I was floored when I picked up the November issue of GQ and saw in it a 32 page photo essay (online here) shot by one photographer. That’s major. There are very few photographers getting 32 pages in magazines all to themselves these days (anytime actually) and a photo essay of this magnitude is a major deal. The photographer was Jeff Riedel. I’ve worked with Jeff in the past and always admired his photography and work ethic but hadn’t talked to him in awhile so I gave him a call to discuss the piece.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did this come about?
Well, I think GQ is making a turn as a magazine towards content, moving further into a combination of fashion and content. This was certainly a big deal for them and reminiscent of the photo essays Vanity Fair or most recently The New Yorker might do.
Everyone has proclaimed this the most historic election of our time and GQ was the only magazine that stepped up to the plate with a photo essay of historic proportions.
They called me up back in January and said we want to do this 30 page story and we want you to shoot the entire thing. I went into the office and had this really interesting meeting because within 2 minutes it became an open forum collaboration between the writer/features editor Mark Healey, Design Director Fred Woodword, and Photography Director Dora Somosi. It became very political very fast. We started drawing up wish lists of people we wanted to go for. One of the things that came out was how Richard Avedon did this shoot of politicians back in 1976 called “The Family” for Rolling Stone. That was certainly an inspiration for the project, not in a way that we wanted to rip it off but as a point of reference. I looked at it and tried to understand what he went through to get those images. I recently saw the whole body of work at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. He got access to everyone they wanted to get except Nixon from what I understand.
So that brings up a question I wanted to ask you because some of the pictures look like you didn’t get access to everyone and I like the overall effect on the essay whether it was deliberate or not.
Some of the things that happened were astounding. Obama was on the cover of GQ I think last December and the McCain campaign was able to manipulate that and turn it against him and say ‘see we told you Obama’s a celebrity, a fashion symbol he’s all artifice’. That’s really an outdated perception of what GQ really is. Of course McCain, ironically, had no problem being shot by GQ for our portfolio. The Obama campaign for the most part stayed clear of it. In the end we couldn’t get him for a sitting.
I think it actually works for you because you have the iconic picture of Obama. The picture that defines him in this campaign.
Yes, it couldn’t have turned out any better because his face is on the cover of Rolling Stone three times and if we’d actually gotten a sitting with Obama we just likely might have done the same and it wouldn’t have been as strong as what we got at the convention.
Did you shoot film and 4 x 5 like you usually do?
Yes, it was all shot on film. I shot a good deal of 4 x 5 for the studio, and many of the environmentals like Bill Richardson on his horse. I ended up shooting a lot of 6×7 as well. The reportage was with a Pentax 6×7 with long lenses holding my hand as still as I possibly could in low light. There’s a lot of blurry frames. The magazine wasn’t very keen on digital and I can understand why. It’s a historic election these are going to be historic pictures and there’s still an integrity to film and while we can still do it we should.
Do you shoot a lot of digital now?
Anything that’s commercial or celebrity stuff is digital. Since I now live outside of the the city it’s so much more convenient for me. I use a back on a Hassleblad 555. I need to hear the clunking of the mirror and have the weight of the camera for it to feel like photography for me. I still need that familiarity to take pictures.
Were any of the politicians suspicious of your motives?
No I don’t think any of them were suspicious and we shot some dirt bags like Jerome Corsi. Why that guy would show up for a GQ shoot I have not idea, I guess he’s desperate for publicity. By the way, he announced to me during our shoot, I think back in October, that Obama was finished. His chances of winning were nil because Obama, according to him, had just accidentally let it slip that he was a Muslim. I’m not kidding, he was really saying this shit. I thought about him on election night.
So this brings up a big question you clearly are not trying to be objective here and can you be objective in this kind of thing. The editors seem to have a point of view on this and they wanted you to bring that to the shoot. Am I correct in saying that?
There’s decisions that are made, editing decisions that do adhere to a point of view. For example on the Corsi shoot, I didn’t intend the image to translate as harshly as it did. I don’t set out to burn somebody, though I do appreciate a sense of irony in a photograph. But there’s a process that you can’t really help. You’re trying to remain as objective as possible but as soon as you put that camera to your eye the objectivity ceases to exist. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Right you can’t create something interesting without coming at it from somewhere. It wasn’t a requirement from GQ to remain objective?
It was never discussed. GQ never told me how to shoot McCain but I gave them options so they could choose how to portray him. These are politicians and they’re very guarded and aware but at the same time there are moments that are very truthful that come out in the course of a shoot. It’s interesting too that by the time the magazine was being put together things had changed in the race and perceptions had changed so the edit of the work changed to reflect that.
Can you be objective and do you have to be objective. How important is that for pulling off a shoot like this?
I don’t personally believe there’s any such thing as objectivity in a photographic image. I don’t think it exists. One can fool themselves into believing it does but there are unconscious processes that come forward when you’re shooting as well as the conscious advertent ones. But, there’s a vast difference between subtlety and trying to find a strand of irony and a complete attempt at a take down picture. I would also add that the more subtle ones tend to be smarter pictures than the obvious and overly advertent ones. and by the way, Bill Richardson can’t ride a horse.
Did you deliver as you went and what kind of collaboration was there in the editing?
I cut up contact sheets and I didn’t hand in anything that I felt strongly against but I wanted to give them some choices because it’s a pretty sizable portfolio and there’s decisions that need to happen with regard to the layout and design so I gave them a pretty wide edit. We turned in the film as we went, over the course of 9 months. We started out thinking it was going to be color heavy with some black and white mixed in and we ended up with a balance between the two. You think 30 pages is a lot but it’s actually not. It was good to break it down as we went along. We tried to do a studio and an environmental with everyone.
How much time did you get?
We got a couple hours with John Edwards. We got good chunks of time because we did a studio shot and an environmental shot. With others, we got ten minutes. It varied.
So, any thoughts on what’s happening right now to the industry?
We’re in a different world, a different environment it’s like an instantaneous change for our industry. The results were so immediate for us. Advertising shoots that were nearly fully produced were canceled and there’s a knee jerk reaction happening. Budgets are going to be scaled back and a number of magazines will fold.
How do you feel about producing work online?
I think that’s an extremely powerful tool. I think the web is very revolutionary in many, many ways. The dissemination of information from one part of the globe to another.
What is the role of photography online?
I think it’s going to play a more and more important role. The internet has changed the world but we haven’t seen anything yet. One issue for photography right now is how it’s rendered on the computer screen – how it can look great on one and like shit on another. Or what a friend mentioned to me about the GQ portfolio- how it printed so beautifully in the magazine and looked so much worse online. I think generally at this point there simply needs to be a lowering of expectations from one to the other.
What do you think of the political process now that you’ve done this?
The same thing I’ve always thought. That there’s two political parties that are bought and paid for by the corporate interests, and by extension they represent and defend the interests of that class. I much more believe that the biggest divisions in American society are those of class not race. The American presidential campaigns are the most overdrawn political events. Does it really need to be 2 years long. Why can’t it be 6 months and then we make a decision. It seems like a giant smoke screen that covers up the issues that really need to be addressed like the job losses, the economy and war.
Were you very involved in politics before you shot this work?
Yes, I’m very involved.
Were they aware of this before they hired you?
Yes, I think they might have had an idea.
Really? It’s not represented in your work.
There might have been a rumor or two about my left leaning politics.