Shooting a CIA Thief

Oct 9, 2012
Photographer News

by Maria Luci

After finding James Quantz Jr on Wonderful Machine, a Smithsonian Magazine photo editor contacted him about creating an image for the magazine. James is known for his conceptual composite imagery and they knew he’d be a perfect match to illustrate their article on former CIA officer Douglas Groat, whose job was to break into offices and crack safes. They were hoping James would be interested in creating a photo that would have a dramatic, Hollywood feel to it. James was in (“who wouldn’t want to work for the Smithsonian?”) and soon got to work.

The Smithsonian team already had an idea of what they were looking for, and after some back and forth with James, they had the visual idea locked down: recreating a scene of the agent at work. From there, it was up to James to handle sourcing “period” relevant propping to create a late ’80s/early ’90s office break in. Many of the elements in the photo were found in James’ own props and image library, but one of the key elements of the photo, the wall safe, was a bit of a challenge,

We made a creative call to use a false wall-safe instead of one on the floor due to the chosen shooting angle. Basically, I took pictures of a floor safe and in Photoshop modified it into a wall safe. Getting pictures of the safe was interesting since I had to go to a store to take them. I figured there might be some apprehension on their part about letting someone photograph the safes in the store. And there was… until I saw the University of South Carolina Football poster on the wall that I had shot a month prior. Once I told them that was my work, I was a hero!

As for the subject, James says,

Being ex-CIA, he was obviously an interesting guy. I’m sure he’s filled with amazing stories, but I respected the fact that he couldn’t reveal any specifics about what he did for the agency. That being said, it’s always cool to hang out with someone who’s had experiences like he’s had. I also had an old safe that I inherited and couldn’t ever get open. So I figured I would give him a “crack” at it, and within ten minutes he proved he was the real deal!

Once all the shots were taken, the real fun began for James who handled all the compositing himself. Below is an animation showing how all the pieces came together:

Both James and the client were very pleased with the final results, which are being used in a spread in the October issue of Smithsonian and on their website.

View more of James’ work at

Tags: cia james quantz jr photography smithsonian