Are Joe Klamar’s US Olympic Portraits Intentionally “Bad”?

Update: Klamar has responded to the criticism. The photographs aren’t ‘anti-establishment’. They were simply the result of being unprepared.

I came across a series of supposedly bad US Olympic portraits taken by photographer Joe Klamar via a post on my Facebook page. I just had to take a look to see if they could really be as bad as reported.

It’s a pretty interesting story. From a photography perspective, my immediate reaction was “ugh really? These were published by Getty!?” Everything from the horrid lighting, the ripped backgrounds, the awkward poses, the half-assed compositions, the cheesy flag waving to the extreme wide angle lens distortion and pooched white balance is just so… well… wrong. A trained monkey with an iPhone would have taken better photographs.

Photographers are obviously miffed — access to Olympic athletes is so restricted and images of these athletes can be very valuable to a photographer from direct sales to portfolio prestige. It’s easy to understand how pretty much any guy with a camera can picture themselves coming away with way better photographs if they were in Joe Klamar’s shoes at the shoot.

What I find really interesting is the reaction from the general public. As an industry, photography has just gone through a huge slump readjustment in which established photographers found themselves in a downward fee spiral as they were undercut by Uncle Bob (i.e. some guy with a the newest DSLR shooting in program auto), reduced budgets due to an unprecedented recession, and the rise of DIY (“er, its good enough I guess”) in-house photography. My impression over this period was that clients seemed to lose the ability to appreciate what made a “good” photograph (when was the last time you saw an awesome portrait of a lawyer or a real estate agent?). This all came at the death of film — so clients didn’t even have to really fear the ultimate photographic repercussion of hiring a budget shooter (e.g. fifty rolls of black film). Somehow five thousand images on a disk with a hand full of usable photographs became an acceptable deliverable.

Things are only recently starting to turn around as photographers have adapted their art and really embraced both digital photography and advanced post production (call it Photoshopping if you must) to produce images that are just off-the-hook – and what clients are now starting to demand (along with the budget to pay for that level of work). Search for “portrait” on 500px to see what I mean – there is some really amazing photogs producing really unique, stunning images.

So I see the visceral reaction by the general public to these bad US Olympic portraits as great news for working photographers everywhere. Hallelujah! The public noticed, and they want awesome photography!

Then along comes Joe Klamar, who turns what should be polished, awesome, stunning portraits of some of the world’s most successful athletes into [insert derogatory adjective here].

I don’t think you can argue that Joe Klamar’s bad US Olympic Portraits are done well — as far a photography goes.

But hang on — does “wrong” necessarily equal “bad” (or shoddy or Glamour Shots by Deb or an embarrassment to the nation as they have been called)?

I find it hard to believe that Joe Klamar could make the plethora of what photographers would consider mistakes in a single shoot. There is simply no way that a working photographer could produce photographs this bad by mistake. In fact, it would be pretty hard to do on purpose.

So if you consider that Joe Klamar created these images exactly how he meant to, they are pretty brilliant from an anti-establishment, subversive perspective.

The guy had access to these elite athletes –- soon to be gods of the arena –- and he makes them look like clowns, and the establishment doesn’t even know it. Now that is fine art (whether you agree with the politics or not).

“Hey – you know what would look really cool? If you put that birdie on your head like a little hat!”
“Really? Won’t I look like a fool?”
“Hey –- you worry about being the professional athlete, and I’ll worry about being the professional photographer.”
“Ummm, but I’m actually an amateur athlete, and its called a shuttlecock”
“Riiiiiiiight… well never mind –- just put the birdie on your head”

“Ya that’s great –- now give me some moose antlers.”
“Ummmmm, I’m sorry what?”
“You know –- moose antlers -– hold your hands up to your head and pretend you’re a moose.”
“But this is the Olympics, I’ve trained my entire life for this, I don’t want to pretend I’m a moose.”
“Don’t be so shy – the Canadians will love it!”

