Time magazine director of photography Michele Stephenson is accepting early retirement, ending nearly two decades of service, editor-in-chief Richard Stengal announced Friday. MaryAnne Golon, Stephenson’s deputy for the past several years, will take over the magazine’s top photo editing post, effective Jan. 5, 2007.

Stengal made the announcement Friday in a memo to staff, calling Stephenson “a legend in the photojournalism world,” a title few could reasonably argue.

Stephenson leaves Time as the dominant photo newsweekly in the U.S., a perennial award-winning magazine that enjoyed bigger budgets and more edit pages than its smaller competitors Newsweek and US News & World Report.

Stephenson’s stable of contributors in recent years has grown to include photojournalists Anthony Suau, Thomas Dworzak and Kadir van Lohuizen, White House photographers Brooks Kraft and Christopher Morris, and war photographers Robert Nickelsberg, Yuri Kozyrev, and James Nachtwey, arguably the best conflict photographer of his generation.

We can’t say we didn’t see this coming, but we’re sorry to see a class act such as Stephenson depart such a high-profile job.

Golon has been the heir apparent for some time, and is younger and spunkier than Stephenson and perhaps better equipped to grapple with the changing media landscape. The future for newsweeklies in print is anything but certain, and Golon should have her hands full over the next few years guiding the magazine into the digital age.

Stephenson will no doubt stay active in the photojournalism community, and Stengal’s memo stated that she would continue to be active in PhotoVisaWest, the new photojournalism festival for America spearheaded by Golon and first mentioned in this blog last September.

Read Stengal’s memo after the jump.

–Jay DeFoore