By chance I spoke recently with Gregg Segal, who took the most revealing and best political photographs of the last ten years: The miraculous images of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan lifting weights and doing some kind of bro gesture at the Janesville, Wisconsin YMCA.
There’s a surrealist edge to Segal’s work in general, with a lot of fanciful painted backdrops that give off a vibe recalling Wayne White, or the old dioramas at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
The Paul Ryan photos were commissioned by TIME Magazine because Ryan had been in contention for their 2011 Person of the Year award. Here are some remarks regarding Ryan’s candidacy for Person of the Year in the pages of TIME. Which, uh.
In the end, the honor went to the symbol of Occupy, “The Protester” (which featured yet another famous image, taken by Ted Soqui and shamelessly cribbed by Shepard Fairey.) In addition to Ryan, The Occupy Protester beat out Ai Weiwei, Kate Middleton, and Admiral William McRaven who’d commanded the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden.
And so Ryan’s gym photos remained unpublished.
Until the following year, that is, when Ryan was chosen by Mitt Romney as his vice-presidential running mate. On the eve of the vice-presidential debate against Joe Biden, TIME published the photos, to the everlasting dismay of the Republicans managing the Romney/Ryan campaign. An aide accused the magazine of displaying “poor judgement” in publishing the photos, when serious matters were to be discussed in the debate; no word on what he thought about his candidate having posed for them. Ryan was decisively trounced by Biden that night, which was a huge relief to Democrats, since Obama had delivered an “abysmal” performance against Romney in Denver the week before.
So this in itself is a clue as to the entire genesis of Ryan as Relatable Bro, because he must have imagined himself as the vice-presidential contender what with the tough-talking supply-side “wonk” act, which really meant doing everything rich people asked him to do, the sole relevant quality in a Republican politician. And at that very moment there was a man in the White House whose irresistible charm to la populace was due in no small part to his love of basketball. What if Ryan, too, could show himself as a young, sporty guy?
I’ve got my (vast) disappointments with Obama, but there is no question that he is just teeth-grindingly cool at all times. He looks good in clothes. His charisma is if anything more lethally irresistible than Marquez-quoting Bill Clinton’s was in the 90s. It’s amazing that Ryan thought he could compete with this.
Since they were published six years ago, I have never ceased to wonder how these magical photographs of Paul Ryan came to exist. What was the photographer thinking? What was TIME thinking? What was Paul Ryan thinking, as he posed in his eye-poppingly awkward backward baseball cap and an expression signaling… what?
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Maria Bustillos: Can you describe the day for me? Tell me what he was like? Tell me how the photographs worked? Tell me what you were thinking?
Gregg Segal: I mean I can’t really give you huge amounts, it’s been a few years. Essentially, what I can say is that was his persona that he wanted to project which was you know… it reminded me of a character in a sitcom. Maybe like “Saved by the Bell” or something. That was his ball cap and he wore it backwards, and…
I was surprised that he was… he wouldn’t have more awareness about how he was portraying himself or projecting himself, but I guessed he just wanted… that some people would look at the shots and say “hey, yeah, he’s just a regular down-to-earth guy like me, and that’s why I like him.” But you know… to me it looks a little unpresidential, for sure. […]
It was a little bit awkward just because we set up… the magazine wanted to have a seamless for the shot, so we brought this roll of seamless paper and… which kind of takes it out of context; you don’t have the sense of any particular place, it feels like a studio for that backdrop.
[It’s weird as heck to have traveled to the gym, to be in the gym, and have concealed every bit of the actual gym and then take photographs, I mean, paging Don DeLillo?]
But he was personable enough, and you know, it’s always tricky when you’re photographing someone who’s… who you don’t really… well. I mean, you have to separate work from your own views, your own opinions.
Yeah but I know that the… I know that he wasn’t happy with the results, and he was… I’m sure that they were especially unhappy with how frequently that picture appeared in popular culture, and all the memes that it’s inspired and whatnot, so. I mean, it’s been on all sorts of talk shows and the late night shows; Saturday Night Live, Bill Maher, you know, it’s been on all those shows.
So these… you’re saying it was his idea to put the baseball cap on backwards.
Right, yeah I mean I didn’t ask him to do that. That was just what he… I said, “just wear whatever you feel comfortable wearing, whatever you would wear when you’re working out.” So he did.
Oh my god! Okay…
It was awkward, because in a way it was a great result, but it was also sort of… it’s not the kind of picture the magazine’s going to hire you for, to take. You know what I mean? It’s not going to get you work, because most magazines don’t want the subjects that they’re photographing to look like goofballs. So in a way it was great because, you know, the picture has generated a lot of interest, and actually some resale money, but, on the other hand, it’s not a great calling card for getting assignments.
