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What Photographs Can Teach Us About Our Leaders

Barack Obama before going out to take the oath in 2009
Pete Souza
Official White House Photo
Barack Obama before going out to take the oath in 2009

The day before President Trump was inaugurated, commentator and art historian Paul Staiti was passing though an airport in Los Angeles when he noticed Barack Obama’s photograph greeting every arriving passenger.  Staiti found himself contemplating the image, and its imminent disappearance.

At LAX alone, 18 million international travelers were met by Obama last year. His picture has also graced every other major American airport, every port of entry and every federal office in America and abroad. Multiply by eight years in office to get a sense of how many eyes have encountered him. But all that changed on Friday, when a massive project began to remove all of Obama’s portraits and replace them with Donald Trump’s, the new face of the United States.

Our impressions of the new president will be mediated by photography. Some of it will be official—that is, sanctioned by The White House. Some of it will be photojournalism. Most of it will be amateur snapshots. Be prepared: a visual tidal wave is approaching.

An avalanche of words will also descend, but photography allows us to be witnesses in a different way. Cameras at the inauguration set on 30-foot scaffolding—directly in front of the stage—captured every nuance, every squint, every smile and every sour stare. Video told the tale as it unfolded over time. Still photography was better at isolating telltale moments: Michelle Obama looking grim; Paul Ryan smiling gleefully.

I was particularly struck by one visual detail. Traditionally at presidential inaugurations, the Chief Justice has stood close to the new president, eye to eye. (Jimmy Carter, Warren Burger and Rosalynn Carter were downright cozy during the oath). But recently, the Chief Justice has stood much farther away. The gap started to grow during George W. Bush’s inauguration and has been widening ever since. At the end of Friday’s swearing in, Chief Justice Roberts, standing a good 10 feet away, had to take a walk to shake hands with Trump. Should we deduce anything from that? Maybe the distance has only to do with choreographing wide-screen television. But I worry it speaks to a growing estrangement between the branches of government.

When it comes to our understanding the Trump presidency—or any presidency past or future—reading images has been and will be indispensable. Parsing words spoken and written by our leaders, of course, matters. But there are unique truths to be extracted from the visual record. We need to take the time to look hard at the images coming our way.

Commentator Paul Staiti teaches art history at Mt. Holyoke College. His most recent book, “Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters’ Eyes,” was published this past fall. 

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