Your faithful correspondent at Conde Nast

Conde_nast_003 I visited Allure Magazine in the Times Square building of Conde Nast last week.

I got to see what can only be described as a "photo pour."  A editor works in a smallish room with her two assistants as if sitting on a rope bridge over an Andean river gushing fat with spring run off.  The photos pass before her in the thousands. She is charged with making choices that she will pass upward to her editor, the editor of Allure Magazine.

I felt like shouting, "What about that one?  Hey, what if you missed that one!"  Ok, sure, I suffer Monk-like indecision. ("These socks or these ones?") So this is bound to impress me.  But as the photos poured past us, my anxiety grew.  How can the editor be sure she doesn’t want that batch.  And more pressingly, how can she spot the one photo she wants as it races by?  The ratio of churn to choice must be something like 2000 to 1. How can she know?

Yes, maybe it’s a matter of Gladwell’s Blink.  It is also a matter of Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind.  This editor’s powers of pattern recognition are porous.  She has been trained, prepped by her editors, and recalibrating by last night’s 60 Minutes and this morning’s New York Times.  Conscious choices are constantly being fed into the unconscious field.  Most blinks start as a wink (and an editorial nod) from someone or something.  This editor is programmed and self programming. 

What’s weird is that the editor is not just choosing good photographs.  The photos she choses have the ability to arrest our attention and program us.  Ah, yes, that photo captures the celebrity of the moment, and exactly how and why she is the celebrity of the moment.  Ah, here’s a photo that captures the trend that matters now, and yes, that photo helps show me what makes the trend compelling.  This editor is choosing photographs that diminish the noise of contemporary culture and make good on every Conde Nast magazine’s promise: that the reader is now a little more calibrated, a little more part the loop, and a little less overwhelmed by the Andean rush of contemporary life.  By choosing photographs, this editor is, in a much better than trivial sense, choosing us. 

The Frank Gehry cafeteria was a revelation of its own.  As if to satisfy my fondest hope of a celebrity sighting, there at the "first table" was Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue.  As luck would have it, Ms. Wintour was surveying the room.  Now it was in the Renaissance, a  very big deal for anyone at court, to fall, even for a moment, within the gaze of a monarch.  Did I pass muster?  Hard to know.  For the record, I was wearing a black mock turtle neck, gray flannel pants, while carrying a briefcase, a green apple and a bottle of Root beer.  I wish now that I had been juggling the latter but you can’t have everything. But I feel certain I made an impression.  I mean who wears gray flannel pants these days?
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The restaurant is a kind of cafeteria, a good cafeteria to be sure, the best company food in the city, so they say at Conde Nast.  And this means that people have to stand in line.  And this means they have plenty of time to scope one another out. This is a "gaze economy" of major proportions. 

It’s a slightly anxious place, because a) everyone looks fabulous, except of course your devoted anthropologist and, b) they are engaged in the activity that threatens their fabulousness, eating.  This is a world in which a carrot stick counts as calorie loading. 

Design to the rescue.  Or at least Mr. Gehry to the rescue.  As you leave the cafeteria, you pass a running, reflective wall that makes you look 10 pounds lighter.  (This photograph, above, captures the line of the wall, but it has now been resurfaced with something silvery.)  I will tell you in my mock turtle neck and my gray flannel pants, I had an anti-narcissistic moment, I can tell you, and resolved then and there to lose twenty pounds and ditch the flannels.  I mean, really, who is that guy?

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