Well sure, yeah. Well think about it. Most magazines want to have a good relationship, in general, with the people that they’re featuring, and, you know, obviously this picture doesn’t… it’s not a flattering picture. It’s satirical, it looks like you’re lampooning him. I mean, he’s hanging himself, but it certainly looks like a caricature in a way. But yeah, most magazines want… if you look at pictures in magazines, the pictures of subjects are flattering. Rarely do you have pictures that are unflattering of someone who is important, right?
There was this other time when I was photographing this kid who invented one of the virtual reality platforms, he was just this genius kid. He sold it to Facebook, and Facebook bought it for like a billion dollars or something…. His name is Palmer Luckey.
The Oculus guy.
I had him jumping off one of my equipment cases. I wanted kind of this feeling of him floating. I had got this painted backdrop which I used—playing with the idea of virtual reality a little bit. But he kind of looked ridiculous in a way.
That guy is a serious nut. He isa weird guy.
Yeah, he’s a weird guy. Yes, he is. But anyway, the picture … he looks ridiculous, and so there were all these memes of him that spun out of this photograph of him.
[Or] Donald Trump, whom everyone in media abhors, pretty much… he’s such an abhorrent figure that it sort of makes sense to have pictures where he looks grotesque.
I can’t even…
But he is grotesque, so… It’s hard to take a picture of him in which he isn’t grotesque.
It just comes out.
But like you say, these pictures of Paul Ryan are goofy, ludicrous. I mean, okay, this raises the question. Did you know while you were taking them that an amazing thing was happening?
I’m not sure about an amazing thing, I mean, it’s funny because the magazine didn’t like the pictures at first. The photo editor didn’t like the pictures. He was like, he didn’t really know what to make of them I don’t think. I think he was kind of like, “What is this?” It’s not really what they were expecting, but, I think they realized that they had something that was [laughs] potent, I guess, and useful. They ended up publishing the pictures on the eve of the vice-presidential debate.
Holy smokes. Okay, I’ve just got to tell you, I think those… these photos are the most powerful political satire that I’ve seen in the last 10 years. Without any words to it.
Yeah, I mean, it’s just a weird… Most public figures have handlers who make sure that their clients don’t look like buffoons. And I was surprised in this case that he didn’t have… I mean we were in this little town in Wisconsin, and, you know, he wasn’t, or his handlers weren’t savvy enough to realize that he was not photo… you know, that it was a ridiculous scenario… I don’t know, that surprised me most of all I think.
Exactly, it just looks like, like you couldn’t possibly have planned to make it more…
Yeah, just that kind of royal blue background and the baseball cap backwards, and the working out… yeah, it just looks ridiculous.
There’s a sort of knowing look toward the camera, like “Hey, I’m a regular guy.”
Yeah, and there’s something sort of, almost a little snide about it too, or smug is the better word. There’s something a little smug about it. But it’s funny because one of the other scenarios we wanted to shoot was him hunting, which would have been great too, but it didn’t happen.
Holy mackerel. That’s absolutely fascinating. So you take the photographs, and you’re like thinking to yourself in some degree, “this is weird,” right? Then you get home and look at them, and then what? What did you think?
Yeah, well I knew that they were not exactly what the magazine had in mind.
It’s like, almost the most memorable image of him. I mean, here’s this really long career, in which he absolutely screwed millions of people. This guy. And he is a bozo. It’s fantastic.
Well that comes true, in a way, of most … a lot of politicians. They are bozos. I mean, look at Trump. The most powerful man in the world, doesn’t know anything. It’s just such a shocking predicament that we’re all in, that this guy who’s completely incapable and unqualified for the job. Totally unqualified.
I mean, who on earth would ever … no one would ever believe that this clown would be president of the United States. It’s just absolutely … he doesn’t care, he doesn’t know anything about how the job is supposed to work. He doesn’t care anything about how … the details of the job.
Okay, this is another question I think that people would ask … I think I understand what you’re saying about what happened with Paul Ryan. But I think what a skeptic might ask was like did you deliberately try to make him look foolish? Or could you even?
I didn’t deliberately, but as a photographer… I mean I… my favorite photographer since I was little kid was Diane Arbus. Because I love that mixture of compassion and ridicule. There’s this sort of… she’s definitely making fun of these weirdos. There’s no question about it. I mean, look at the titles of the photographs: “A Jewish giant at home with his parents.” It sounds like a Don Martin—
Yes. I remember, MAD Magazine, absolutely. Yeah.
MAD Magazine, it sounds like a Don Martin… I mean, it’s ridiculous. She’s having fun with how weird these people are, but she’s also really compassionate. And so to me there’s that kind of tension, that counterpoint between being concerned and feeling for the people you’re shooting, but also kind of … look how ridiculous they are.
It’s the human condition, you know; we’re all kind of ridiculous.
That’s… my sensibility.
Amazing. So tell me this, how do you feel about the prospect of being remembered forever for taking such a completely exact and detailed portrait of the stupidity of American politics?
Yeah, I know. [laughs ruefully] He really exemplified all that’s… wonderful.