The Digital Journalist
Bill Clinton --- Image by © Martin Schoeller/Corbis Outline

Martin Schoeller on Bill Clinton:

By Elodie Mailliet / © Corbis Outline

My friend Karl used to have blue hair. On September 22, 2000, he was also sporting black Dixie pants, a polyester shirt and a smiley face tie, all of which he had bought at K-Mart a few hours earlier. He wanted to dress up for the occasion. I had been asked by The New Yorker to photograph the President of the United States, probably the most exciting assignment anyone can ask for-at the same time a very scary one. I would only have twenty minutes in a given location. First you are excited, then, the fear creeps in, you are afraid of failing, of missing a great opportunity to take a timeless and extraordinary picture.

When the president came in, he seemed tired and not in a really good mood. He had just come back from another photo session and looked as if he hadn't enjoyed himself. By the time he entered the Cabinet Room, we had already been there for quite a long time. We had arrived at the White House four or five hours before the shoot because I had anticipated a lot of furniture-moving and a long security check, none of which happened, at least not at the level I had expected. I had asked all my assistants to dress up in suits, but no matter how hard we tried, we were still quite an eclectic crew! A German photographer with dreadlocks, an assistant with a thick Australian accent, an African American from the South Bronx, a Korean makeup artist and Elisabeth Biondi, another German, director of photography at The New Yorker.

I started with an eight-by-ten headshot. Looking through this piece of glass in the back of the camera makes it really hard to make eye contact with your subject and you end up fairly removed. Focusing is also very hard and the depth of field is so limited that the subject has to hold very still. From behind this large camera, it was hard to engage the president and he seemed to be getting more and more bored. To not further lose his attention, I moved on to my regular headshot setting, which is a lot more intimate. I put on "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis. I figured the president, a saxophonist known to like jazz, would enjoy it. It is always good to play music that your subjects already know. You want to make them feel comfortable.

Most politicians have been photographed so many times; they tend to slip into a posing routine. Like most actors and musicians, they know which angle they prefer. My goal was to break this routine. I gave the president a lot of directions such as: "Chin up! A little more serious, lean a little bit more towards me, turn a little bit to the left, open your eyes more..." I started treating him more and more like any other subject. Suddenly it struck me: "Oh my God, I'm telling the president what to do!" I couldn't help but smile. But he listened. He did everything I asked him to do and started to loosen up.

I had come up with this concept for the shoot where I wanted the president to golf in the White House. I had seen this iconic picture of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office with his children playing underneath his desk; this was the same kind of idea, trying to reveal another face of the presidency. I knew that Bill Clinton liked to play golf and thought this setting might not be too far-fetched from reality. I just assumed that he might be putting for real, once in a while, in his office.

I hadn't told anyone at the White House about the golf idea. I was too scared that they would say no from the get-go and wanted to ask the president myself. After I was done with the headshot, I put him in a spot that I'd chosen in the Cabinet Room and asked him if he would mind doing a little putting. He said, "Sure, do you want me to get my golf clubs?" "No, no I brought some of my own," I answered. To be able to go through security, I had hidden the golf clubs with the light stands in the van. His two aides didn't seem to approve of the concept but they kept quiet, they didn't dare to stop him. He started putting with great pleasure. I think he liked the idea; it's so close to what he's about.