Essays

The Need Right Now for Subversive Photography

What does it mean for a photograph to challenge what we know about the world and reveal new aspects of it?

Donald Trump, says photographer Martin Schoeller, is “very difficult to photograph.” This might not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the photographs and videos emerging from the 2016 presidential election. Schoeller: “He literally has one angle. If I ask him to smile, he puts on a big grin and then he goes back to his Zoolander ‘blue steel’ look. And the ‘blue steel’ stays for as ever long as it takes to get the photograph.” It’s exactly this “Zoolander-blue-steel look” that Nadav Kander got for the Time “Person of the Year” cover. Possibly coincidentally, the Time cover image is also dominated by bluish tones.

In the Forward, writer Jake Romm argues that the “decisions that Time made regarding how to photograph Trump reveal a layered, nuanced field of references that place the image among […] the magazine’s greatest covers.” Romm lists a series of criteria: the picture’s overall colors, the sitter’s pose, and — I kid you not — the choice of chair. None of those hold up to much scrutiny. To begin with, if you look through the gallery of portraits on Kander’s website, you’ll notice this photographer’s images, where the portraits are not black and white, tend to be dominated by a single color. Trump’s portrait is blue (with a hint of green), but so are many others done by Kander. These are highly stylized pictures with a very specific and unique look that often reads as monochromatic. This has precious little to do with alluding to Kodachrome, as Romm argues. On my computer screen, many images also look quite blue. Many Hollywood movies employ a similar aesthetic. It’s just blue. In much the same fashion, this writer’s other two criteria simply fall apart under stricter scrutiny. Consequently, this photograph is not so much “a profound portrayal of anxiety for the coming years.” It’s simply a Nadav Kander portrait. It’s  extremely competent photographically, great for a magazine cover, but not much more than that.

When contacted by the Forward, Kander was — to use author Daniel J. Solomon’s words  — “less committal” about the photograph than the site’s writers would have preferred: “Upon arriving at Trump’s residence, I wanted to integrate a detail from his environment into the photograph. I tried a few set ups, but this image of President-Elect Trump in his chair stood out as the cover.”  On his own Instagram account, the photographer issued a separate statement:

A glance back by a sitter might mean one thing to one person and something so different to another, just because, as said above, our life stories are so different from one to another. I looked to make a portrait that respects this crossroad [sic] in history with no political view of my own.

There you have it; this is how editorial photography works. Of course, you can read into or project onto any picture whatever you want. The anxiety that Romm detected in Kander’s portrait might simply be his own. It’s certainly not what I would have seen in the picture, even though I am anything but optimistic about the next few years.

In the two Forward pieces, the term “subversive” is used. Is this Time cover photograph really subversive? I don’t think so. Almost by their nature, these kinds of highly stylized, editorial photographs, whether taken by Kander, Schoeller, or anyone else, are not subversive at all. To put it bluntly, the covers of mainstream American magazines are not where you will find subversive photography. That’s not how this particular business operates. Going back in time a little over eight years ago provides an interesting example that sheds more light on this question.

In 2008, Jill Greenberg was commissioned by The Atlantic to photograph then Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The resulting picture looked like the kinds of pictures Greenberg was known for. At the time, she had attained a degree of notoriety by photographing crying children or monkeys. Unlike Kander, Greenberg was being subversive, though. In addition to pictures The Atlantic happily published, she produced photographs in which a flash was triggered from below, creating a menacing shadow behind the politician. Greenberg also reworked some of her images with Photoshop, creating what might not necessarily be the most sophisticated outcomes for the time — the results are more in line with the ways political imagery was used in the 1920s or ’30s. The folks at The Atlantic were not amused. “I was appalled to read about the actions of Jill Greenberg,” thundered Jeffrey Goldberg. “Suffice it to say that her ‘art’ is juvenile, and on occasion repulsive. This is not the issue, of course; the issue is that she betrayed this magazine, and disgraced her profession.” Let’s briefly leave aside the question whether Greenberg’s work is in fact juvenile and “on occasion” repulsive. It seems clear that what seems like a subversive act is seen by the people who commissioned the pictures as “betraying” the commissioning magazine and “disgracing” the photographer’s profession.

