Photojournalism Column 
Subject of the Year
by David Burnett
At the time the call came, full of intrigue and coded messages, I figured it would be a real setup. A chance to hang with the subject, and really spend some time on the "inside" of the cocoon. The shoot had been put off for a few days, each day being pushed back another 24 or 48 hours, and the venue and situation altered from the previous rendezvous. In the end, the call came on Friday afternoon: "You and the reporter meet her and her lawyers for a drink, and see what you can get. Only one camera. No flash. You can't make a big deal out of it. You need to be pretty 'cool.'" Well, I could live with being cool, but I wasn't  sure I could live with one camera and no flash.

I ended up taking a Canon EOS A2, a Leica M4, and a flash for the Canon, all of it stuck under my blue blazer, producing (particularly the Jack Rabbit pack) those fashion plate love-handles that only photographers trying to dress up can do. The bulges kind of negate whatever else you try to do to be cool (i.e. an ascot instead of a bow tie, or a banded collar shirt--you know--what Robert Redford would wear on the Letterman show).

So, protruding with gear, I met the reporter at a quiet table at Mortons, a steak house in Washington, to see about our rendezvous with Monica Lewinsky and her attorneys. It would be a "drink" at a restaurant (not at home, not shopping, not motoring around town), and it was very unclear just how much access we would have, if we would even see her at all, and whether there would really be a chance to photograph her.

When they came in (having been followed by the stakeout crew from the Watergate), they went almost unnoticed by the other patrons. It was a case of "I think she looks like her picture," and even from across the room we knew who it was. When we walked into the dimly lit, dark wood paneled private dining room, we couldn't have been more warmly welcomed.

My first move, although fruitless, was to turn up the lights with the rheostat. No such luck. And this is what you call "All the Lights on?" Messrs. Ginsburg and Speights, her lawyers, were sitting at the table with her. They welcomed us, and we all ordered drinks. (Tonic with lime and a splash of bitters. It's soothing to a butterfly-threatened tummy.) The conversation was warm, and personal, yet not exactly full of what Bob Barr might have assaulted her with. We were really just trying to get a portrait of her, her feelings about being chased by the press, what her life must be like "right now."

Monica Lewinsky photo by David Burnett / Contact Press Images
I thought Monica was incredibly poised for someone who had been through what she had endured for six weeks. She was engaging, smiling, and as the French would say, "sympatique." I asked permission to shoot a few frames--walking the thin line between wanting to shoot like crazy, from every angle and perspective, and knowing that I had to be more than reasonable in order not to wear out my welcome.

Having packed light, I had a small fanny pack with 10 rolls of film, and my biggest worry was that I would be found to be so compelling, so interesting, so fabulous, that I would stay on and on, and eventually just run out of film. Well, I guess I wasn't quite that interesting after all. With available light (Fuji 800 color neg--1/30th @ f/2.5), I shot six rolls of film, including a frame of her with her Cosmopolitan cocktail, and a series of what I suppose I would call "beauty shots"--if that can be said of photographs shot in a room lit with a half dozen vertically falling spot lights, creating eye shadows of the first and worst order.

Monica Lewinsky photo by David Burnett / Contact Press Images
We chatted for forty-five minutes, during which time my cameras had virtually gone unnoticed. At the end, I asked her to pose for me an extra minute, and, lacking a proper soft box, asked her lawyer, who happily agreed, to hold a napkin about two feet from her, so I could bounce a flash into the white sheet, creating a very poor man's soft box. (I guess the picture of the three of us would really be the one I wish I had.) We left, having planted the idea of a follow-up meeting soon thereafter. But, aside from her session a few months later with Herb Ritts, I think my shoot was the only time since January that someone photographed her in a situation that was not getting in or out of a car, or walking a phalanx of sidewalk cameras.

The voice: everyone asks me what she sounded like. Except for the tapes, released in December, no one had heard her voice. To me, she sounded like a Beverly Hills kid, to be sure, but one who was far from clueless. I hope there will be another chance to photograph her sometime soon. She has become, unwittingly, the Woman of the Year in her own right.

-David Burnett

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