texasmonthly.com: President Bush is one of the most (if not the most) photographed figures in the world today—how do you begin to approach such a colossal subject?
Leslie Baldwin: We knew we wanted recent shots of Bush for the feature, especially a portrait for the cover, and although there are tons of photographs of him out there, there aren’t many photographers who have recently had one-on-one time with the president to create an intimate portrait. Knowing that, I made calls to various agencies and photographers who specialize in political portraits and asked who had recently photographed Bush. The list was not too long; after all, Bush is busy being president and not sitting for photo shoots, so we got in those photos that were available and went from there.
texasmonthly.com: Talk a little about the cover, which features Bush with an unusual expression on his face. Why was that particular photo selected, and what is the story behind it?
LB: Norman Jean Roy is the photographer. Initially, we had selected another frame for the cover, a different shot by Norman Jean Roy. It was a close-up of the president with a very interesting expression, however, quite different from the one we finally chose. At a later time, the agent for Norman made a few other frames available to us for viewing. In the image that we did finally choose for the cover, there was something in the posture of Bush and his expression that we thought would make a powerful statement on the newsstand. On one hand, we didn’t want a cover image that forced our view of Bush upon the reader. Instead, we have a portrait that allows you to decide for yourself—to evaluate him as a leader. It’s a very naked, stripped down portrait. I think the white background forces you to focus immediately on Bush’s face and body language—there is nothing else to distract you, no other people in the shot, and he’s not performing any action. Also, I think the camera angle is unusual and contributes to the mood of the photograph. It conveys both strength and a certain vulnerability. I think it’s a very beautiful and respectful portrait.
texasmonthly.com: The feature opens with a striking image of Bush’s grinning face on a milk carton. Why is this the quintessential image to go with the piece, how was the concept hatched, and how was it constructed?
LB: The concept was created by our art director, Scott Dadich, and the photographer, Dan Winters. Scott built the carton using an old Bush headshot from back when he was the governor. That portrait was taken by Wyatt McSpadden, an Austin-based photographer. Then, Dan handled getting a refrigerator and shooting the milk carton inside of it. Dan and Scott thought, and I agree with them, that this would be a humorous and clever way to present the basic idea of Paul Burka’s story: that the old Bush, whom Burka had known and liked as governor, has been missing ever since he became president. So it’s sort of a play on that idea, of showing the faces of those who have gone missing on milk cartons, and also that hope that someone will know where they’ve disappeared to and bring them back.
texasmonthly.com: While researching the Bush feature, did you come across any photos that surprised you?
LB: Yes, I think the photos that surprised me most were the ones of President Bush looking really relaxed and at ease—like sharing a laugh with Senator Ted Kennedy. The two of them look like co-workers chatting, not politicians at opposite ends of the spectrum. That photo, taken by Brooks Kraft, really supports the notion that Bush, as a person, is very likable and charming despite what you may think of his politics. I love that photo, but in the end, it just didn’t make the cut.
Also, I was surprised when I came across the widely seen photo of President Bush on September 11, 2001. Doug Mills of the Associated Press shot the photo of Bush in the elementary school classroom and Andrew Card leaning over and whispering into his ear that the World Trade Center had been attacked. I think it’s amazing to have that exact moment captured on film, when President Bush learns of this terrible tragedy. It’s an image that I’ve seen so many times, but it always takes me back to that day—it never loses its power.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think Paul Burka’s ambivalence toward Bush is reflected in your final photo choices? How do these images contrast or challenge mainstream perceptions of Bush?
LB: Most of the photos we ran show Bush in a sort of solitary way—even when he is giving a speech, it is a very detached portrayal. They are not photos that immediately appeal to your emotions. You are invited to think about Bush yourself, just as Burka does in his article, and how he has been as a president. He doesn’t look like the goofy president, or the heroic leader—just a man to be considered for reelection.
texasmonthly.com: In general, how do you decide which photographs are going to fit with a story? Do you ever make last-minute changes to a photo layout if it seems to conflict with the story’s tone?
