, being nice, and showing up sometimes.

Has Foto Chisme changed how you approach your current jobs?

MO: No, but it does make me want to continue doing more projects like these.

What are some dream collaborations you have in mind for the project as well as in both your current roles?

LM: I don’t want to speak for both of us, but as I start to add people to our potential collaboration list, I put anyone on there without any thought of how we might be able to “get” them. In the ideation phase, absolutely no one is off limits.

MO: I can only speak to Foto Chisme here, but at this point of the project, collaborations are as wide open as the sky. The magic will come from each group and what they eventually contribute, so there are no boxes to check except what we hope are visual celebrations each and every time.

What are some trends you’re noticing in photo right now and which of them excite you?

LM: I am absolutely terrible at identifying trends, but I will say I am reallllllly not interested in AI. I have always loved to see photographer’s personal work and I think that, in general, they are much more likely to share it on social.

MO: Yeah I feel like there is so much out there but kinda with Leo that in general it is the power of the personal projects, those unique and empowering lenses doing work within their communities, showing us their world in unique ways, that marry subject with technique that rise to the occasion. For me, it’s not a trend, but a sign of the changing times, that more and more photographers from all walks of life feel more empowered to tell and own their stories in a way that mainstream photography once didn’t allow. It’s both exciting and thrilling to see what these creatives are putting out into the world. Here for it!!! And while there is still much work to do on those fronts, we certainly hope Foto Chisme can contribute to the growth and exposure of those we feature in our little corner.

What are some things that inspire you outside of image-making these days?

LM: Springtime weather, my daughter’s art projects + the photos she takes on my phone, really good books with beautiful prose, working on side projects with my other frequent creative collaborator Josef, my friend Kate’s art and artistic process, rabbit holes on the internet, thought provoking newsletters, conversations with smart people, Marv, always.

MO: Lately travel (just being in a new space can bring you much perspective), quiet days, exercise (I know, sorry but is it so important), nature (just being by an ocean here brings me so much joy), wine, like Leo said, conversations with friends and other creatives , a good talk, a good walk, and these days hikes too, good music, a good sandwich, calling my mom.

Do you have a zine-making playlist? Could you share it with us?

LM: Um, gonna make one now, thanks for the idea.

MO: Leonor sent me an invite and have not touched it lol. Oops. 😂

This article is part of TAGTAGTAG’s release “Together.” Originally appeared on TAGTAGTAG.