Home / Arts & Life / The Annie Leibovitz of the Alt-Right

The Annie Leibovitz of the Alt-Right

Duke believes in the primacy of visual culture, and most right-wing figures, he says, don’t take enough care to make themselves look good. Newt Gingrich, he tells me, is “disheveled”; Steve Bannon is a “schlub”; Trump’s hair is “problematic.” At the same time, he thinks left-leaning media outlets — which is to say, just about anything other than Breitbart News and The Drudge Report — go out of their way to present the right in a negative way. Recently, he drew my attention to New York magazine’s March cover story on Kellyanne Conway. Though he hadn’t read the article, Duke was bothered by Martin Schoeller’s clinically lit portrait, “the equivalent of being rendered by a fax machine,” he griped in an email.


Charles Johnson, 2014

Peter Duke

“There’s no Vanity Fair for the right,” Duke told me, and such an assertion hints at the rather quixotic nature of his project. Within the alt-right, a loose-knit movment of online reactionaries, Duke is seen as a kind of hidden-hand figure, doing his part to influence the movement’s image from the shadows. During the election, for instance, Duke worked behind the scenes as the creative director for MAGA3X, a nebulous — and now defunct — coalition of Trump supporters who believe they helped elect the president, in part, by propagating online memes. Duke often doles out imaging advice to those in his orbit; he persuaded Cernovich, for example, to quit wearing Under Armour and put on a collared shirt. Duke’s subjects seem to appreciate his input; most of them have used his portraits on their social-media profiles.

Duke’s goal is to get the American public to view his subjects the way he does. Whether such a goal is realistic or not, his project inadvertently exposes the inner workings of the alt-right mind-set — its pathologies, its obsessions — laying bare the depth of the movement’s distrust of the mainstream, its finicky need to conquer reality and construct alternative versions of everything.

Duke seems to think the right’s negative image is solely a matter of perception — a faith in the power of the superficial that dates, perhaps, back to his days of shooting clothing and apparel ads for department-store catalogs and glossy magazines. From the late 1970s to the early ’90s, Duke captured a number of models and actresses on their way to fame, including Drew Barrymore, Sunrise Coigney, Sharon Stone and Milla Jovovich, whose career he helped launch. But he always felt somewhat alienated in the fashion industry, particularly during the AIDS crisis, which claimed a number of friends. “People would bad-mouth Reagan,” said Duke, who believes that President Ronald Reagan was treated unfairly. Since the ’80s, Duke believes, the left has only grown more extreme, which has pushed him into a defensive crouch. He thinks that Joseph McCarthy is an American hero and that progressives are communists by another name. As a gun owner, he sees it as an infringement on the Second Amendment that he isn’t allowed to carry his Beretta, which he bought during the Obama presidency, to his local Starbucks.

But Duke didn’t feel entirely comfortable making his views known until he met Andrew Breitbart, the firebrand conservative and eponymous founder of the news site. Duke first encountered Breitbart, who died in 2012, at a meeting of the Pacific Palisades Republican Club in October 2011, and he was impressed by his musings on politics and the media. Duke shot Breitbart’s portrait that day. It became the first installment in Duke’s collection, and also a statement of intent. In the image, Breitbart is dressed, raffishly, in a dark blazer and white button-down, his chest hair exposed; it looks as if he’s making a point, or about to, and raising an index finger.

One of Breitbart’s central ideas was that the left uses Hollywood as a sort of cudgel to assert its superiority over the right. Politics, Breitbart believed, is downstream from culture, and for Duke, that oft-repeated dictum became a rallying cry. “I got a wild hair up my ass,” Duke told me, “and I said, ‘I want to start taking pictures of our side and making our side look heroic.’”


Anthime Gionet (Baked Alaska), 2017

Peter Duke

In 2014, Duke found a test case in Charles Johnson, the 28-year-old conservative journalist with a reputation for online trollery. Johnson runs GotNews.com, a sensationalist website on which he has posted a number of false allegations, and WeSearchr, a crowdfunding platform that functions like a kind of vindictive Kickstarter for the right; rather than funding projects, users raise “bounties” on information that could be damaging to their ideological opponents. Looking him up on Facebook, Duke found his appearance lacking but figured he could use Johnson’s bright-red mop and thick, scruffy beard to his advantage. “I said, ‘You look like a muppet, and I want to make you look like a rock star,’” Duke recalled. “He said, ‘You can do that?’” Duke shot him outside the Los Angeles Gun Club, looking casually defiant in his Wayfarer-style sunglasses, metal rings, and gray T-shirt. “He really gets my essence,” said Johnson, who now allows only Duke to photograph him. Not long after that, Duke shot Johnson in more formal attire — on the same day Johnson, on GotNews, sought to out the anonymous University of Virginia student at the center of Rolling Stone’s now-discredited gang-rape story. (He identified the wrong woman.)

