This is the story about an image that I shot 27 years ago as a staff photographer for The New York Times while based in the Washington, DC bureau. The image (above) shows the new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the first day of her new job, October 1, 1993.
I want to share the following with this blog:
1: The story behind the image itself/how it came to be.
2: To show what the The New York Times published back in 1993 and to address, in my opinion, how far photojournalism has progressed at the NYT since then.
3: The impact that social media had on this image, present day.
4: Finally, the importance of a photo archive and why every photographer needs to keep current with their work.
The opinions stated here are solely mine.
–THE STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE–
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton on June 22, 1993. She was to fill the seat vacated by retiring Justice Byron White.
At what is considered to be large news event like this, it is common for the wire agencies like the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images to send as many as two or three photographers each, which means an event like this could have as many as 15 still photographers all competing for that singular “decisive moment” within a 20-minute event. Each photographer takes a different position, using different lenses in capturing different angles, perspectives, etc. Everyone tends to arrive early to claim a position along the rope line—an actual crushed velvet rope used to demarcate where photographers can stand– and then wait for the event to unfold.
On October 1, 1993, her first day on the job, William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, escorted the new Associate Justice down the front steps of the Court to the awaiting members of the Washington press Corps — reporters, television photographers, still photographers representing the various wire agencies, newspapers, magazines, and photo agencies.
Here is what I remember from that crisp October morning. The setting was perfect. A beautiful fall morning with the morning sun casting the shadows of the columns down the steps and onto the floor where they stood. My training in photojournalism taught me to be present, pay attention, look to capture THE moment that is the story. Since The New York Times was not printing color images then, my visual awareness was more attuned to black and white—shadows, highlights, contrast, light, etc.
The Chief Justice turned to Ginsburg, telling her that he was going to step away as the photographers were there to photograph her.
I remember that she seemed shy, nervous and reached for his hand, asking him to stay with her.
I noticed how hard she was holding on to his hand (second image) and the expression on Rehnquist’s face as he turned to the cameras as if to say, well, this is uncomfortable as I don’t know what to do next.
Finally, he was able to pull away and exited the scene on the far left, leaving her to stand there by herself. I knew this was a highly accomplished woman, but standing in front of the Washington Press Corps and hearing all those motor drives firing while reporters were shouting questions must have been somewhat intimidating.
It was the gesture with her hands that I noticed immediately and was well aware of the shadow that this small woman was casting in front of her.
–THE NEXT DAY’S PAPER—
Here is the front page and the jump (inside) page of The New York Times dated October 2, 1993, two pictures credited to The Associated Press.
I don’t remember her family being there as seen in the second image, but I’m sure that I shot those scenes myself. I hope to someday pull the negatives out of the archive and edit them again.
If you are wondering if I was angry that my images weren’t published, I will honestly tell you this. As the old saying goes, “if I had a nickel for every time that happened….” This wasn’t the only time in my career that the editors chose a wire picture over mine.
I do NOT harbor any anger towards my colleagues or the editors that were in charge at that time. I’d rather speak to the larger issue, the growth that The New York Times has undergone in regard to photojournalism. I believe it is one of the best visual journalistic organizations today, both print and web. And I am proud that I was able to contribute to what it has become today.
I am at peace with what happened for the following reasons. My superiors at that time made clear that my mission as a bureau photographer was the following: “Be willing to take risks, don’t stand next to the wire service photographers all the time as we will see their work. Do something different. We trust your judgment and decision-making process. This is the paper of record, your images will live on forever.”
And so, I did. And there are a lot of images in my Washington portfolio that reflect that thinking, shot from a unique perspective.
–THE IMPACT THAT SOCIAL MEDIA HAD ON THIS IMAGE—
One of my favorite Ginsburg quotes is: “If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”
I am so blessed to have a partner, my wife Caitlin Kelly, a fellow journalist, who practices and understands the power of social media.
Last week I was one of five photo editors working for the USGA editing the US Open Championship. On Friday night, after Ginsburg’s death was announced and I had finished my editing duties, I posted the combo of the top and third images on my FB page. Within minutes, reactions and comments started to pour in from my circles. Some were sharing the image.
The next morning, I asked my wife if she had seen my post on Facebook. When she saw it, she reacted strongly in a very positive way. She had no idea that I had this image, as she has seen way too many “white men in suits” pictures of politicians from my Washington portfolio. When I expressed my surprise about the response it was getting on my timeline, she sat down and shared her feelings with me.
“ This image resonates for a lot of women…whenever we get a major new opportunity, especially one with such huge consequences, we feel, whether we express it verbally or publicly, a mix of pride, anxiety, nervousness and responsibility.
Your image of her all alone and dwarfed by the building behind her really says it all…that moment of ohhhhh shit!” She was fighting back tears as she spoke.
With that, Caitlin posted it on her FB page and also asked me to share the combo with her so that she could tweet it. She launched it into the Twittersphere and it was amazing to see what happened. A lot of her followers were both re-tweeting it and writing to congratulate me on having shot this image, some sharing what the symbolism of the image meant to them. I have to say, it’s an interesting feeling to see Lin-Manuel Miranda share the image with his circles, give me credit, and choose to follow me.
This past Monday morning, my home phone rang and a woman by the name of Erica Lebensberg introduced herself after asking if I was the photographer that shot the picture of Justice Ginsburg in front of the court. She went on to express what the image meant to her and I asked her to email me her comments:
“I came across a stunning black and white photo of Ruth standing in front of the Supreme Court. It immediately struck me although at first, I wasn’t quite sure why.
