July 5, 2012 -- Portraits of U.S. Olympic athletes that have been slammed for "shoddy" lighting and awkward poses of such stars as Michael Phelps were the result of lack of preparation time and supplies, the photographer said today in the face of widespread criticism.
Joseph Klamar of Agence France Presse took photographs of dozens of soon-to-be U.S. Olympians during the Olympic Media Summit in May. The photos were leaked online this week, landing on the aggregation website Reddit, where they unleashed a firestorm of criticism over how they portray the athletes.
The pictures feature swimmer Michael Phelps cast in nearly total darkness, with his face and body partially obscured, as well as gymnasts holding awkward poses against small-screen backdrops. A large, wrinkled American flag hangs behind one athlete, while another poses atop ripped white paper.
"I saw the first photo and went, hmmm, it's not horrible, then it just went downhill," wrote one Reddit user. "My stomach drops and I just get so upset when I see stuff like this."
"They're photographing some of the world's most elite athletes, they've spent years of dedicated training and perhaps their entire lives to the sport. Countless hours, sweat, grit, determination into their craft. The picture is supposed to represent them in all their glory, their determination, the fact that they're not even the 1% but the .01% of the world's athletic group," another Reddit user wrote.
The photos are noticeably unpolished, which led some to speculate that Klamar purposefully tried to portray the athletes as more "human" than in many Photoshop-aided portraits.
"We don't have to accept the airbrushed, Photoshopped concept of beauty any more," one commenter said. "Photographers and art directors have done that forever, and lots of us would rather see what actually happened in front of the lens."
Klamar, however, said that the real reason the photos came out looking the way they did was because he didn't know he was being sent to take portraits.
Klamar said in a statement today that AFP had never before been invited to attend the summit, and did not know that they would be able to set up a studio for the portraits.
"I thought I was going to photograph athletes on stage, or during a press conference," says the photographer. "But when I arrived in the morning, all my colleagues had already set up their mini-studio with professional lighting, backdrops, props and ... Me, nobody told me there would be the possibility to set up a studio. It was a very embarrassing situation. "
Klamar said that a fellow photographer shared his studio setup, allowing Klamar to shoot a quick succession of photos of each athlete. He declined to comment to ABC News.
Agence France Presse dismissed the criticism against Klamar, saying that he had not been hired to do advertising but rather journalism. Marlowe Hood, writing for AFP's Correspondent blog, wrote that she liked the pictures.
"When I first saw Joe Klamar's pictures of US Olympic athletes, I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. As far as I could see, Joe had done what he does best: bring an original, insightful vision onto whatever he trains his camera-ready eye, as often as not a sports-related story," she wrote.