WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 2011, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had improbably started to gain traction in her run for the Republican nomination for president. She’d been one of the tea party’s fiercest champions, and seemed poised to cross over into the mainstream.
When Newsweek called, asking to do a cover story, Bachmann didn’t hesitate. After all, it would be a coup to be featured by a magazine found in every dentist’s office in America.
All anyone remembers about that story now is Newsweek's cover photo. Or, more specifically, how the shot captured Bachmann’s eyes: startled and wide as if she’d finally seen the light.
On this week's episode of "Candidate Confessional," Bachmann tells the backstory of that infamous photograph. Her eyes, she says, look startled for a reason -- not because she'd had some spiritual awakening, but due to the flash of an unexpected strobe light.
As Bachmann recalls it, the photo shoot at the Willard hotel near the White House was already over. The photographer, Chris Buck, showed her a number of immaculate pictures he'd taken, and she presumed that the cover would come from that batch. But then, Buck made another request.
“I was just about to leave, and the photographer said ‘You know, I didn’t get my test shot of you,’” Bachmann says. “And I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I need to have a test shot to send to my editor.’”
Bachmann says that Buck had her sit on a bottom rung of a ladder in a closet-like space, in front of a stark blue background. She remembers complaining about this setup: “It was very uncomfortable, because I had to kind of squat down on this ladder and I said, ‘I don’t even know why we we're doing this. You’ve got your shots.’”
But Buck reportedly insisted. He hit a strobe light and snapped the infamous photo.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to use that, are you?’" Bachmann says. "And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. This is just something I have to give to my editor.’”
When the campaign staff initially saw the cover, they were distraught. Their facial expressions were so horrified that when they came to tell Bachmann the news, she presumed they were relaying that she'd been indicted.
When she saw the cover herself, Bachmann says she thought she looked like the Bride of Frankenstein.
Buck, an experienced photographer with an impressive portfolio, denies Bachmann’s account of events. He tells The Huffington Post that the photo was not a test shot and he never suggested as much to her.
"She might have some legitimate argument against that picture being used, but the idea of that being a light test is not a good one,” Buck says. “I ultimately felt it was a fair depiction of how she carried herself.”
Regardless of why the photo was taken and selected for publication, Bachmann's Newsweek cover sparked a lengthy discussion about the way the press treats female candidates -- and engendered sympathies for the conservative Minnesotan from some unlikely places.
“I hate it when Michele Bachmann makes me defend her… I doubt Newsweek would portray a male candidate with such a lunatic expression on his face,” author Jessica Grose wrote in Slate. “As much as it pains me to admit it Bachmann is a legitimate candidate and major magazines should treat her like one.”
Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week's episode, when our guest will be Stuart Stevens, the top advisor to Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign for the White House.