Love her or hate her, Paige Spiranac has become an influential figure in the world of golf. When Golf Digest decided to take on the ubiquitous and well-managed starlet as a subject, we knew we had to swing big to break the veneer and discover the human being behind the Instagram account. To accelerate trust, we put two remarkable women in charge. Allison Glock has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, ESPN The Magazine, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone and her work has been anthologized in Best American Sports Writing several times. Her piece, “Under the Influence: How Paige Spiranac took a life she never wanted and turned it into golf’s largest social media empire” is a provocative, yet sympathetic examination of a serious competitive golfer who became something else.
Equally revealing are the portraits by Caroline Tompkins, a professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and a prolific photographer whose past clients include Vogue, Chanel, Art Basel, Smithsonian, and The Wall Street Journal, to name a few. What follows is an extended gallery of her photographs of Spiranac that did not run in our June Issue, as well as our conversation with Tompkins edited for concision.
When Golf Digest contacted you for this assignment, had you ever heard of Paige Spiranac?
Never. I’m not a golfer, and with my work, I didn’t seem like a photographer Golf Digest would reach out to. I thought there’d been a mistake. But then I looked up Paige on the Internet, and I understood.
Paige is a subject who has been heavily photographed. Did that put extra pressure on you?
Yes, but lucky for me, I think she’s only really been photographed in one kind of way, so I was confident my approach would be different. Also, I’ve photographed a lot of celebrities who have been photographed so much. A neat early moment was when your photo editor, Stephen Denton, and I simultaneously emailed each other the same reference point: a Larry Sultan image of his dad practicing his golf swing. Sultan had this famous body of work where he photographed his parents’ house with these colorful carpets and kooky interiors. He had another about porn sets. They were actually these beautiful moments of opulent interiors and very beautiful portraits of women.
How did you settle on the location?
Lately in my career, I’ve been trying to exercise more control over location. New York City is a place that’s been photographed so extensively, and finding an interesting space definitely comes with a cost. Thank you, guys, for being flexible. Something about Paige made me feel we had to photograph her in a place with a Barbie dreamhouse vibe. And so I reached out to this scouting service who has this house on their roster. An older couple lives there and maintained their children’s childhood bedrooms. They recognize they have a cool, unique space, so they capitalize on that by renting it out to productions.
How was Paige as a subject on set?
She was great. Very sweet. She has a certain way of presenting herself, and so I tried to find moments that felt more real and vulnerable. There’s one image where she’s on the bed and looking down and touching her hair, and for the briefest moment doesn’t seem aware of the camera. That was one of my favorites, where she let her guard down, because she’s so trained. There are, of course, so many more moments that feel quite performative.
Sexuality is obviously a dominant tone here. How do you think it affected the process with your being a woman, versus say, if we had hired a male photographer?
I’ve photographed a lot of women who are very sexualized, and I’m always trying to gauge their level of how they want to present themselves. There were some images I made of Paige, like where she’s lying on the bed and her skirt is a bit up, and those felt like the male gaze and too far across the line. In a successful picture I want her to feel sexy, but there’s also this wink and nod that we are participating in this together. There’s a sense of humor and choice. There’s such a long history of “women in repose” in photography, and so I’m thinking about that. Do we need to keep seeing that picture? I should add that one of my assistants for the day, a very successful photographer in his own right, was a male friend who’s a huge golfer. I was so grateful to have him there to chat up Paige about clubs, equipment, where they go golfing around the New York area.
Smart move. Did you have a most favorite image from the take?
I really like the one where Paige is sitting on the child’s bed, and there’s someone in the mirror taking her picture on a cellphone. That one feels so successful to me, this moment of surprise. I saw it through the lens, and I couldn’t believe it was happening. The viewer becomes the person with the camera and the mirror becomes this symbol of how Paige is constantly being ingested, almost surveilled through our phones. Mirrors, in general, are prevalent throughout the shoot and reference that idea of the endless replication of the Internet. It was her PR woman in the mirror, and I hope she’s not mad at me.
Caitlin Blankenship, of Octagon Sports. We checked that she was OK with being included, and she totally was.
The series where Paige is on the stairs, where she’s looking down at you, struck me as a way we have never seen her.
Definitely. She’s like this huge figure of power, for sure. She is above. She’s a unique character who knows what she’s doing and is using it as a business.
You have this reputation as a photographer who is very skilled at capturing intimate portraits of people, particularly female models. What are some secrets to your style?
I do think a lot about What do I have or bring that maybe nobody else does. The answer I come back to isn’t sophisticated but…I’m nice. I think I’m kind and people feel comfortable around me pretty quickly. Holding the camera is a position of authority, and it can create fear for the person on the other end. I try to explain as much as I can. What it is I want from them and what I’m trying to achieve. A lot of people just want to be told where to sit, how to stand, what to do, and so I try to be constantly and kindly assertive. I’m also a huge photo nerd when it comes to technical lighting and stuff like that.
I should know this, but were these shot on film?
Nope. Gotcha. Digital. I’m always trying to make people not know the answer to that.