The State of the Political Photograph

The State of the Political Photograph

Photo by Rob Carr

Photo by Rob Carr

By Kala Herh

The jury is still out. Theresa May resents them, President Obama cherishes them, and Emmanuel Macron circumvents them. No them isn’t a cooperative deal with the European Union — it’s political photographers. Since the first hunter-gatherer communities appeared in the deserts of East Africa, those in power understood the importance of acquiring a favorable public appearance. Evidence of such phenomena has been around since the 6th century BCE, when fierce Sabouroff busts depicted the extent of royal power to the 1500s when paintings of Henry VIII would show him clad in robes of mink fur. And it hasn’t let up. Most recently, the first candid photos (and I do use that term sparingly) of an almost too gleeful Boris Johnson assuming office emerged for public consumption. 

The medium may have changed over the years, but the message has remained the same. At the start of the 20th century, photographs emerged as the favored medium for conveying a politician’s message by means of non-posed, narrative photography. Political photography — despite its ever-growing presence in the advent of the internet and 24-hour news stream — has often been overlooked as a subtle way of influencing public perception. Visualization plays a large part in determining the perceived fitness of leaders. So much so that politicians are hiring their own photographers to spoon-feed their carefully curated image to their constituents. The message these photos send is clear: these leaders are competent, they are authoritative, and most importantly, they have the peoples’ best interests at heart. Take the photo of Vladimir Putin holding a baby, Pyotr, in Kaliningrad. The stuff PR dreams are made of.

The range of control that governments play in image production is as contrasting and varied as their respective policies. In totalitarian regimes, face-tuned dictators digitally enhance their youth, strength, and intellect without restraint; wrinkles or scars are hardly anywhere in sight. In democracies, leaders are more vulnerable to being scrutinized from all angles and both sides of the aisle — full-faced, from below, standing, seated — nothing is off the table. When Richard Avedon took Henry Kissinger’s portrait, Kissinger pleaded, “Be kind to me.”

Access to those in power, as one would assume, is hard to come by. Photographers have a lot of barriers to overcome: heavy makeup, heavy public relations policing, and heavy time constraints (you get the point). Once through the door, the tussle between public figures and the public doesn’t end. The process of taking politicians’ photographs is a lot like a game of cat and mouse; the sitter is looking to enhance his or her existing image, and the photographer is trying to find a gesture or reaction that offers a new look for the public. Reflecting on a previous portrait of President Obama, Nadav Kander says, “Time was limited, so I had to be athletic. From the moment each subject entered the room, I looked intently for some economy of gesture that would sum them up.” Motive plays a crucial role in capturing political figures. Otherwise, Kander and his colleagues caution that what is produced contains a void, or disparity between the image and the viewer. Conveying this intention visually is where the traditional rules of photography come into play. Antinou Platon reflects that black and white photos invoke harsher, grittier interpretations, while color is more often associated with soul and sensuousness. When the restraints are tighter, in the case of rallies and events where every aspect is masterfully crafted down to the cufflinks, photographers have to get creative to push a specific point of view. Christopher Anderson takes a play from William Klein’s book and intimately crops his photos to the verge of the uncomfortable to evoke a sense of inescapability and rawness rather than constructed perfection.

Photo by Christopher Anderson

Photo by Christopher Anderson

Each politician leaves their mark on the country they reside in. Parsons’s photo of an ironically inane Johnson, Kander’s unwavering profile of Obama, and Anderson’s high-contrast closeup of Cruz are testaments that the best political images don’t just have an immediate impact, they exude a degree of innate awareness, one conscious of the legacy they leave behind.

Images may be subject to copyright.

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