It may well be that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that largely depends on the picture. To get the shot that truly tells the story can require hours of labor. In any given week PEOPLE has photographers roaming the world, from Africa to the Philippines to Great Britain (see cover, page 106) as well as across the U.S. (pages 36-46). For a typical story a photographer will shoot from 15 to 20 rolls of film (at 36 frames per roll), and 200-roll stories are not unheard of. That celluloid harvest then must be culled by the Picture Department’s staff of nine picture editors and researchers to select the 90 photos used in an average issue. Overseeing this staggering logistic and aesthetic effort is Picture Editor Mary Cantey Dunn, who has been with the magazine since it began. “I fell in love with it,” she says of her work. “I like the excitement.”
A 1968 graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Dunn was a TIME magazine picture researcher from 1969 to 1973. Named PEOPLE’S picture editor in 1978, she has orchestrated assignments with wit and originality, from the Chicago man who wore a dirt suit that grew grass to a documentary on the plight of the homeless. “We ask our photographers to do impossible things,” she admits. “We’ve sent them to shoot the action in Beirut and Nicaragua.” She has also asked them to pose British author Quentin Crisp as an angel floating on a cloud (she is wearing his wings, above) and to submerge John Moschitta in a swimming pool as he spieled lickety-split his Federal Express commercial. As background for palimony lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, she even constructed a tunnel of love. “With celebrities, we try to get behind the masks of their well-burnished public images,” she explains. “With ordinary folk we must first get past their fear of being photographed.”
Married to Toby Dunn, an advertising agency vice-president, Mary lives on Manhattan’s West Side. “Although I don’t edit every roll of film, I see every picture we use after it’s been edited,” she says. “I spend most of the weekend on the phone with photographers.” Fortunately she also has time for her daughter, Muffie, 13. “She takes pictures,” admits Mary, but Muffie is unlikely to follow in Mom’s footsteps. “She’s seen me come home at night and collapse often enough to think there’s got to be a different line of work.” Luckily for PEOPLE Mary Dunn never considered anything else.