I’m not about to equate Joe Klamar’s bad US Olympic portraits to Arnold Newman’s iconic photograph of Nazi industrialist Alfried Krupp (Arnold Newman was commissioned to create a portrait of Krupp – unbeknownst to Krupp, he used the opportunity to create a portrait of evil personified).

Who knows, maybe Joe Klamar just f’d up, but his US Olympic portraits are pretty sick (like the kids say).

About the author: John-Paul Danko is a commercial photographer and one-half of blurMEDIA Photography. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: Olympic portraits by Joe Klamar, Olympics Protest by eebeejay, Alfred Krupp by Arnold Newman

  • Ranger 9

    Hmm, interesting take. I previously had posted (on PetaPixel and elsewhere) a defense of Klamar — arguing that he had consciously decided against stereotyped “heroic” portrayals of the athletes and had instead chosen to go for a vernacular, “de-skilled” approach, similar to what works so well for American Apparel and other edgy, youth-oriented brands.

    Now, maybe he leaned a bit too far over the edge of “edgy” and fell off the cliff, but I still felt he deserved credit for TRYING to do something beyond grinding out slick, “professional,” frickin’-obvious-Wheaties-box-style glorifications of the athletes… which most pro and pro-wannabe photogs (on PetaPixel and elsewhere) seemed to insist was the only legitimate option.
    The idea that Klamar might actually have been going beyond that — that his portfolio was a deliberately subversive deconstruction of the Olympics hype machine itself — is an intriguing thing to consider, whether it’s actually true or not.
    Incidentally, I think another lesson to be gleaned from this is that our reaction to photographs tends to be driven less by what’s actually in the photograph than by what we’re TOLD about the photograph. I suspect that a lot of observers decided Klamar’s shots were dreadful only after reading in various online media how dreadful they were.

    Likewise, I’ve always felt that Newman’s portrait of Krupp gets the same treatment. For one thing, Krupp (a key industrialist of the Nazi regime) very well knew that Newman was a Jewish photographer who was famous for his psychological approach to portraiture; he had to have realized he was taking a risk of getting a less-than-positive portrayal.

    At the same time, from my first encounter with that portrait, I’ve always felt that the “portrait of evil personified” angle was over-hyped. To me he just looks like a shrewd old industrialist who feels quite at home in a gritty factory environment. I suspect that most other viewers would feel the same, if they hadn’t been pre-primed by the “portrait of evil” myth-story.

  • Erick

    Nice try Joe Klamar…

  • Mansgame

    Nah, they’re so bad that they couldn’t even be ironically bad.

  • derekdj

    Meh … sorry, I don’t buy the defense. I can buy that excuse with the photograph of the new French President, but in this case everything points to end-to-end failure.

    The flaw in the argument is that even Arnold Newman shot a stunning photograph while expressing this own political opinion. On top of that Newman’s photo was vetted by the editor and art director before publication (the story of that photograph is detailed in the NYTimes). I have a hard time believing both CBS and Getty intentionally wanted to show our athletes in a bad light. I think this is a failure of our “insta-” culture. If you look at Klamar’s portfolio, his experience is more on the paparazzi end of the spectrum, not studio photography or “staged lighting”, who hired him to do this shoot?

    If you look at CBS’s full slideshow there were photos from photographers who “thought on their feet” and delivered good portraits of other athletes. Why did they include Klamar’s? I think CBS thought this slideshow just a filler on their website so who would care.

    There is also a turn-key approach to these big agencies like Getty, Corbis and Imagewire where tons of photos are pumped through the pipeline with little vetting. More reason to support critical agencies like Magnum and younger photographer collectives.

  • derekdj

    By the way not to rant, but I’m sure Klamar wishes he had shot the entire shoot with Instagram, all those art filters might have been able to hide his crappy set ups.

  • looser

    The word is “lose” not “loose”. While you bemoan the days of professional photography, I bemoan the days when people knew you couldn’t loose. But with misspellings, you can always lose.

  • Tam Nguyen Photography

    Sorry I had to point this out, but “clients seemed to *loose* the ability” was meant to spell with only one O. LOSE. Loose, on the other hand, is the opposite of tight.

