When Portrait Artists Behave Badly

Nelson Shanks is a renowned portrait artist.  He’s painted everyone from Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher. So obviously, the guy knows his stuff.

When he was commissioned recently to paint Bill Clinton, he did something kind of underhanded; he put in the literal shadow of Monica Lewinsky.

If you look at the painting, you barely notice it. But he’s candid about putting it there.  Which is a problem for me.

Taking portraits is all about trust. Its difficult enough for me to get someone to step in front of my camera and not worry about me making them look bad, without someone undermining that by purposefully making someone look bad.  And let’s face it, we all have someone who doesn’t like us for who we are, or what we’ve done.
Just to be clear: I seriously don’t like Bill Clinton.  I think he’s beyond dishonest, and I was never exactly a fan of him as a politician.  But here’s the thing: when you agree to paint or photograph someone, you agree to put them in their best light.
If someone pays me to photograph Clinton, I’m going to try to make him look good.

I photographed him on Super Tuesday, before he was president

I photographed him with other photojournalists on Super Tuesday, before he was president

This reminded me of when Jill Greenberg was commissioned to take a photo of John McCain for The Atlantic.  Greenberg, it turns out, hates Republicans.  So it wasn’t the wisest move in the world for The Atlantic to have her shoot John McCain.  Apparently, The Atlantic hired her because she was a little known photographer who was building up a library of work by shooting pictures of crying babies.

Lest you think that Jill’s photos of crying babies were just a great fluke of timing, they weren’t. In order to make some kind of odd comment on the badness of the GOP, Jill decided that she would make babies cry, and then photograph them.  How do you make babies cry?
Oh… well that’s easy. You give them something nice… and then take it away from them.  Like candy.
Jill Greenberg literally took candy away from a baby.  For her photos.  For money and fame.
You might think that someone who does this would just stay quiet about it, and not prove themselves to be an asshole.  In that case, you don’t know Jill.  A quote is in order:

“Making children cry for a photographer can be considered mean. But I would say that making children laugh and show off their jeans for an apparel ad is just as exploitative and less natural. Toddlers’ natural state, like 30 percent of the time, is crying, and it doesn’t indicate pain or suffering,” Greenberg said.

I literally can’t think of a worst person in the art world right now.

Unfortunately, she became famous for it.  Because, you know, crying babies.

So when she was hired to shoot John McCain, she took the usual photos, and then had him get up close to the camera, and turned on a light that gave him an evil look.  Just picture holding a flashlight under your face.  Same thing.
Jill turned in the “normal” photo of McCain (which I still can’t believe she was paid for.  It appears as though Jill only learned one  lighting set-up), and then used the out-takes to create images of McCain as an evil villain.  And even created an image of a chimp pooping on his head. You can see some of the images here.

Putting aside that it was kinda like a 12 year old learning photoshop for the first time…
…If this seems like a breech of ethics? It was.
Photographers almost universally took a metaphorical poop on her head. Read through the comments.  They’re not nice.

The Atlantic, who was not exactly a fan of any Republican ever, found themselves having to chastise her for being a jerk.

So what happened to Greenberg?  After her lollipop-inducing crying on to kids, and after she screwed over a magazine by making their subject look bad?
Well, if you know anything about the art world… you know what happened.
She became famous. She’s been working ever since.

Which just proves that some people are beyond stupid.
And I find this infinitely depressing.

Jake is the worst. Well, not really.

Congratulations to Jake Lange for winning my second “Worst Headshot” competition.
Jake and I will be shooting shortly, and with his permission, I’ll post the results.

I’d like to thank everyone for submitting, and repeat my appreciation for everyone who took the time out to share their photos and their stories.  It just goes to show that there are a lot of reasons why people don’t get professional headshots.  And trust me… we understand.

So you’re looking for talent? Start here.

Every once in a while, networks announce that they’re forming new sketch shows. To find talent, they’ll scour the country looking for brilliant performers.
I’m going to help them out with their homework, and they don’t even have to pay me to this time. Here are a few of my personal recommendations of who you should be looking at.

