Few political photographs of the modern era have sparked more obvious, Marie Kondo-esque joy in viewers of a certain sensibility than the Paul Ryan gym photos. You know the ones: They depict the former House speaker/vice-presidential candidate/sentient mannequin brought to life by Andrew McCarthy’s love gym-ing it up in some sort of existential yearbook photo void, pumping iron with a dedicated rictus of determination that we might otherwise associate with a Muppet who’s been confronted with the grim inevitability of its own painful death. The backwards baseball cap completes the look, assuring viewers that this is a guy who fucks—but only when his reps are done, and after Jesus has dutifully signed his permission slip.
The question that’s always surrounded these photos, obviously, is how the hell they got made in the first place. Why would a man of Ryan’s political ambitions—clear even in 2011, a year before Mitt Romney would name him as his presidential running mate—pose for this look, in these positions, and with that ridiculously goofy headwear? What was the requested vibe, and how did it end up in the neighborhood of “Youth pastor busts out a Zeppelin tape and fuckin’ shreds” instead?
Now we finally have answers, courtesy of Popula’s Maria Bustillo, who gleefully tracked down Gregg Segal, the photographer who took these shots for Time back in 2011. At the time, fiscal hawk Ryan was still being considered as a potential runner for the magazine’s 2011 Person Of The Year. He lost, but the publication decided to unleash the photos the following year (right before the vice-presidential debates) in what we can only assume was an act of deliberate political sabotage. Segal—who comes off as both shyly proud of the raw goofball power of the shots in question, while also wryly noting that “Made my subject a national laughingstock” isn’t necessarily the best ad for his continued services—was happy to spill several details about the shoot, including the most important one: Ryan brought the hat to the session, and chose to wear it backwards himself:
That was his persona that he wanted to project, which was, you know… it reminded me of a character in a sitcom. Maybe like Saved By The Bell or something. That was his ball cap and he wore it backwards, and… I didn’t ask him to do that. That was just what he… I said, “Just wear whatever you feel comfortable wearing, whatever you would wear when you’re working out.” So he did.
Segal noted that neither Ryan, nor his editors, were initially happy with the end results, although Time obviously came around on them eventually. “The photo editor didn’t like the pictures,” he noted. “He didn’t really know what to make of them. He was kind of like, ‘What is this?’ It’s not really what they were expecting, but, I think they realized that they had something that was [laughs] potent, I guess, and useful.” Sadly, taking the most gorgeously weird photos in American political life hasn’t necessarily been a windfall for Segal—who cites inspirations like Diane Arbus and Mad Magazine in his embrace of the ridiculousness of the human form. “Well think about it. Most magazines want to have a good relationship, in general, with the people that they’re featuring, and, you know, obviously this picture doesn’t… It’s not a flattering picture. It’s satirical, it looks like you’re lampooning him. I mean, he’s hanging himself, but it certainly looks like a caricature in a way.” For what it’s worth, Segal said he didn’t set out to make Ryan look like an idiot; he just let his muse take him where it would, and was shocked that no one on the politician’s side understood just what they were in for:
Yeah, I mean, it’s just a weird… Most public figures have handlers who make sure that their clients don’t look like buffoons. And I was surprised in this case that he didn’t have… I mean we were in this little town in Wisconsin, and, you know, he wasn’t, or his handlers weren’t savvy enough to realize that he was not photo… you know, that it was a ridiculous scenario… I don’t know, that surprised me most of all I think.
Amazingly enough, the Ryan photos aren’t even the only time Segal has managed to turn Time’s pages into his own personal catalog of right-wing assholes showing off their inner dweebus; he’s also responsible for the infamous cover photo of Occulus founder (and internet-focused Trump supporter) Palmer Luckey, lifting off into his true destiny as an unquashable Twitter meme:
Honestly, is there any way we can just pick Gregg Segal as our Person Of The Year? He wouldn’t even have to take his own photos, which might actually be for the best.