News & Politics

The Story Behind a Powerful RBG Photo That You’ve Never Seen Before

"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," says the photographer. "I was so anxious and upset." 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Supreme Court Chambers in 2017. Photograph by Philip Bermingham.

Photographer Philip Bermingham has lived in the Watergate for more than 20 years. Which means that he was a longtime neighbor of one of the building’s most famous residents: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away September 18.

Bermingham often saw Ginsburg and her late husband, Martin, around the building, as well as at the Washington National Opera (the Ginsburgs were huge fans). And in 2017, Bermingham met Ginsburg at the Supreme Court for an intimate portrait session; this is the first time some of those photographs have been published.

“It was just remarkable how lovely and no-pressure she was,” says Bermingham. “You see all these articles about her, but you don’t grasp the situation until you’ve been in her presence.”

The shoot almost didn’t happen. Bermingham and his daughter Scarlett took an Uber to the meeting, but an event for the police union brought traffic to a standstill. The duo had to hop out of the car and walk with all their gear. They were over an hour late. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I got there,” says Bermingham. “I was so anxious and upset.” 

But Ginsburg was nothing but gracious. “She said, ‘I have plenty of work to do, don’t worry about it,’ and immediately put us at ease,” says Bermingham. “I probably would have thrown somebody out of my office.”

Bermingham photographing Ginsburg at the Supreme Court. Photograph by Scarlett Bermingham.

That day, Ginsburg took the Berminghams on a tour of the Supreme Court chambers, showed them her wardrobe filled with her collars, and shared her viewpoints on selfies (she didn’t understand them).

“She was a real person,” says Bermingham. “She wasn’t being, I’m a Supreme Court Justice. She was just real, down-to-earth, and lovely.”

Bermingham also interacted with Ginsburg’s spouse, often running into Martin at the Safeway. As Ginsburg was busy at the Supreme Court, Martin did all the cooking. “We would [talk about] how, when buying your own food, at least you get to choose the meals,” says Bermingham.

Ginsburg at the Supreme Court in 2017. Photograph by Philip Bermingham.

And Martin was the co-op board member who interviewed Bermingham when he applied for a Watergate unit. Opera singer and former artistic director of the Washington National Opera Plácido Domingo was also being interviewed by Martin at the same time. “I go in and have my interview with Martin and he had no interest in me whatsoever,” says Bermingham. “I was in and out in five minutes.” 

Bermingham, who had been chatting with Domingo before the interview, waited for the opera singer to finish so they could continue their conversation. The photographer thought Domingo would be out in a similarly short time. But Martin, ever the opera fanatic, held court with Domingo for 45 minutes.

The last time Bermingham interacted with RBG was in August. He sent a letter asking if she’d write the foreward for a book of his photographs. Unfortunately, Ginsburg was too busy with her Supreme Court work, but she took the time to send him an eloquent, personal note, says Bermingahm: “[It was] the most beautiful rejection letter I’ve ever seen in my life.”

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Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Associate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Petworth.

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