Adam & Danielle; young and talented

If there are two performers that scream to networks “you should hire them now”, as a power couple, they are Adam Cole and Danielle Wheeler.

Adam Cole

Adam Cole

Adam Cole’s roots start in standup, but he has that soulful look that allows him to get away with saying bad things.
Sure he’s pretty.
I mean, he’s very very pretty.
God I love his eyes.
What was i saying?  Oh yeah… With a firm background in the Annoyance Theater in Chicago, he genuinely understands comedy. He has the best balance between someone who is passionate about his work without taking himself too seriously.



When you see a woman as drop dead gorgeous as Danielle Wheeler (She’s on my business card, y’all.  That’s how gorgeous she is… she made me say “y’all”), you don’t expect them to be funny. Because in order to be funny, you have to allow yourself to be ugly and be the clown. Danielle never shies away from either and will do anything for a laugh.
She is a woman without pretension – with all humility – and she’s just darned nice. I’m willing to bet she owns a kitten, and that its named something cute.
With roots in Second City’s Training Center, she performed in the same sketch show in Chicago for years before moving to New York.

Paul Thomas; a writer who never stops

I knew that I was in a special place when I was in conservatory at Second City with Paul Thomas.  It wasn’t just that he was continually writing, but that he thought about every aspect of a scene.
He wrote this gorgeous scene, post 9/11, about how the terms of football had changed. That announcers could no longer use the phrase “throw the bomb”.  After explaining to me (the desk anchor) which terms were thrown out, and which terms replaced them (“ride the pony”), his sports announcer recounted the day’s game using the new terms that we just learned.
In one reoccurring sketch, Paul was allowed to improvise a different non-sequitur every time. The rest of us would watch a monitor backstage, just to see what line he would use to break his scene partners.

If I were the head of a sketch television show, I would hire Paul without asking him for a spec script.  He is, in my opinion, the most underused writer in Chicago.

Anthony Oberbeck; beyond ordinary

Anthony Oberbeck

Anthony Oberbeck

I once read about a famous comedian, that he was the guy that the other comedians would gather around to watch.
Meet Anthony Oberbeck.
When Anthony puts together a sketch show, he’s the one that I’m leaning forward to take mental notes on. In comedy, its the best thing in the world when someone surprises you. Anthony always surprise me.  Think I’m going to tell you how?  No, because, you know, surprise.

Susan Messing; has shit out more talent in her life than LA, combined

No, I don’t want to get into a pillow fight over how great the talent in LA truly is. Not while you’re wearing that neon top.
All I’m saying is that its mind-numbing that we have a performer that so many people on all coasts combined would agree is one of the very best, and she hasn’t been tapped to create a show, much less star in one.  Its kinda like finding out that this guy named Tiger Woods has been playing golf in your back yard, and no one has offered to let him play in your tourney.  Or its like finding out that this kid named Van Halen has been playing on a street corner, but no bands have invited him to play.  (Okay… bad example.  I’d get why no lead singer would want to play with Van Halen right now.)
My point is that at some point in time, you might be the network executive chomping on your cigar (and/or legalized pot brownie) telling your network-executive-friends about how brilliant you were, and how you bought that new G600 Gulfstream because Susan Messing’s show was picked up for a fifth season.
But right now, you aren’t.  Because you aren’t asking why 95% of the female improvisers in Chicago want to be Susan Messing, or why 95% of the male improvisers cried while listening to Morrissey when she remarried.

Is this all of the amazing talent that you’ll find in Chicago?  Not even close.  But start here.  I’ll have more for you shortly.

William Beers Entry into Worst Headshot Contest

Yep, I’m a performer.  But its worth noting that I went to school for photography, and I received my Bachelor Of Arts is in Photography.

From William Beers

I decided to go with a photographer who is a fellow Actor. She did these shots for me…

Shannon’s entry

From Shannon…

I have several bad photos I have sent in where many times I have been told that the photos not only do not reflect who I am, but don’t reflect me as well as in person!

