Washington Lawyer

Reinventing Janet

From Washington Lawyer, January 2012

By Thai Phi Le

Photo of Jim Jones. Courtesy of Janet Fries 1974-1989.

Standing atop a step ladder, Janet Fries was pointing her camera at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“But all of her expressions were worried because she thought I was going to fall off the ladder,” recalled Fries. “Being seven months pregnant, I had to confront the physical component of the job—that I was always climbing over something, or crawling under something, or dragging a ton of equipment, or running after somebody.”

For nearly two decades, Fries had climbed, crawled, dragged, and ran around as a professional photographer, capturing the local scene for San Francisco and Washingtonian magazines, and on assignment for national publications such as Time, People, and Fortune. Her work has been displayed in galleries, including the Kathleen Ewing Gallery here in Washington, and is in the permanent collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Oakland Museum of California, and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

That day in 1989, as she was photographing Justice O’Connor, she began contemplating a career in law. While a growing trend in the United States is for attorneys to opt for alternative careers, there are those like Fries who choose to become a lawyer later in their lives. For many, it’s an ideal way to blend two interests, whether it be law and engineering or law and the arts, as Fries eventually did.

The Early Days
Fries’ photography career began in the early 1970s. While studying art history at Smith College in Massachusetts, an architecture professor encouraged students to take photos of buildings to discuss later.

“I liked that process so much that I kind of caught the bug,” she said. “The very nature of it was that I needed to go out to see things and do things to take photos, and then retreat to the dark room to make prints. So there was a built-in public and private component that was very appealing and seemed to present a good balance for me.”

After graduating in 1971, Fries attended San Francisco State University to get her master of arts degree. In San Francisco, her first published photos appeared in the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper. She and a colleague covered alternative events, from political protests and demonstrations to the creation of communes and neighborhood co-ops.

A Gallery of History
While Fries has photographed a variety of events around the world, she has made most of her living taking portraits of some of the nation’s most famous and infamous figures. Often, her images have marked significant moments in history.

She documented the rise of gay rights icon Harvey Milk, from his stumbles in 1973 when he first ran unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to his eventual election in 1977. She remembers how interested Milk was in photography and photographers (he owned Castro Camera in San Francisco). Eleven months after taking office, Milk was assassinated. He left behind a political legacy, one that was honored posthumously in 2009 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and that can be relived through many of Fries’ images.

Among her most famous portraits are Jim Jones, best known for founding the religious group Peoples Temple and his role in the eventual mass suicide of more than 900 of its members. “He was, at that point [when I took his photo], the darling of the liberals. He was doing wonderful work in the community, feeding the homeless, and helping to get out the vote,” Fries remembered. “But despite all of that, there was just something about him I did not like. And the photos I took put him in a very negative light.

“I don’t know whether it was good luck or whether there was some instinct,” she said, but following the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, her photographs were widely sold. Her portrait of Jones also later appeared as one of the first editorial photos published in The New Yorker.

Years later, in the late 1980s, Fries photographed then U.S. Rep. John McCain after he announced his bid for the Senate. The shoot took place at the Vietnam War Memorial. It was one of those extra cold winter mornings when not only does your breath hang in the air, but apparently your Hasselblad camera can freeze as well.

“It had a crank mechanism that froze, which I didn’t realize,” she said. The photographs were being layered one over the other, ruining them all. “The freezing of the camera was not a good moment in photo technology,” she joked, thankful she had used other cameras that day.

Not all of Fries’ subjects were newsmakers destined for the history books. She also spent time as a photographer for People, a job she called a “hoot.” She laughs, remembering the standing instruction the magazine had in its early days. “No matter who you were photographing, you were supposed to ask them to stand on their head. I could never get anybody to stand on their head, but it typically got people relaxed because it seemed so silly.”

Even as she became more prolific in her career, the dark room remained a sanctuary, a step in the process she loved. “I loved the dark room. That was just magic—watching the image appear in the developing tray.”

With music or an audio book playing in the background, she’d watch her images appear. There were the faces, of Vice President Hubert Humphrey during an impassioned speech and of musicians Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, and Marty Balin, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane.

Fries also experimented with different techniques, once photographing Hong Kong only in black–and–white infrared. “I wanted to have photos that were individual and personal, but didn’t look like all the other pictures of Hong Kong that had been taken,” she said. “I got some good photos, but you would never know it was Hong Kong.” Some of those black-and–white infrared landscape prints now sit in both the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Oakland Museum of California.

In addition to Justice O’Connor, she has taken photos of three other Supreme Court justices—William Brennan Jr., Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens. Her portrait of Stevens was used on the back cover of his memoir that came out in October.

Drawing From Experience
Despite the incredible caliber and range of subjects she has photographed throughout her career, the photo shoot with Justice O’Connor remains as one of her most distinct memories. “On the ladder, it occurred to me that I could get a legal education that would allow me to work with photography and visual arts through the law,” Fries said.

It took her two years to make that leap. After caring for a newborn, Fries enrolled at The George Washington University Law School in 1991. The running joke in her family is that as her son started nursery school, she began law school.

Today, Fries is of counsel at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, focusing her practice on copyright and trademark law, entertainment law, and Internet law. She also serves on the board for the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. She has represented a variety of clients, from authors and artists to producers and Internet companies. “I love what I do,” she said. “I love working with creative people.”

She doesn’t consider her career switch as a dramatic shift, and often draws from her previous experience as a photographer to help build trust with her clients. “Having spent years as a photographer, that experience resonates with some of my clients. I am able to understand the creative process and to empathize with the concerns that clients have about works they’ve created,” she said. “I get their relationship with their work and what they’re doing. That has been a positive for me.”

The only drawback has been less time for photography, which she hopes to do more of now that her daughter, her youngest child, has recently left for college, coincidentally attending a photography program at Shepherd University in West Virginia. Her son, now a senior at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, is contemplating law school. “Maybe I was more influential than I realized or intended,” she laughed.

With two children away at college, Fries plans to get back behind her camera while maintaining her legal career. “It requires a lot of juggling, but I think most lawyers are adept at juggling. We juggle different cases and different clients. It’s a skill that most lawyers have,” she said. “I’ve met a number of other lawyers who are playwrights or essayists in the early morning or late at night or on the weekends, who balance their legal careers with other pursuits. I know it can be done.”