As a part-time photographer (my first job in journalism was as a staff photographer for a small newspaper, and I still do portraits from time to time), my first thought upon seeing the new Newsweek cover photo of Michele Bachmann was, “What an awful photograph.” Technically speaking, that is. I’ve done better work in my home studio, and I’m not nearly the photographer Christopher Buck is (the freelancer who took that shot).
First, the lighting is harsh and uneven, more like a driver’s license photo than a professional portrait. Her hair casts a shadow over her forehead, indicating poor positioning of the flash on the photographer’s right. Her expression is unnatural, something good portrait photographers try to avoid not only because it looks bad, but also because it doesn’t give the viewer any insight into the subject. Really good portrait photography reveals the subject’s personality, which is why the best portrait photographers spend a lot of time making their subjects feel relaxed and comfortable. You can’t capture someone’s personality if she’s nervous, unready, uncomfortable, or distracted. Bachmann appears all of those in that photo. On top of that, she’s awkwardly posed, as if she happened to be walking by and suddenly looked up. It looks like a test shot, not a final portrait. Forget a national news magazine; that photo wouldn’t make the cut in some smaller, regional publications based on its technical flaws alone. So how did it make the cover of Newsweek?
I wouldn’t blame the photographer. Buck is highly talented and has produced some outstanding portraits. He had a great one of George W. Bush in 1999, also for Newsweek, and a famous one of George McGovern in a Speedo. Going over his other Bachmann photos released by Newsweek, I see he got a very nice shot that would have made an excellent cover photo. In it, Bachmann has her hands clasped together as if in prayer, which surely would have drawn its own criticism, but she doesn’t look “crazy” or menacing or bug-eyed. She looks normal and serious, and the portrait is well-posed and well-lit.
Given that the Newsweek editors had at least one better photo to choose from (and, knowing Buck’s work, probably more), there are only two explanations for why they chose the awful shot they did. Either they don’t know a good photo from a bad one (highly unlikely) or they deliberately wanted to make Bachmann look scary and strange. As they also titled the profile “The Queen of Rage,” I think I’d go with that reason.
Isn’t it interesting that to go with a profile titled “The Queen of Rage,” Newsweek couldn’t find a single photo of Bachmann expressing said rage? In four of the nine shots, she’s smiling. In three she has a slight grin, and in the remaining two she has no expression. Some Queen of Rage she is.