Most discussion so far has centered on the photographer. The Atlantic‘s editor says she blindsided him by tacitly going out of her way to make McCain look bad.
But The Atlantic nevertheless used one of Greenberg’s photos on its cover. It may be the least bad of the photos but it’s still, I think, an unflattering portrait. It is harshly lit and makes McCain look older and uglier than he is. The editor calls it respectful, but I don’t think that’s plausible unless you ignore the flattering portraits of Obama that are everywhere. Why not make McCain look better? They could have bought a better photo from Getty. They weren’t obliged to use Greenberg’s work. (If you are going to make a respectful portrait of an older man or a middle-aged woman, you don’t use harsh, direct light that casts shadows and accentuates skin flaws. Look at the diffuse light in the photo of Greenberg on this page. That’s the kind of light she should have used on McCain. The Atlantic‘s staff know this stuff.)
It looks to me like the magazine wanted to denigrate McCain in a way that was subtle enough to be deniable.
UPDATE: Neptunus Lex posts The Atlantic‘s Obama and McCain covers side by side.