Through Johnson, who is now a close friend of Duke’s, Duke connected with several more subjects, including Cernovich, the right-wing social-media personality who helped spread the PizzaGate myth, which imagined a vast child-sex ring run by powerful Democrats out of a pizza restaurant in Washington. In December, Duke took his portrait at a protest in Los Angeles. Cernovich was sweating through his shirt when Duke found him, so he mopped him down and snapped a few shots, one of which Cernovich has used as his Twitter profile — head cropped within the frame and tilted at an angle, his slightly wet-looking hair brushed jauntily to the side and his squinting blue eyes matching his collared shirt. “My intention,” Duke said, “was to make him look like a strong, forceful personality.”

Duke had a similar idea in mind on a tranquil afternoon in February, as he photographed Anthime Gionet, the right-wing provocateur better known by his digital stage name, Baked Alaska. Wearing ripped black jeans and a camouflage T-shirt and cap, Gionet was situated before a seamless white background at a spacious studio with high, lofted ceilings in Culver City, Calif. He was squatting, froglike, and staring off into the distance. “Chin up,” said Duke, camera in hand, prostrate on the floor. “There you go,” he said, peering through the viewfinder and chuckling. “Be the frog, man, be the frog.” Duke clicked away.

Gionet, who is 29, was channeling Pepe the Frog, the cartoon amphibian appropriated as a symbol of the alt-right. Like Pepe himself, the Anchorage native was in need of an image reboot. During the election, Gionet found some fame orchestrating pro-Trump flash mobs (along with releasing a string of seemingly earnest rap videos with titles like “MAGA Anthem” and “We Love Our Cops”). But he had recently gotten himself into trouble over a series of coded anti-Semitic tweets. (“Jews control the News,” he wrote in one; in another he referenced the “JQ,” or “Jewish question.”) Duke didn’t care about that. As he saw it, Gionet was a victim of a politically correct culture. At the photo shoot, he handed Gionet a Barbie doll covered in fake blood and nailed to a cross of wooden blocks. “This is a symbol of me,” Gionet said approvingly. “I am the sacrificial lamb.”

Later, Duke pulled out a black pitchfork, onto which he had mounted a laser sight, and told Gionet he could use it to go after crooked politicians. Staring menacingly into the camera, Gionet clutched the pitchfork in a pose reminiscent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” “Revolution!” he yelled.


Mike Cernovich, 2016

Peter Duke

A few months after the shoot, I would find that one image from the shoot that day had made it onto the cover of Gionet’s self-published book, “Meme Magic Secrets Revealed.”

Before we met, Duke and I had been corresponding for a month or so about media coverage of right-wing figures, and every so often, when I came across a photo, I would send it his way to get his read on it. At one point, I asked him in an email for his take on Time magazine’s cover portrait of Steve Bannon — craggy skin, red nose, lazy eye — published in early February. He responded by sending back a five-year-old head shot of me, publicly available online, which he’d edited on Photoshop to make my face look ghoulish and depleted. His point, at least as I understood it, was that it’s easy to make someone look bad. It seemed like an obvious thing to say, but it was still disturbing to be on the receiving end of it.

“There’s this kind of, I think, phony idea that things are objective — when you push the button, that’s the objective reality, and I just don’t think that’s true,” Duke told me, not long ago, on our early evening walk along the bluffs. Duke sees photography as a kind of weapon in the culture wars, and in a way, it may be the perfect medium for a movement like the alt-right, which wants to refashion reality on its own terms. Pictures are, after all, factually malleable vessels that do not present reality as it is but suggest an alternative one as the photographer sees it.

As the sun set on the Pacific, Duke asked me if I wanted my picture taken. I initially declined, skeptical of his intentions. But high on the cliff, I decided to trust him. “It looks pretty nice right here,” he said reassuringly. “I can make you look good.” As he leaned down for a better angle, adjusting the ISO on his camera, I was surprised to find his presence somewhat calming; the shutter of his camera fluttered gently as he made off-handed remarks between shots. I could imagine, in the moment, how he would pull the humanity out of his subjects.

A few days later, Duke sent me the photo in an email attachment. Examining my expression, I couldn’t help but think that I looked profoundly uneasy, and even slightly disgusted. But I wasn’t sure if that was my doing or his.

Continue reading the main story

About admin

Check Also

Hear the Best Albums and Songs of 2023

Dear listeners, In the spirit of holiday excess and end-of-the-year summation, we’re about to make …