When former Ambassador Joe Wilson ended up on the White House ‘shitlist’ for having dared speak publicly about his report on the lack of uranium shipments to Iraq, he and his wife became the toughest interview in the country. She – Valerie Plame – was still working in Langley for the CIA as an analyst, and the disclosure that she was working for CIA, by columnist Robert Novak, caused a huge brouhaha as Washington found itself trying to figure out who had blown her cover. (Eventually it became known that former Under Sec. Richard Armitage had been the one who told Novak.) It was October of 2003, about a year after Wilson’s Niger trip, and some days after she had been named in Novak’s column. In theory, divulging the identity of a CIA employee could be a chargeable offense. Everyone knew WHO Valerie Plame was, but since she still worked for CIA, and no pictures had been published, no one knew what she looked like. It was an odd juxtapostion for modern journalism. I had called USNews to see about having them back me to photograph Joe Wilson (and of course having their backing to do so would probably make it easier for me to get to him.) The conversation with Jen Poggi, the editor started with something like (“…you need me to photograph Joe Wilson for you…”) and Jen agreed it was a great idea. Within a couple of days it was arranged: “arrive at the Wilson home the following morning at about 8, and you’ll have about an hour…”
I pulled my car in front of their house the next morning, grabbed my motley crew of gear (Speed Graphic, Holga, and Canons) and was greeted at the door by Mrs. Wilson — Valerie Plame — in a morning robe. She was getting their young twins ready for the day, and invited me in to the house. We passed through the kitchen, and I schlepped my gear into the family room, which faced east, and was happy to see the first hard rays of sunshine coming through the trees, and lighting the room nicely. I’m an available light guy. And when what’s available is good, I’m all for it. I set up the tripod and Speed Graphic, and made sure the Holga had a roll of film, before checking my Canon’s to be sure they were charged and ready.
Joe Wilson came in, we made small talk, and as I often try to do, just began shooting a bit while we were chatting. Anything you can do to take the subject’s attention off “being photographed” helps. Usually. He was pretty easy. We talked, I shot, we talked and I shot some more. This was in that period of the early 2000s when on almost every job I had, I tried to shoot at least one roll of 120 b/w in my Holga. The camera is an odd duck. Imprecise, uneven, full of light leaks, and occasionally a lucky surprise. I use the Stroboframe quick-release plates on all my cameras, and it makes using a tripod pretty easy. You can undo one camera and slam another onto the quick-release in just a few seconds. Normally I would save the Holga for the last bit of the shoot, once I had a feeling that I was covered. The thing about a Holga, as opposed to any digital camera, or even a film camera like a Hassie or Rollei, is that you have to manually wind, and take note of the next frame number. It’s like that first Brownie Holiday camera you had when Ike was still President. You would just wind the film till that next number came into view in the red window on the back then be ready for your next picture. A great, uncomplicated, efficient way of moving to the next shot. So, once I got shooting with Wilson, I may have been talking with him, but my eye was concentrating on the numbers on the back of the camera. The numbers on a roll of Tri-x are pretty visible, but it’s easy to accidently wind past the next number if you aren’t careful. In an era of 15 frames-per-second on the modern digi cams, the Holga is more like — in high speed mode — about one frame every ten seconds.
I shot, and wound, and shot and wound, all the way through a roll of film, hoping that in the roll might be a good portrait the magazine could use. We finished, and I packed up, and headed to the US News lab, where I dropped my film. Later that afternoon I came back to the photo office to see how the pictures looked, and was absolutely jolted to see in the middle of the Holga roll, a frame of Wilson looking into the camera, and behind him, in what was an obviously accidental moment , Valerie Plame in her robe, looking as if she’d started to head upstairs for something, thought better of it, and was about to turn around and head back to the kitchen. To make it more interesting, she seemed to be in a kind of quizzical stance. It was one frame. One Image. All of a sudden I realized I had a picture I hadn’t bargained for. We talked about it at the magazine, and everyone decided that since she was still a CIA employee, and since she hadn’t been ‘outed’ visually, that maybe we shouldn’t run the picture. (This story didn’t rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers, or I’m sure we would have.) The decision bounced around the building, and in the end, they went with a more standard portrait, by standard I mean his wife wasn’t in it. I called Joe Wilson, and told him about the picture. He said it would be trouble for them if the picture ran, and we made a gentleman’s agreement not to use the picture until she was no longer under the CIA umbrella.
Even a few months later, at “contest” time, when I talked to him again, Wilson said it would be problematic if the picture became public. It wasn’t till later that year, once Valerie had left the government, and the Wilsons did the full scale Vanity Fair treatment, did I realize the ‘deal’ was no longer on. By then, USNews wasn’t really interested in doing a story on the Wilsons and the pictures came back to me and my agency, Contact Press Images. TIME, on the other hand, was running a story, and they hopped at the chance to use the “one frame.” It ran nearly two pages, and became one of those pictures which I was happy to have my name on. When news breaks, and hitherto unknowns become the news headliners — think Monica Lewinsky for one — there tend to be a zillion pictures of them, yet seldom anything of real visual or journalistic interest. I was lucky this time around. Sometimes taking your eye off the target — especially when you have to watch those numbers roll across the red Holga window — gets you where you want to be.
photograph ©2017 David Burnett/Contact Press Images