After some further thought, I think one of the things that was most impactful was the tiny stature of RBG against the enormity of the building. When in reality, it was the exact opposite. She was the larger than life figure who accomplished so much against what is just a building.
Feeling a tremendous sense of loss, maybe also due to the tumultuous times we are living in, somehow the picture was giving me hope. Hope that good can prevail? That there are those who can make a difference – even though we lost someone who did just that. I’m not sure exactly. Sometimes there aren’t always definitive conclusions to our reactions to things. All I know is that it made me feel and it made me think. And that’s what art does.
I knew I needed a copy of this photograph.
So I googled and searched…I found the name of the photographer, Jose R. Lopez. I couldn’t believe it. And he lived in the NYC area. I was prepared to rapidly utter my request for help as I was sure he wouldn’t give me the time of day or that I would have enough time to leave him a voicemail message in the allotted time.
I connected with him immediately and he was so gracious with his time. I got off the phone feeling once again hopeful. Maybe the times we are now living in and the pandemic has made the world a little smaller.”
I’m not used to this kind of attention!
Knowing that this was going to be a blog post, I decided to reach out to a dear friend, Alison Beck, who is the special projects director at the Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin, to ask for her thoughts about these images in hopes of helping me to better explain the impact this image is having.
“ These photographs caught my attention last Friday evening as I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed. I stopped immediately to enlarge and take them in slowly. I was drawn to the monumental scale of the Supreme Court in contrast to the figures toward the bottom of the frame– Chief Justice William Rehnquist with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the top one and Justice Ginsburg by herself in the photo below. Her death had just been announced. I gazed at the photos a long time thinking about her lifetime achievements and saddened by her passing. The following Sunday, I saw that the New York Times included the bottom photo in its print version. So it was no surprise when Jose Lopez wrote that he was receiving many comments, especially from women and RBG followers. But I was surprised to learn that NYT had not published this when Lopez took it in 1993.
Now that it has surfaced, this photograph is one that will gain historical significance over time and has the potential to become emblematic. It resonates with many people, because of Justice Ginsburg’s lengthy record championing equal rights for women, LGBTQ Americans, minorities, and those who believe the role of the government is to make sure that all Americans enjoy equal justice under law. As I look at the photo, it’s remarkable to think that this small woman would spend 27 years at the Supreme Court making a significant mark on law and leaving a legacy enabling Americans to live as they do today. The expression on her face, her stance and gesturing hands communicate something about her character. Aware that she’s in front of the camera, she conveys her emotion comfortably.
The three frames together offer more evidence to substantiate Ginsburg’s first day as the new Supreme Court Justice in 1993. The first two photographs add context to the one of her by herself documenting the tradition of the Chief Justice escorting the new justice down the steps of the Supreme Court. These can now be preserved as part of the historical record.
–THE PHOTO ARCHIVE—META DATA AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT–
On hearing the news of Ginsburg’s death, I knew I had these images on backup drives I keep at home. I knew which drive held the images and went straight to it. Minutes after finding them, sizing and toning them, I tunneled into the Digital Asset Management system of The New York Times and dropped the images onto their Merlin system. I then Slacked the night photo editor and he confirmed that he saw them and all was good.
The following morning, I emailed my colleague, Maura Foley, to let her know that I had sent the images in the night before. She responded saying she had seen them and was working with them. A second email to me told me that it would appear in Sunday’s paper, “5 columns big-looks beautiful.”
A couple of days later, in an email exchange with the Deputy Photo editor, Beth Flynn, who wrote to say that she was glad that I had tunneled in and submitted the photos. Access to the lab and negatives is not possible right now due to the pandemic.
This is where I tell the younger generation of photojournalists that keeping an archive of everything you shoot is so important. I can only imagine how tired you are every night but make the time on the weekends if you have to and dump all of that information onto a drive COMPLETE with detailed and accurate caption information.
You never know what can happen 27 years later. And knowing which drive the images are on, as well as knowing that you have the data, you will be happy that you put the effort in.
It’s an interesting feeling knowing that the images that I made in Washington, DC between the years of 1985-1994 are once again being used both in the newspaper and now the website. Even obituaries need photos to go with them.
In closing and I can relate to this Ginsburg quote; “ I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”
I look back on the advice and wisdom that Steve Northup, my mentor of over 40 years, once penned to me. ” The truth about our strange business is this: if you make a good picture, it will live on in the minds of the viewers. Paper, pixels, plasma not needed. Just the triggered electrons of memory will keep it alive. I’ve always told my students that there are three kinds of photographs: the ones you take, the ones you make and, best of all, the ones you earn. You have earned a bunch of them.”
Thank you to my wife, Caitlin Kelly for all you are and all you do for us. I love you.
Thank you to Steve Northup for the guidance and advice over all these years.
Thank you Alison Beck for your knowledge and expertise– Alison Beck is special projects director at the Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin and steward to more than 75 photojournalists’ archives held there, including those of Carolyn Cole, Steve Northup, Lucian Perkins and Diana Walker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The website for the Briscoe Center can be viewed here: https://www.cah.utexas.edu
The link to the photojournalism pages can be found here:
Many of you have asked how to go about purchasing a print. The New York Times is selling the image in various sizes and the link below will take you to the photo store where you can place an order.