  • JessicaLum

    Thanks for the catch! We’ve corrected it. Tighter edits next time!

  • aurre photo & DLP

    if you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you do whatever it takes not to screw it up. that’s what it means to be a professional.

  • Carlos Garcia

    great take on this. I looked at them again and got exactly what you are saying, I think you are spot on. And then this becomes quite brilliant and funny.

  • t_linn

    I find it far harder to believe that Klamar chose to use our Olympic athletes to make a subversive political statement than I do believing that he just wasn’t used to shooting this type of image and learned the hard way that his technique needs to be refined. I feel bad for the guy.

    I have less sympathy for the dufus that decided to make the images public.

  • cinemattographer

    Some days, the Muse just decides to stay home.

  • Cameron

    Joe Klamar represents a lot of what I dislike about the industry these days. Even if, by some random stroke of chance, he was “making a statement,” he failed, and failed epically. Bottom line is that he’s a hack. He’s a first-year fine art major with no talent.

    Someone compared his work with American Apparel. There’s a huge, blatant point to American Apparel photography, and some may not like it, but everyone gets the point.

    He didn’t “go to far” with edginess. That’s art school crit BS. It the “let’s be different, just to be different” mantra that art school preach like it’s the new new testament.

    The bottom line is that he shouldn’t get paid because he didn’t deliver. There is nothing even remotely artistic or valuable about these images. I just can’t state it firmly enough.

    If you want to make a statement and risk your pay check that’s up to you, but he didn’t do that. He just sucked.

    Sit them in a chair with no props in front of an actual white seamless and decent lighting and you’d have better images. And ones that could be more easily argued to be a “statement.”

  • Klamar

    If Klamar did in fact take these photos with an anti-establishment tone, then he should be doubly ashamed. Most Olympic athletes are amateurs, meaning they are not professional athletes making millions of dollars a year. Instead, they work regular day jobs, train whenever they can, and many pay their own way. Why make fools of the “common man”? Had all these portraits been of powerful, rich, professional athletes, then perhaps a statement could be made. But they are not, and this is where the writers argument falls flat.

  • John Kantor

    Ok, so now we have another clown in the sequence – Danko.

  • Gary Packwood

    To me they pretty much look like guests at one of my family picnics where a relative is trying to be respectful by taking the best pictures she or he knows how to take while a chorus of family members throw out an unending stream of picture making suggestions … which annoys the one college student in the room who actually knows a tiny little bit about photography and how to use white paper.

    Real as hell in my world.

  • Brobphoto

    Regardless of his intent, he (and all working photographers) was working for a specific client with specific needs and wants. Unless they had a meeting beforehand discussing the possible “advantages” of these terrible images, he did a disservice to said client.

  • Renato Murakami

    Nope. He’s getting all the criticism he deserves, and nothing will turn crappy pics into awesome. I don’t see any logic in turning this discussion around.
    Why? If you as professional really does have the intent of making an anti-estabilishment work, you don’t make it crappy – you make it good with something noticeably off. You leave no room to be criticized as shoddy work. And you specially don’t do something that can’t be proven later on that wasn’t the result of poor work.

    And I mean, it’s photography. There are tons of way of doing it rather than making it look like a crappy rushed job. There’s also no reason to make everythink look bad in this one unique oportunity – he could’ve done great shots and poor ones, published the poor ones first, and than released the real thing later on. “The first ones is how things get done because of how the industry works today. This is what it should’ve been”.

    So, if his intention was anti-estabilishment, I’ll have to say he failed just as hard as he seemed to have with the non-pro looking shots.
    Otherwise, it’s just a lame excuse every professional of every other job could do out there, period. Being a professional is like that: You don’t dimiss responsibilities just because your intention was to make some anti-estabilishment photos. You either do it right, or you’ll be labeled as liar, amateur, or some irresponsible whiner.

  • Björn Luminaire

    Anyone who’s offended by these images, as this article’s author obviously is, just may need some therapy.

