Sandra Day O’Connor


Tom Zimberoff


©1981 Tom Zimberoff

Pro photographers are rarely given a second chance to fail. With the privilege of continuing to get freelance photo assignments from one of the nation’s foremost news magazines comes the responsibility to deliver a strong photograph every time. For me, it was often a portrait. Sometimes an idea that makes or breaks a compelling portrait must be improvised on the spot. However, irrespective of quick thinking or proficiency with a camera, sometimes a winning shot is simply the upshot of good luck. It might mean having a good sport on the other side of the lens.

In July 1981, Time assigned me to commemorate President Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Before her senate confirmation hearing, I flew to Phoenix to meet Judge O’Connor — not yet a Justice — at the Arizona State Capitol Building, which also houses that state’s Historic Supreme Court Chambers. I chose the Chambers as the location for our photoshoot.

The Arizona Supreme Court had moved its affairs elsewhere years earlier, to its own building. The Chambers was now a museum inside the state capitol. The original dais, the judicial bench itself, was still there, but gone were the other trappings of a courtroom, leaving plenty of space to set up my lights. It was also utilized as a conference room, a public records archive, and a law library. Once I had all of my gear in place, the judge didn’t exactly bend over backward to help me get a great picture; she leaned right into it.

After placing my camera on a tripod at eye level and looking through my viewfinder, I could see nothing but row after closely packed row of uniformly bound books filling my frame. However, by getting down on my knees and looking up through a wide-angle lens to take in the entirety of the room, I could see what drew me there in the first place: colorfully painted murals above the bookshelves depicting historical events framed by neoclassical moldings and transoms. These architectural details evoked the institutional authority and prestige of a courtroom, apropos of my subject. But to include them in my composition with O’Connor in the foreground, I would have to stay on the floor and point my Hasselblad straight up her nose: the photographers’ dreaded “nostrils shot.”