Slugfest 2012: The Making of The Atlantic's September Cover

The art director on our Romney-vs.-Obama boxing-match photo shoot explains how it came together.

Pentagram/The Atlantic

The brief

Every four years James Fallows previews the presidential debates. He's a big deal, it's a big deal. Four years ago the solution was to montage news shots of Obama and McCain on to a dramatic black background. It made, sense, looked good, a quick read—a successful cover. Let's do something like that.

The idea

How do we do a version that's relevant to this year? What's unique? It's going to be dirty. (Isn't it always?) So let's show them fighting. You know, really fighting. Illustration or photomontage? Remembered a shoot five or six years from New York magazine, where I then worked. British artist / photographer / provocateur Alison Jackson photographed lookalikes of Brad and Angelina with newborn baby.  (Back then, Adam Moss, New York's editor, had wanted to get the first baby shots, scooping People, Hello, and US Weekly. Trouble was the baby hadn't been born and we didn't want to pay $6 million for first rights—not that it would be offered. Funny.)

So that's our idea: a fight with lookalikes of Mitt and Barack going at it in a boxing ring.

The sell

We're at Pentagram in New York. Art meetings happen via phone with the editors at The Atlantic in D.C. An art meeting is where art directors, photo editors, and editors discuss how to "art" a story—how to visualize it. Selling the idea to editors is sometimes half the art director's job. So we, along with photo editor Ayanna Quint, pitched it. James Bennet and Scott Stossel said yes. Just like that. We can sense nodding and smiling over the speaker phone. Problem: We hadn't asked Alison. She's kind of a big deal in Europe. She has a weekly column in the Times of London. She has gallery shows. Private collectors commission pieces. I hadn't spoken to her in six years.

The ask

Ayanna asked. Studio manager says, "Sounds interesting. I'll ask Alison." Alison said yes. Got it, loved it. She wants to do more work in the US—this was good for her too.

Second thoughts

Can we afford it? What about the brand? Where's the gravitas? This is The Atlantic. Of course we want to create buzz—we've been doing that since 1857—but we don't want to troll. Critics will say it's too sensationalist, provocative. Screw 'em. Let's do it.

The idea develops

Boxing at its sexiest: Ali, Frazier, Liston, 1965.


The prep

Now what? And when and where? We need assistants, hair, make-up, props, stylist, hotels, flights, transport, equipment, lights, permissions, a videographer. Oh, and a boxing gym. We look at five or six, and decide we like Gleasons, Brooklyn. It's perfect. But what's the cost? Too late to turn back now. We'll figure it out.

A speed bump

The Romney model is self-conscious. He doesn't want to be photographed without his shirt on. We briefly try to work around it—could this be set in mid 19th century where gentleman boxers would have shirts? Maybe this feels more presidential anyway. Both candidates are Ivy League graduates—should they be wrestling or dueling with swords? We're overthinking.

Fortunately, some gentle persuasion convinces our guy to do the shoot shirtless—though we promise to slim him in Photoshop if he looks too heavy. (And we do.)

The shoot

A really, really hot day at Gleason's in Dumbo. Many of the greats trained here—Jake LaMotta, Tyson, Ali. Yes sir, Muhammad Ali. It hasn't been painted since the day it opened, 1937. There's no air. We start late. It's quiet: a few spectators, a few camera phones.

Decisions, delays

What color gloves? What kind of shorts? Hair needs grooming. Krystal (the makeup artist) airbrushes "Obama" to hide his numerous tattoos. A quick look at a photo of Obama in Hawaii: no chest hair. An assistant is dispatched to pick up Nair. Back to the reference pictures from the Ali, Frazier, Liston fights. Our shorts are too baggy, too long. Another delay as Anna (the stylist) cuts and sews.

The cast

We meet the "trainers" and the ref. Gleason's sent head shots of some guys. They're all pros who do this part time for extra cash. Trainer No. 1 turns out to be Tommy Gallagher. He's telling tall stories, dropping big names. Step aside and look him up on Wikipedia. Impressive. Intimidating—he's the real thing. He's worked with a bunch of the New York "families." Now Tommy is our consultant: "Tommy, is this authentic? Tommy, how do you wrap the hands? Tommy, what's the real way to step into the ring?" He gets us tape, he wraps the hands, he tells us the correct way to step into the ring.

Casting is spot on. Ref Yoshi is perfect. He bobs and weaves, inserts himself between to stop the "foul play."


We shoot

And we shoot. And we shoot. A lot of images. Two nice Canons, an iPad camera (it has good "grain", a video camera.

We go back to makeup for blood. "Mitt" gets an ugly black eye and "Obama" gets a lump applied on his brow—a real nice shiner.

We're done

Finally. We close down the place at around 11 p.m. We've been shooting for 9 hours.

We're not done

What usually happens now: photographer edits the shoot, provides options. Selections made, retouching and final files. Done. But not with Alison Jackson. Alison shoots hundreds or thousands of images. Most get thrown out. Even the best lookalikes just don't look alike from most angles. She shot around 15,000 images.


The morning after, at 9:00 a.m.

Alison, two assistants and I meet for the edit. We set up a conference room at Pentagram with a large screen.

It was a Saturday. I was thinking a couple of hours, max. Two hours later the images are still being moved from memory cards onto the macs.

The editing

Editing 15,000 images is no fun. It's torture. Every second a judgment call: yes or no. Does it look like him? Does it? It becomes difficult to remember what the real guys even look like.

We start at 9 a.m. and finish about 12 hours later, eyes burning.

15,000 images down to 40 and four short videos: Two videos of Obama winning—one 30-second and one 60-second version. And the same for Romney. No matter what happens in the election, we've got it covered.


See more images from the photo shoot here.


Photographer / director / producer: Alison Jackson
Production Manager, U.K.: Sabina Sattar
Production Assistant, New York: Aki Ikeno
Video / stills camera assistant U.K. and New York: Andrew Farrar
Wardrobe: Anna Flaglor
Make-up and hair: Krystal Michel
Retoucher: Eric Medsker
Production runner: Tetsu Wakabayashi

Mitt Romney: Mike Cote
Barack Obama: Louis Ortiz
Trainer #1: Tommy Galhagher
Trainer # 2: Hector
Referee: Yoshi Kono

Creative director: Luke Hayman, Pentagram
Photo director: Ayanna Quint
Designer: Regan Johnson