LB: In most cases, the story hasn’t been written yet, so we can’t read it before selecting photos—usually, we meet with the writer and ask general questions about the subject and the angle to create a general concept for the layout. Actually, in the case of the Bush story, our original layout was totally different from the one we ended up publishing. Although that original layout had many great photographs—mostly color shots, each by a different photographer—Scott, our art director, felt that the photographs, though individually great, just weren’t right for the story when viewed together. Ultimately, if the art director or the editor feels strongly about something in terms of the photography, it’s up to them to make the call—in this case, we worked on it and did a new edit with mostly black and white photos that all have a similar feel. The change was Scott’s call, and I totally agreed with him in the end. I think the original layout wasn’t working because the personality of each photographer—the presence of his or her style—was almost more noticeable than the subjects. It was trying too hard to incorporate unique photographs rather than using the images that would present a unified visual scheme for the story.
texasmonthly.com: What’s one of your favorite parts of being a photo editor?
LB: One of the exciting aspects of photo editing is getting to see all the images that don’t get published. You realize how much you can influence the way a person or event is depicted simply by choosing one frame over another—maybe a certain shot was taken just a few seconds later, yet it has a completely different expression and tone. Timing can make a huge difference in how a moment is perceived and remembered.
texasmonthly.com: Can you think of any examples of that off the top of your head?
LB: Esquire did an amazing and moving article about the photograph of a victim at the World Trade Center on 9/11 in its September 2003 issue. This photo ran in many publications around the world. It shows a man who appears to not struggle as he falls to his death. It looks as if he’s accepted his fate because his body is as straight as an arrow as he falls to the ground—no waving of the arms or legs. However, the writer of the story tracked down the photographer and was able to see the frames that came before and after that one frame that was singled out and distributed everywhere. The writer describes how horrific those frames are—the person is clearly struggling, but somehow there was a moment when the person appears resigned to death, and that was the moment that was captured and published all over the world. I’m not saying the photographer did anything wrong to release the image, I just think it’s fascinating that we are so drawn to it. We want to believe the person wasn’t suffering, but I would imagine that the truth is anything but that.
texasmonthly.com: In the digital age, and especially in an election year, how much impact do you think photo and video coverage has upon the American public and its perception of presidential candidates?
LB: I absolutely do think photographs contribute to the way people perceive presidential candidates, and especially President Bush, who is constantly being photographed. Let’s hope images aren’t the only basis for someone’s opinion of a candidate, but they certainly carry a lot of influence. There’s only so much time the public will take to learn about a candidate’s policies or opinions, so the general attitude conveyed through photographs—whether it’s uptight, relaxed, smart, sexy, weak—can and does factor into election-year politics, for better or for worse. It will be interesting to watch Bush over the next few months to see if he will maintain his image as it is now, or if he’ll be forced to change things up.
texasmonthly.com: I know you recently moved to Texas Monthly from a national newsweekly located in New York City—in your experience, how is photo editing here different from working for a national-weekly magazine?
LB: At a national weekly, time and subject matter are constant factors. There is a lot less time to gather images, and you are generally focused on a particular news event that happened during the past week. On the other hand, at Texas Monthly, there is more time to gather images and more freedom to run larger photo spreads because it’s a monthly. Plus, there’s less pressure to adhere to time constraints—for example, we were able to consider years worth of photos for our Bush story. For us, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have a photograph of Bush from three years ago, whereas that might pose a problem for a newsweekly—they almost always need the most recent images available.
Also, the range of topics covered here at Texas Monthly is broader, so I still get to work on hard news stories like Bush, but I get to approach more relaxed topics as well, like parks in Texas, or where to buy chocolate-dipped Twinkies! And that’s one of the things I love about my job here.
And finally, of course, the people are a little different—case in point, I don’t really recall any of my former colleagues in New York going rattlesnake hunting on the weekends.