In light of this example, does anyone still think Kander’s Trump picture is subversive? Say whatever you want about the pictures Greenberg produced; whether you like them or not, aren’t they subversive? Isn’t lighting a politician from below, to make him look menacing — and not at all palatable to a magazine’s readership — subversive? It’s true: this is not the type of political imagery still used widely. You’d have to go back 70 or 80 years for that. But it clearly speaks of the photographer’s opinion. If memory serves me right, at the time I was not very impressed by Greenberg’s actions. But now, I have changed my mind a little. After all, we just witnessed the most horrible US presidential election campaign certainly in our life times, in which a neo-Nazi, cartoon character meme was openly used by the Republican presidential nominee.

From 2008 let’s jump back another 45 years, to 1963. Arnold Newman had convinced Alfried Krupp that he would make a splendid portrait of the industrialist, who had played such a huge role in Nazi Germany. The resulting photograph, widely seen as a classic, iconic photograph, shows Krupp as a menacing, evil figure. “As a Jew,” said Newman, “it’s my own little moment of revenge.” If we ignore the differences between Krupp and McCain, what Newman did really isn’t all that different than Greenberg lighting McCain from below. In both cases, the portrayed comes across as evil. Given Newman was and still is widely accepted as a master of his profession, this makes Goldberg’s comment of Greenberg “disgracing” the one she shares with Newman puzzling. Why can’t she do what the other photographer did before her?

J.P. Morgan photographed by Edward Steichen in 1903. The photo is best known for the light reflected off the armrest being interpreted by viewers as a knife. (via Wikipedia)

Go even further back, to 1903, and look at Edward Steichen’s portrait of J.P. Morgan. In the photograph, part of the chair Morgan is sitting in looks like a dagger, and his facial expression is positively menacing. Now compare Kander’s “Zoolander” Trump picture with Steichen’s of Morgan: for a start, Steichen actually made good use of the chair, didn’t he? And is there any doubt about what he thought of the man in the picture? So why couldn’t Kander do what Steichen did? The answer seems clear: because that’s not what the magazine asked for. In other words, if a photographer commissioned by a mainstream US magazine wants to be subversive, they better do it on the magazine’s terms, not on their own. That’s how the business operates.

After all, some of the people who buy your magazine might have voted for McCain or Trump. What do you do about that? How do you square attempting to provide quality journalism with being a business first, in a day and age when social media have been skewing people’s attention not toward what is being reported, but what is being shared in the bubbles of their Facebook profiles? And it doesn’t even stop there in the case of Trump, a man who has been producing such a flurry of outright lies and inflammatory commentary that it’s hard to keep up with it. Can (or maybe should) this man be treated just like any other politician?

In an off-the-record meeting with various news executives a few days after he won the election, Trump demanded there be “nicer” pictures shown of him. The absurdity of this request cannot be overstated, especially given that, for example, Trump openly mocked a reporter with a disability. In Photo District News, Holly Hughes brushed Trump’s request aside: “the courts have consistently supported free speech and ruled that, in cases of libel and defamation, the truth is sufficient defense.” “The President-elect,” writes Mathew Ingram, “is a man who has said he needs to ‘open up’ libel laws in order to make it easier to sue newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. His former campaign manager said the editor of the Times should be in jail for reporting on Trump’s tax returns. The threat Trump poses to the First Amendment and freedom of the press is very real.” How are the media going to deal with that? Are they trying hard not to be subversive?

Perhaps not surprisingly, large parts of the media have so far simply followed standard operating procedure. In the words of Les Moonves, executive chairman and CEO of CBS, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Maybe there needs to be some soul searching done in the corridors of CBS and elsewhere. Maybe if something is not good for America, but “damn good for CBS” or any other news organization, then the choice should not be made only with the bottom line in sight. After all, as is being demonstrated in many parts of the world, democracies under attack only survive intact if there are enough people willing to come to their defense. Where the defenses fail, things can — and will — turn dire fast. As the situations in Russia, Turkey, and many other places demonstrate, democracies can be dismantled easily if the right demagogues go about their job and there is no resistance. That job always entails curtailing the press. At the time of this writing, the government in Poland is attempting to do just that.

Resistance has to come in part from the people themselves, the majority of whom did not vote for the winner of the election — not even close. With almost three million more votes for Clinton, Trump literally has no democratic mandate in the most basic sense of the term “democracy.” But resistance also has to come from photographers and the media, assuming they want to do their jobs well. At this stage, these jobs have to entail being more subversive, more biting, more serious. When all norms of proper political behavior have been pushed aside, business as usual won’t cut it. Instead, we need a lot more of the spirit Arnold Newman and Jill Greenberg brought to their work.

Time magazine published its Person of the Year issue with then President-elect Donald Trump on the cover in December 2016.

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