  • dukepix

    You know, I think the joke is on us. In a world that hails the open-flash-on-camera work of Terry Richardson and the glorified passport pictures Martin Schoeller why shouldn’t this work be regarded as “exceptional”. Perhaps Getty wants photography to gain that sixties modern art caché of “if you don’t get it, it must be good”.

  • Dennis

    You mention ”
    (i.e. some guy with a the newest DSLR shooting in program auto)” as if using P mode is bad and the sign of an amateur. Funny, when I took a workshop with Sam Abell in the 90s he admitted he used P unless it needed to be overridden. Ditto Steve McCurry. Frankly, I see so many amateurs using Manual mode because they think it makes them hardcore and usually they waste time fiddling while the pros got the shot and have already moved on.

  • Aaron Cole

    Is this Joe Klamars version of Lucas’s Star Wars Holiday Special?

  • Bua

    Risky portraits. He hasn’t really pulled it off.

  • Veronica Antonio Paulaitis

    Maybe the point was getting us all talking about him. If that was the case, it worked.

  • Ute Sonnenberg

    I do not see these photos as bad. Only everybody’s response shows how we react when something is out of the box or other than we expect. In the context of photos of the Olympic team we expect to see the usual glossy all look alike magazine style. If the images would have been launched in a gallery context, one would look different at them and see the artistic approach and the provocation of the artist. They make you keep looking at them and they do something to you, they trigger obviously a lot, they serve a purpose.

  • Mark

    Look at the early works of Picasso and you see the technique of a Renaissance master at work. I
    preach this all the time to aspiring photographers: learn the classical
    forms and aesthetics first. Master them and understand why human beings
    are drawn to conscious and subconscious themes in art. The rule of
    thirds, symmetry, golden ratio, leading lines, etc are all part of the
    classical forms. There is a reason that symmetrical faces will ALWAYS be
    more appealing than disfigurement. In music, understand why consonance
    will ALWAYS be more pleasant to the ear than dissonance. Introduction
    of non-classical aesthetics is extremely important for tension and
    chaos, but can not be properly employed without the knowledge of the
    foundations and principals of what is appealing to all human beings
    (principals that are largely a result of evolutionary psychology I might

    As Cameron stated (and pardon my paraphrase if it’s not accurate),
    contemporary art students are being taught that we live in a world where
    everyone’s opinion is equally valid and correct, that breaking rules
    (without having even learned them first) is not only acceptable, but
    “hip”. To practice classical portraiture and lighting, for instance, is
    tantamount to being the stodgy Luddite with no “vision” or “passion”.
    Worse, to learn those techniques is a waste of one’s time and by merely
    calling something artistic, it transcends human aesthetic “calculus”.
    Unfortunately for these students and teachers, history paints a
    different picture altogether. Over time, such movements or was of
    thinking always end up being labeled fads and yet, classical portraiture
    and a well-composed image are deemed timeless.

    A classical composer knows that atonal serial music is an inappropriate
    setting for a toy commercial jingle. A videographer knows that a car
    dealership commercial should not be given the same cinematic treatment
    as Mullholand Drive. And yes, a photographer should know that portraits
    of US Olympians are NOT works of art for his own muse and whimsy, but
    for the entire nation that the young athletes represent. In other words,
    an artist must know artistic etiquette. Regardless of the
    photographer’s intention, his images are wholly inappropriate. I
    reiterate: these images were meant for a nation, not one man’s artistic

  • Kamil Sladek

    I guess in the case of Krupp’s portrait it was a real advantage of film not being able to review the image directly on a display. I can’t imagine, none of the athletes were able to see the taken pictures, not having the opportunity to disagree with the result. Maybe we just don’t get to see the real pictures and the bad pictures are used to gain more and more public attention.

  • 9inchnail

    So he’s the Captain Jack Sparrow of photography?
    “You’re the worst photographer I’ve ever heard of”
    “But you’ve heard of me”.

    Way to go, douchie.

  • 9inchnail


  • 9inchnail

    “Only everybody’s response shows how we react when something is out of the box”

    Some things should stay in the box.

