Visit Page
Skip to content

Photo Change We Can Believe In (?)

As if the current election were not enough of a circus it’s now spilling into the photo world. Photographer Jill Greenberg recently photographed John McCain for the cover of The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine is running a fairly straight forward picture with Jill’s trademark Greenberg’ian lighting.

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008, © The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008, © The Atlantic Monthly

Where the story takes a turn is in Jill’s use of the images on her own web site and her comments about the assignment.  She negotiated a very short embargo on the photos with the magazine under the pretense of being able to re-sell out-takes of the assignment but as of Sunday morning she was running a number of the images in rotation on her home page, some with a line of commentary.

As seen on, © Jill Greenberg
As seen on, © Jill Greenberg

Jill also commented that she had put one over on the McCain camp by creating a darker, far less flattering image for a second setup without their knowing it.

Jill’s thought process as quoted by David Walker in Photo District News,

“It’s definitely exciting to shoot someone who is in the limelight like that. I am a pretty hard core Democrat. Some of my artwork has been pretty anti-Bush, so maybe it was somewhat irresponsible for them [The Atlantic] to hire me.”

Wow.  Could there be more issues here?  Photographer – client relations, photographer responsibility to one’s self, photographer responsibility to the subject, photographer responsibility to your past clients (who are represented on your web site), putting your own future jobs at risk and creating an environment where other photographers will have to jump through more hoops to placate subjects or their handlers.

Upon hearing of this story I thought of the Arnold Newman portrait of Alfred Krupp.  Krupp led the Krupp Group, an industrial manufacturer during World War II who was part of the Nazi war machine which resulted in war crimes being brought against Krupp and his board.

Alfred Krupp, © Arnold Newman/Getty Images
Alfred Krupp, © Arnold Newman/Getty Images

This, like the Greenberg portraits of McCain, is a case of a photographer working to express his or her viewpoint but that’s were the similarity ends. Newman was working for Newsweek and he initially said, “No” to Newsweek. He thought of Krupp as the devil and he thought he could never portray him as anything else.  Newsweek told Newman, fine we see it that way, too, go with it.

With Greenberg, the magazine opted not to go with her darker take but then she decided to use the images for her own personal political attack.  Jill could have opted to only submit her darker take to the magazine – letting the magazine decide whether to run it or re-shoot it with another photographer as needed.  This probably would have been the ballsier move especially if she had a discussion with the magazine first about her viewpoint, much as Arnold Newman did with Newsweek. She also could have just let it be and let viewers read into her portrait of McCain on their own.

Another recent photographer brouhaha was the Miley Cyrus/Annie Leibovitz flap.  It was not a case of an unknown lighting change, hidden agenda or a photographer manipulating images after the fact for personal gain. Stephen Colbert had the best take on the seriousness of the issue.  The McCain/Greenberg flap is different and is unfortunate for all photographers.

I never ever thought I’d be coming to John McCain’s aid but as Barack Obama says, “This is the silly season in politics,” and maybe in photography as well.

Update: I’m catching up on the buzz around this.  Mark Tucker has Fourteen Questions the incident raises plus lots of links to comments around the web.