Why David Butow’s Image of Jeff Flake Stands Out

Why David Butow’s Image of Jeff Flake Stands Out

Both position and timing matter in capturing a compelling and visually descriptive photo. Last week’s explosive SCOTUS confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh provided another interesting opportunity to explore this concept as a small group of photographers trained their cameras on the Senate Judiciary Committee members before the key vote on a motion to proceed to the full Senate.

Backroom negotiations between Jeff Flake and Chris Coons led to a dramatic scene where Flake returned to discuss his request for an FBI investigation with the panel. 

Approximately thirteen photographers were seated in the room when Chairman Grassley abruptly dismissed the meeting, and about half the photographers moved towards Flake and captured photos of him surrounded by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and some staffers. What follows is an analysis of photos taken by three of those photographers.

Photographers Win McNamee, Aaron P. Berstein (kneeling and not visible), and David Butow had slightly different shooting positions in the scrum that surrounded Sen. Jeff Flake.

Getty Image’s Win McNamee stood tall on the left side of the tableau and captured these two images:

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

Flake is the central subject and there’s varying levels of separation between the different layers in the scene. His focal length isn’t so wide as to distort the shoulder and arm of Crapo in the foreground.

Bloomberg’s Aaron P. Bernstein had a kneeling position in front of the dais slightly to the right of Flake giving him this perspective:

Embed from Getty Images

The lower vantage is more effective to me than McNamee’s image because it gives it a little more sense of intimacy. You can also see the faces of Tillis and Crapo which is an important part of the layering within the photo.

Freelancer David Butow stood slightly to the right of Bernstein. Using a slightly longer focal length compressed the scene a little more, and he composed the photo to eliminate the name plate. Butow also captured a slightly different moment than Bernstein in which Graham’s hands are raised, and everyone listens with rapt attention. His vantage gave him separation of all the faces while maintaining incredible visual layers with Graham slightly out of focus.

Photo by David Butow/Redux for TIME

Many people have commented on the painterly-like moment because the gestures and expressions appear to be so intentional and forceful – a scene that has echoes of Carvaggio and Rembrandt.

The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Butow’s image is also noticeably less saturated than the other photographers – which echoes the faded brilliance of a Dutch Master – even though all the images share a very similar white balance (the white of Flake’s shirt is almost completely neutral in all the images).

In an piece for TIME, Butow writes that he only took a few frames of the scene which transpired very quickly:

I don’t remember looking at the back of the camera — known as “chimping” — right away. I felt pretty confident I had something decent, and just hoped it was in focus. I went back to our work room and began to edit. I saw that the elements of the picture — the body language and expressions — had come together in a way that conveyed the situation in a way I thought was true, and fortunately were graphically well-organized and sharp. On this historic day, following another historic day, that was as much as I could ask.

For me, Butow’s image stands out in a way that the other photos don’t – An exceptional image that proves that inches and seconds matter.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. jim huibregtse at 3:20 pm

    Painterly? Of course, when it’s been obviously retouched. Slash the saturation, lower the contrast, just cut those highlights, and soften those shadows. Nope, a simple comparison to the first two images confirms the retouching.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:52 am

      Sure, you can argue that the toning is too much, but that completely disregards the position, pose and expression of everyone in the photo. It is this aspect that most critics (myself included) are fascinated by.

    • Jan Podsiadly at 8:17 am

      Forget any post processing. Most photographs these days have an element of processing particularly if they are shot in RAW format and are for publication.
      What the David Butow photo shows is Flake surrounded by hands. It is that composition which inspires the comparison with old masters paintings more than the tonal quality.
      Incidentally I think it is excellent.

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