Photographer Jeff Jacobson of Mount Tremper has had major success in his career. His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney and several other important museums. He has worked as a photojournalist for the New York Times Magazine, Time, Life, Fortune, The New Yorker, and many other magazines. He is now working on his fourth book of fine art photography. Aside from continuing to take pictures that interest him, what does he want to do most nowadays? Teach photography, especially the political work that was his entrée into professional photography.
This February found Jacobson at the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, leading a small group of students through rallies and press conferences to take shots of the presidential candidates and their supporters. “In Iowa and New Hampshire, you have a lot of freedom to move around,” said Jacobson. “There’s not so much Secret Service, if you get there early, unless there’s a sitting president running. Certain campaigns are more restrictive than others, when the candidates try to control the press. The worst this year are Hillary and Trump. They try to control every image.”
Jacobson started shooting presidential primaries in 1976 and continued through 1988. He had been a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, so he was tuned in to politics. His work took him to Boston, where George Wallace was campaigning during his third run for the Presidency. Jacobson, who had recently begun to experiment with photography, brought his camera to several Wallace rallies and was fascinated by the effects he could achieve with long exposure times and movement of the camera. When the job in Boston ended, he drove his ‘64 Volvo back to Atlanta, traded it for a VW van, and started following the primaries. He obtained a press credential from friends involved with a former underground newspaper that had morphed into a weekly paper.
“As a lawyer,” he said, “I’d saved up a little money. I had no family, and I could live on almost nothing. I wasn’t doing it to sell my pictures. I knew I needed to find my own way of seeing. That trip created a portfolio. I eventually sold some of those, became known for that work, and started getting hired.”
In 1976, when Ronald Reagan first ran for president, he was guarded by Secret Service agents, since he was running against incumbent President Gerald Ford. “I had a certain aggressive thing going on because I was less than enchanted with the candidate,” said Jacobson. “The Secret Service reflected the candidate — authoritarian.” When the agents at a Reagan event questioned his credentials, he threatened to file a lawsuit if he wasn’t admitted to the venue. After running a security check on Jacobson, the Secret Service admitted him but said they’d be keeping an eye on him. “An hour or two later,” he recalled, “they stopped me and said, ‘It’s come to our attention that you’ve been photographing all the agents in the room,’ which I wasn’t. It was just that I was not doing what other photographers were doing. I was shooting the scene, not just the candidates. But I said, ‘You win,’ and I left. They were way too paranoid for me.”
The New York Times sent him to cover Jesse Jackson’s campaign, giving him a spot on the campaign bus that traveled throughout Georgia. “We drove late at night,” said Jacobson. “He just went — he didn’t sleep. One night at 11 o’clock, on a small road, we stopped, and everyone piled into a little house. The women had cooked a huge meal for us. There were maybe ten press people on the bus. It was a magical night.”
Shooting a primary is not restricted to the week before the vote. Jacobson often went to events months in advance, such as the Iowa State Fair, where security tends to be relaxed, and the photographers can mingle with the candidates. He was around early in the 2000 campaign of former basketball star Bill Bradley, who had been fielding questions at a press conference at UCLA. “He’d been getting stupid questions,” Jacobson remembered, “and he had a thinly veiled contempt for the corporate press. I really liked him, and I’m a basketball fan. I knew he’d been buddies with Phil Jackson, his teammate on the Knicks, who was now coaching the Lakers. This particular night, he was irritated with the press, and he took a few minutes alone standing behind the stage before going out, and I’m standing next to him. I look up at him — he’s 6’5” — and I say, ‘I’ve got a question for you. Who are you rooting for, the Knicks or Phil’s team?’ He looks around to make sure no one can hear, and he says, ‘Phil’s team — but don’t tell anyone.’”
These days, Jacobson is less interested in covering politics and more inclined to pass his experience on to students. This winter, he worked with groups of four in Iowa and in New Hampshire, including the head attorney for a major New York City bank, an Atlanta dentist, and a criminal lawyer from Boston who’s drawn to photography as he eases into retirement. Some of his students are on their way to becoming professional photographers.
For a week, they shoot every day, attending campaign stops at restaurants, colleges, community centers. “I say, ‘You edit your own pictures and choose however many you think are really good,’” Jacobson explained. “They show me those, but I also want to see everything else they shot that day. I pull out the pictures I think they should’ve chosen and the ones they should’ve left out. A lot of times, people are taking interesting photographs but are not seeing them when they’re editing. Not only are other people not seeing their best work, but they’re not growing, not understanding how they see. In that editing process is where growth comes.”
He also gives assignments. “I’ll say, ‘Tomorrow, take pictures, and when you’re through with a situation, take one step forward and shoot again.’ That’s how you learn how and when to move.”
A virtue of shooting in Iowa and New Hampshire is that photographers don’t need credentials for most events. Jacobson told his students to tell the truth, if anyone asked — that they were taking a photography workshop. At the only unpleasant experience they had in Iowa this year, two students told a Clinton staffer they were from the press. “If you’re press, they herd you into one place,” said Jacobson. “They wouldn’t let us move. I got into a pretty heated discussion with their people. I told a woman, ‘You are making all the mistakes you made in 2008, alienating the press. Look at that room — two levels of ropes between the audience and Hillary. You’re creating this image of her as remote and manipulative and not spontaneous. I’m telling you this from a position of wanting her to win. I’m not the enemy — she’s got to win, and you’re blowing it.’ Then I left.”
At a Clinton event in New Hampshire in September, one of his students took a photo of Hillary that Jacobson admired. “It really shows the toll this has taken on her,” he said. “It’s a revealing, honest picture. She wouldn’t like it.”
They didn’t get to see Trump in Iowa or New Hampshire. “We were outside a couple of his events,” said Jacobson, “but we couldn’t get in. It was packed, and I didn’t want to wait. As a younger man, I would’ve been there when the doors opened. But for me, photographically, it’s not so interesting, politics. I just happen to know how to do it. I know how to negotiate the situations. I’ve seen a lot of work that’s come out of it, and I can teach a workshop with some knowledge.”
He was, however, inspired by attending a Bernie Sanders victory party in Des Moines, which he called “a remarkable experience. The kids supporting him were so happy. I found it really moving, not the least of it because I knew it was about to get smashed.”
Because Jacobson grew up in Iowa, he enjoyed being there with students who were visiting for the first time. “They have preconceptions about these small-town evangelicals who support Ted Cruz,” he said. “They think they must be horrible people, but they’re really sweet, for the most part.”
He chooses events to shoot that he thinks will yield interesting photos, often not the ones where the major candidates are holding court. At a winery in Ames, Iowa, he took a picture of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that he may include in his next book of photographs. In his studio are two tables covered with prints laid out for consideration. “I came out of a week’s shooting in Iowa with two pictures that I think are good. That’s a good week. This is five years here.” He gestured toward the 30 prints lined up on the tables. “It’s hard to make really good pictures.”
Jeff Jacobson is available to teach at various venues, including his home in Mount Tremper. See his website, https://www.jeffjacobsonphotography.com.