This is actually a pretty common complaint, one that I’ve heard a lot from clients who were shot by someone else.  Sometimes, people get glammed up too much.  Or, worse yet, the photographer shoots them the same way that they would shoot anyone else.  And naturally, the image just doesn’t have the right feel.

If you want to read more about this, go read my article for Second City on “6 Ways to Fuck Up Your Headshots“, or just read my blog on 7 things you should know before getting your headshot.

Please vote.  And if you know of someone who desperately needs a headshot, please send them here.

Second Worst Headshot contest, first entries…

I already have a few entries into the (2nd) Worst headshot contest!

Click on VOTE to vote.
Reminder; only vote once, blah, blah, blah, I can tell if you’re cheating.

From Jake:

So, I had just moved out to the big city and already had my first audition lined up. The only problem was that I did not have a headshot and was at the time much too poor to afford a good one! An acquaintance of mine is a photographer and had taken headshots for some my friends. He offered to take mine for free, but he was only available for 30 minutes on one evening at his apartment.

From Colton:

No story really. Just a very terrible and awkward picture

From Akilah:

I got this done at a mall. There was a makeup counter there offering free make-up makeovers and you could have a mini photoshoot. I think this was my senior year in high school.

Again, the point of this is that these stories are universal.  We’ve all done it.  Fuck… I’m embarrassed to say that I once shot a photo the day before an audition, because I realized that the photo that I had didn’t reflect me anymore.  So I set up my camera and spent an hour taking self portraits.

How to avoid this?  Get pictures taken before you need them. Honest.

The SECOND Worst Headshot Contest

[The first entries are already in]

A while back, a friend of mine gave me a great idea; hold a “worst” headshot contest.  Enlist performers to share the worst images that they’ve ever used at an audition along with their stories.  Then have people vote, and see what happens.  So I did.

And the result was amazing.

A performer named Richard Esteras came through with 181 votes.  We met, shot some great pictures of him, and he posted a few of his favorites to Facebook…. where he got noticed.  Since then, Richard has gone on to perform in almost a dozen independent movies.

Richard Esteras, understated

Richard Esteras, from our shoot

Now I need to point the obvious out: Just because I shoot you, it doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically end up getting cast in a dozen films.  However, I think that my track record of the past year is pretty darned good. A lot of people that I’ve shot have gotten noticed.

You still have to do the work. But it all starts with a great headshot.  So lets start a new contest. Send in any photo that you’ve used on an audition, or your worst headshot, and I’ll post it in the gallery.  Is there a story behind it that you’re willing to share?  Send me the story too.
I’ll post your picture within 24 hours.  Voting is ongoing.  At the end of February 2015, at midnight CST, the person with the most votes wins a free headshot session.

Its that simple.
Oh… and if you don’t win? I’ll send you a coupon for $75 off of the normal price of a headshot with me.

Not convinced yet? If you have your headshot taken by me before the end of February, pay me, and then get the most votes on your old headshot?  You not only get your money back, but you’ll get a small gift from me.  Cause that’s how I roll.

So show me how bad headshots can be.
(As if I haven’t seen already.)

99 Problemz, but CIF Isn’t One


Catharine Savage

As you might have guessed, I’m particularly happy whenever someone I shoot has a success story.

Like when Richard was discovered by an independent film company by putting his headshot in his Facebook feed. He went on to shoot almost a dozen independent and student films over the past year.

Or The Katydids, who are now producing the television series Teachers for TV Land.

Or Lou Leonardo, who just happened to book a little thing known as a Super Bowl commercial.


Kimberley Michelle Vaughn

Well, two people that I photographed over the past year, Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, and Catharine Savage, are in an improvised sitcom called 99 Problemz.  Their show has just been picked up by the Chicago Improv Festival this year.

Congratulations!  I’ll see you at CIF!

Update on Lou Leonardo

If you read my last post on Lou Leonardo, you might be curious as to what he’s going to do in the Super Bowl Commercial.

This might help answer you question:

I’m just going to jump to the conclusion that Lou is appearing in a Super Bowl commercial where he, and other actors, get to sing with Jennifer Hudson.
I’m literally glassy eyed thinking about it.