  • Steve

    My take, although I could be wrong, is that Klamar was reacting to a badly produced photo-op by taking these crappy images probably thinking they would never get released. I read on another blog that this was part of a photo-op with a number of other photographers and each one got 4 minutes with each athlete in a crowded setting with crappy backdrops etc. Kind of like speed dating. Maybe Klamar was just fed up with the bad production and intentionally took the worse shots possible as a statement to the organizers. If that is the case it certainly backfired on him and it should be a lesson to other photogs not to torpedo a shoot no matter how pissed you are.

  • Mansgame

    Nope sorry. You can’t screw something up and when it hits the fan say “Oh that was art”. It’s a cop-out and why I don’t like many fine art photographs because some are horribly technically flawed and if you call them on it, they just say “Oh that’s art, I meant to do that”.

    In this case, he was hired to do a job. I know if I go to my dentist, I want him to think inside the box because I hired him to fix my teeth and not create art or be a rebel.

  • lineacurva

    Even if he had tried to make art – rather than commercial-oriented photography -, the result is poor. There is no discourse here, no coherence, not even a strong idea. This is not noticeable even from a research point of view. A bad work can’t be camouflaged as a smart idea, since it will always be a bad work. There’s a lack of care, where experimental works need even much more care than routine ones.

  • ajw93

    Even if he were trying to make a “statement” with fine art, what he ended up making is bad art instead. And the operative word there is “bad,” not “art.” (Oh, and thanks SO MUCH, Joe, for making it that much harder for the next guy to get access.)

  • Slash_Cynic

    Annie Liebowitzed..

  • Stefan Choquette

    He did an interview, he didn’t have any motives. He was unprepared. He didn’t know that there would be time to have with the athletes privately to shoot. All of the other photographers had studio setups and he had nothing but an SB800. He was totally unprepared and used another photographer’s background and would shoot an athlete for 1-2 minutes after they had just finished with the other photographer.

    He should have just accepted that the fact that he didn’t have a studio setup and done what any wedding photographer would have done, and found an outside spot in the shade without a busy background and work the flash and ambient light to try to pull off some half decent portraits rather than try to force it and end up with crap.

    Article here:

  • Steve-o

    Because in spite of what you say, Terry Richardson and Martin Schoeller’s work is still far better than this stuff is on their worst day. I mean perhaps Richardson and Schoeller’s work isn’t to everyone’s taste but at least they seem to do what they do well. You won’t see screwed up exposures, torn up seamless and actually bad lighting (as opposed to lighting that to ones individual taste may not be to their liking). Klamar’s work lacks the competence that should be expected of someone who gains access to the Olympic athletes. Quite frankly I’d rather Terry Richardson or Martin Schoeller have photographed the athletes!

  • Slash_Cynic

    If you know anything. Terry Richardson shoots with his flashes off camera to the side.

  • n00tch

    Please, do not take what I am saying as an ad hominem attack (it truly isn’t). But it seems like you’ve put on airs about people who like to digitally develop their photos. Many photographers will tell you they like to get it right straight out of the camera. I’ve done enough editing for those photographers that I find the claim to be bogus and the attitude to be arrogant.

    As a photographer, it is my job to deliver what the client wants. I will use any and all tools at my disposal to achieve the desired result. I’m sorry that you don’t see that being within the realm of “the spirit of making photographs”.

  • Bua

    Oh dear! He admitted that he was un prepared so made crappy pics!! Better to have been anti-establishment rather than un-prepared!

  • Veronica Antonio Paulaitis

    your comment is rude.
    I’m just pointing out that this looked like a marketing campaign that worked.

  • Bryan

    In a purposeful reference to a similar situation and accusation (lets see who figures out the reference first…)

    Klamar is not that dumb, and he’s not that smart.

  • Veronica Antonio Paulaitis

    can’t say, I don’t know the guy….
    I just pointed out those portraits were good to get us all talking. And that’s what marketing campaigns are for.
    I’m in no way endorsing his work. IMO, the idea maybe was good, but he jumped over the fence doing it.