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June 26, 2007

Hillary And Obama:The Issue At Hand(s)

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(Bloggers Note: I am pleased to welcome John Lucaites to BAGnewsNotes as a regular contributer to lend us his expertise on political iconography, media imagery and visual rhetoric.)

by John Lucaites

A few weeks ago, The BAG posted covers of the newly released Gerth/Van Natta and Carl Bernstein Hilary Clinton biographies.  Because the images are so similar, I’ve chosen to compare them with a sample of cover shots of Obama biographies published this year.

The Obama images are in line with what Kress and Van Leeuwen call “demand” pictures, while the recent Hillary book covers reflect what these theorists call “offer” pictures.  In the “offer,” the image is put there for you to gaze upon, marked by the fact there is no eye contact with the viewer.  In the Hillary covers, the upward angle puts the viewer below the picture, in the role of “spectator,” literally looking “up to” the subject as one might look at a statue.

In the Obama cover, the eye contact is usually direct, “demanding” we engage with the subject.  And the angle is straight on, implying a degree of equity or realism –opposed to a presentation that is “larger than life.”  Although one of the covers is more ambiguous, the eyes are still present, and because he is engaging with someone outside of the frame, it feels it might as well be us.  That Obama is smiling also suggests the demand is friendly, sociable.

Picture 1

In an editorial example, by the way, take this front page visual from Saturday’s nytimes.com.  It offers the opening shot of a short video on “Obama and volunteerism.”  Note that the image is doubled so we see the degree of interactivity in the original image (notice the backs of the heads) which gets even more  pronounced as we move into the “audience” and the viewers become fuller, more real, engaged with Obama on the wall as well as the laptop.  … And, of course, so too do we as we move back one more step.

The other notable feature in these covers — and the NYT shot — involves Obama’s hands.  Notice how present, if not prominent, they are. The hands are an important marker of humanity.  Typically used to establish sociality, hands are used to reach out to shake (as a sign of acknowledging another … or, in earlier times, to show that one is not wielding a weapon); to “slap someone on the back”; or to ball the hand up in a fist to indicate an adversarial relationship.  In one of the other two covers, Obama’s hands are also relaxed, inviting friendship.

It is worth commenting why we don’t see Hillary’s hands on those recent covers.

Hands often function, in gendered contexts, as an allegory for female agency.  There are a number of classical allusions to woman losing their hands.  The statue of Athena, of course, is the first that comes to mind.  Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is another example where Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, has her tongue and hands cut off after being raped so that she cannot communicate the trauma she has experienced.  And in a somewhat different register, think of how the “hand” in Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is the punctum  (or defining feature) of that image, calling attention to vulnerability.  Airbrush the hand out of the image (or accent the barely noticeable left hand reaching out in the photo’s lower right) and you have a very different effect.

Couple the visual allusion to female agency with the difficulty women have had being treated “seriously” and with some degree of stoicism, and you get pictures like those on the recent Hillary covers.  They are rather statuesque — more bust-like than social or animated.  If my hypothesis is right that the hand is both a sign of aggressive power (the fist) and a sign of sociality (the open hand), both put a female candidate in a tough situation.

From a visual standpoint, there is a pragmatic visual problem here that isn’t all that easy for Hillary to solve.

John Louis Lucaites is professor of in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.

(Obama image: Patrick Andrade for The New York Times.  June 2007.  nytimes.com)

Update 6/27/07 4:43 EST: To help address questions and comments that have come up in the discussion thread, I am posting a jpg featuring roughly the last 36 images of Hillary posted on the YahooNews wire, less duplicates.  I hope the thumbnails are legible enough to be of use.  The first 17 are from a very exclusive fundraiser, co-hosted and featuring an hour long talk by financier, Warren Buffet.  I have no idea if this setting/event is representative or not of the typical newswire stream.

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