In the grand scale of both unsolved mysteries and viral phenomena, it’s surely but a blip, but around here it’s a surprising turn of events: we figured out who took an iconic photo that’s been the source of some speculation in the art world—and he works right here at the Walker.
Last week, as I scrambled to get João Enxuto and Erica Love’s Artist Op-Ed on museums, protest, and social change published in time for Inauguration Day, I set out to get permission to reproduce the remarkable image the artists selected to kick off their essay: a Trump supporter viewing Jeff Koons’s 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. It seemed to capture our current political moment perfectly. A woman—holding a stars-and-stripes backpack and wearing a fanny pack, red baseball cap, and “Trump for President 2016” t-shirt—viewing a sculptural homage to American celebrity in all its peculiarity. The contrasts are arresting. The woman’s everyday apparel juxtaposed with gold leaf—the stuff of religious statuary or Donald Trump’s furniture—could be seen to parallel the gulf between the woman and the billionaire candidate she champions.
Here’s how artnet News senior writer Brian Boucher, writing in July 2016 on how the art world was “going crazy” over the photo, assessed the scene:
It’s only missing a bald eagle, mom, and an apple pie—unless, of course, the woman pictured is your mom.
The image brings together America’s celebrity worship disorder on several levels. Koons, love him or hate him, doubtless aims to mirror the country’s fascination with fame in the personage of one of the most famous people on the planet; Trump’s candidacy owes almost entirely to his own status as a reality TV star.
I have so many questions—about the circumstances that found this woman in full campaign gear at the art museum, about why it went viral within art circles—but, for pragmatic reasons, I really needed to answer much simpler ones: who took the photo, and—as Boucher wondered—was it real or photoshopped?
I tried to sleuth it out. I got in touch with Boucher; did searches on Google Images, Twitter, Imgur, and Facebook; contacted the Reddit user named in the artnet piece; enlisted a friend (who’s a friend of a friend of said Reddit user) to help make contact. No luck. So I went ahead and published, acknowledging in the caption that the photo’s authenticity and authorship remain unknown.
Then, shortly after sharing the Artist Op-Ed on Facebook, a comment popped up, to the effect of: I took that picture!
Ben Schwartz, now a graphic design fellow at the Walker, took the photo last May before moving from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. Visiting The Broad with a friend, he says he noticed the woman because she stood out in her “in-your-face,” head-to-toe campaign gear. “We debated for a minute whether she was doing some sort of performance piece,” he recalls.
Ben had no idea that the image had gone viral, but he has an idea how: he posted the photo on Instagram, and artist Mungo Thomson, his professor when he was a student at ArtCenter, regrammed it. From there, it was posted by artist Vik Muniz on Facebook—where it shared by his contacts 217 times.
In the end, the story isn’t a political one for Ben, but one that’s instructive for a designer interested in how images are created, manipulated, and shared. “My favorite part about all of it was the speculation that it was photoshopped,” he says. “It was first-hand proof of how the internet can strip away context from an image and create an entirely new narrative.”