“Look at me—I’m OK.”

Once upon a time, say fifteen years ago, portraits of chief executive officers had much in common with oil paintings of George Washington or Robert E. Lee. There was a man (they were pretty much all men), shot from a slightly low angle so as to amplify his stateliness and power, with his hand on a chair or maybe a globe. Sometimes he smiled, but not too broadly. After all, running a company was a grave matter.
These days, however, it’s not unusual to open a business magazine or an annual report and find a CEO reclining on a patch of grass with a football, or wading waist-deep in a lake. They are posed nuzzling cows or other barnyard animals or buried up to their necks in breakfast cereal. New to these photos are shiny open grins, expressions that seem to say: “You can trust me with a suitcase nuke—but I also might put a whoopee cushion on your chair.”
This more playful and quirky style of portraiture is partly a result of the overall loosening of corporate culture as baby boomers have moved into the top ranks. Perhaps having difficulty reconciling past protests against The Man with their current status as The Man, these business titans wear jeans to work and pal around with their underlings, sometimes with David Brent-like results. Self-effacement in a CEO is now a highly valued quality. Sara Jorde, a Minneapolis photographer who has been shooting CEOs for twenty years, has witnessed the shift to this new mindset. “One thing I’ve noticed is that CEOs are often eating in the lunchrooms with their employees,” she said. “Maybe not at the same tables, but in the same lunchrooms, as opposed to being out having their bourbon and steak. I’ve seen CEOs of really big companies in the break room with their Tupperware. They know everyone’s names. It’s the Nike generation moving into positions of power.”
Yet there also are more complex forces at work behind modern corporate photography, as anyone familiar with the work of Leni Riefenstahl, who managed to make Hitler appear statuesque, might suspect. Eric Guthey and Brad Jackson, professors at the Copenhagen Business School, are some of the rare academics studying CEO imagery. In a recent article titled, “CEO Portraits and the Authenticity Paradox,” they noted how, as companies become more diffuse, it becomes more difficult to portray them visually. “This poses a problem,” they wrote, “ … because visible presence has functioned as a traditionally accepted prerequisite for authenticity … This quest for corporate presence, visibility and authenticity helps explain the proliferation of photographs of top management figures, who often come to represent their organizations not just in a managerial sense, but also in an iconic one.” In other words, the CEO serves as the face of an otherwise faceless entity; at his best, he is a warm and likeable personality set out in front of a sprawling, impersonal, and, if you believe the most ardent critics, psychopathic corporation.
In that regard, CEOs have had a tough time of it lately, as companies like Enron and Halliburton have become synonymous with corruption. Back in the 1990s, during the tech boom, the American public was largely pro-corporate and looking to privatize everything from the postal service to public schools. Now, we watch the rise and fall of companies and their superstar CEOs—players like Ken Lay, Carly Fiorina, and Martha Stewart—almost as a spectator sport. It hasn’t helped public opinion that the average CEO’s salary is approximately four hundred times that of the average blue-collar worker. Not surprisingly, a 2002 CBS News poll found that only one in four Americans believes most corporate executives to be honest.
It’s easy to surmise, then, that as esteem for big business has declined, big business has become more determined to put on a friendly face. A lot goes into creating these dynamic images: What should the executive wear? Should she put on goggles and hold a welder? Which company products should appear in the background? “I think people want to portray more personality and let people see a little bit more of who they are,” said Jorde of her clients, “but still maintain a level of dignity and professionalism about their image. They want to be seen as confident but not cocky, and also approachable.” A corporate photographer in Britain put it more bluntly on his website: “Do you look slick, shifty, or vacant? Or a mix of all three? It’s time to move on … Your corporate portrait should say: Look at me—I’m OK.”
Guthey and Jackson argue that CEOs suffer from identity issues just as their corporations do, thanks to “downsizing, outsourcing, the stripping away of productive functions, and the governance of corporate activity through increasingly fluid networks.” Thus “authenticity” is a notion currently making its way through the corporate world, the same as “teambuilding” and “thinking outside the box” once did. It’s become a movement, a way to quantify the existential crises that are bound to occur among those at the helm of unwieldy enterprises. Gurus of the ideology describe authentic leadership as continuing to do “real work” with one’s life, “telling it like it is,” and “treating people, especially the disadvantaged, with love and dignity.” The concern that one may not be authentic seems like a distinctly modern problem, one that likely never occurred to Washington or Grant, or even Cyrus West Field, founder of the Atlantic Telegraph Company who was, in fact, photographed in 1858 looking stately and powerful with his hand on a globe.
One of Jorde’s most illustrative photos portrays three men, the top executives of local Tiro Industries (formerly Lamaur, manufacturers of such once-famous hair products as Apple Pectin shampoo and Style hairspray). The trio sits in old-fashioned salon chairs, black plastic ponchos over their white shirts, with globe hairdryers on their heads and goofy grins. To get such unusual shots, Jorde strives to make her clients feel comfortable, a decidedly simpler task these days. That may mean ditching a CEO’s personal assistant, or sharing an embarrassing life story. “If you can establish that connection, no matter how small it is, people trust you and let their guard down and they are willing to give you something.”
These more wacky CEO portraits further the perception of the executive as a creative type, as an unbridled optimist—and even as the guy or gal next door. Just as we’re encouraged to vote for the presidential candidate we’d like to have a beer with, it’s assumed that we may buy a computer or car based on our affinity for a particular CEO. Images of Steve Jobs often show the co-founder and head of Apple dressed in casual genius apparel: jeans and a T-shirt, usually black. Sometimes he’s sitting cross-legged on a floor, a pose no doubt appealing to Apple users, who consider themselves less corporate than PC loyalists. Jobs is the ultimate CEO superstar, sometimes called “Apple’s showman nonpareil” and a “master magician.” His image has served the company well. However, when he was questioned in January in relation to stock irregularities, analysts began to worry that Apple’s value could plummet, especially if Jobs should ever be shown in another, increasingly familiar CEO pose: head down and hands cuffed. Such is the risk that comes with building a corporate identity around one man, even one who “seems at times to defy gravity.”
Corporate heads are framed differently depending on the success or failure of their companies, according to Minneapolis photographer Doug Knutson, who has been shooting executives for two decades. “Things are cyclical,” he said. “In a bad year, they want to look more serious, and more focused on their job.” In such images they’ll stare directly at the camera, the idea being that they are “looking the investor in the eye, facing up to the company’s circumstances, or the challenges of the industry. Other years they want to show how dynamic they are so they aren’t looking at the camera. Maybe they’re looking off or talking to someone.”
Whatever the message, Knutson added, the CEO wants to appear sincere. “That’s why some of these places hire me,” he said. “I’ve got a style of getting people warm and comfortable with the camera.” Knutson, who is a fan of Yousuf Karsh, the man who famously photographed Winston Churchill for the cover of Life magazine, was one of the last photographers to shoot Bill McGuire, the former head of UnitedHealth Group. “Shortly after I took that picture, he started getting more attention for his income, and he got camera shy.” In the photo, McGuire is standing next to a glass door, his image reflecting back at him. He’s wearing a traditional suit-and-tie uniform, and also a slight smile. The photo is shot from above, the opposite of the traditional power angle, but Knutson said there was no message in that. “The photo was not intended to be looking down on him; it was intended to make a fascinating composition, including the geometry of the floor,” he said. “When the pictures succeed best, they are aesthetic commerce. They may not be art, but they are fulfilling a communication purpose.”