Lance Armstrong: Old Portrait, New Meaning

January 14th, 2013  |  Published in Behind the Scenes, Front Page, Noteworthy, Portraits

Lance Armstrong, photographed at home in Austin, Texas one month after cancer surgery in December 1996. Photograph © 1996 Darren Carroll. (Darren Carroll)

Funny, but I always thought this picture was unfair to Lance Armstrong.

Oh, don’t get me wrong–it’s one of my favorite portraits that I’ve ever taken, but for years I always looked at it with a tinge of regret, my opinion colored by the emotions of the shoot. I often say that we photographers are our own worst editors, because we can’t help but look at our pictures through the tinted glasses of the assignment itself–from our own state of mind at the time, to the physical effort that went into it, to challenges faced and overcome, to whatever emotional attachment we may have to our subject. This was certainly no different.

For starters, this was my first portrait of a “big” sports celebrity, shot on assignment for USA Today (my first “big” client) back in December of 1996 when I was a couple of years out of college and in my second year of grad school at the University of Texas. At the time, that day, and that assignment, represented the high point of my very short career as a freelance photographer, and everything about it–from the initial call giving me the assignment, to meeting Armstrong at his house on Lake Austin, to the phone call from his agent asking for another copy of this very print (which I’d sent him with a note of thanks), to Lance himself later telling me that this was his mother’s favorite picture of him, and that it hung in her living room–is something I’ll never forget.

Second, the shoot took place shortly after Armstrong had been diagnosed with, and undergone his first set of treatments for, testicular cancer which had later spread to his brain. I remember meeting not a world-class athlete, but a genuinely nice guy who was also a weak, physically drained specimen of a human being. If you’d have told me that within a year this man would be back on a bike cycling competitively, let alone at the highest levels of the sport, I would looked at you like you were nuts, to say nothing of what I would have done had you told me he’d one day win the Tour de France. Years later, I would marvel along with just about everyone else in this world as he won it not once, but seven times, my incredulity (and I mean that strictly in the best of ways) rising with each win as I recalled, again and again, that afternoon spent at his house, him struggling to muster the physical energy to even sit upright to be photographed, so weakened by his treatments that he had to retire to his bedroom to take a nap every half hour or so.

And finally, I remember the technical parameters of the shot–his self-consciousness leading him to insist, at least at the very beginning, that I not show the horseshoe-shaped, still-fresh fresh scar and stitching on the top of his head where surgeons had gone in to remove the tumors in his brain (thus, the full-frame crop that you see). The fact that I really had very little idea, lighting-wise, what I was doing and so, without the aid of a reflector for a little fill, came up with a moody, half-lit portrait (which I told myself, at the time, was a really artistic approach). And I remember thinking that this would be perfect in black-and-white, and would be great to pair with my recent revelation, stumbled upon by happy accident in the UT darkroom (remember them?), that Fuji NPS film (remember that?), when enlarged on Ilford Multigrade black-and-white paper (remember that, too?) with a #5 filter (remember those?) made for one hell of a rich, snappy, contrasty print.

First big client, first big sports celebrity, truly inspirational subject, first real attempt at creative lighting, and a “look” that resulted from a technique I discovered on my own. I think you can say this picture has some emotional baggage attached to it. For me, at least.

But while I always loved the picture for those very reasons, I always thought it was a little haunting, a little mysterious, and that it made Armstrong appear a little sinister, like he had something to hide, like a man with a dark side, if you need to be hit over the head with the metaphor. I was always reluctant to put it in a portfolio, or otherwise publicize it, because I thought it cast my subject, whom I grew to admire more than anyone I’d ever shot–either before or since–in the short time I got to spend with him, in a bad light. Looking at the picture again, staring at it, I still try to convince myself that that’s not the man I met that day, some sixteen years ago.

I’d still like to think it wasn’t. But now I know better.

Unfortunately, we all do.

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