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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.

Last-36-Hillary-1

  • http://www.fromthearchives.blogspot.com Megan

    Very nice post. I hadn’t thought about the difference between demand and offer pictures. I wonder, though, if the issue about Hillary’s hands isn’t simpler than that. Perhaps she’s afraid her hands show her age?

  • margaret

    This is excellent analysis! And, brings up points I would not not have noticed, otherwise, being put off by this particular woman in general. But, it reminds me that the few pictures I have seen with Hillary’s hands revealed have shown them to be coarse and not very attractive. This is something she cannot help, but, since we live in a society which notices manicures, etc., it matters. She doesn’t show her hands often, in my memory, because her physical gestures are restrained, even stiff, contained. I always think of her posture and facial countenance as showing “contained rage.”
    Obama is an open person, by contrast, affable, and not insecure in his role. Hillary is trying too hard, and he seems to be hardly trying at all. I think that a woman could be elected President in this country, but she would have to be comfortable as a woman in high places, and not on the defensive, which Hillary, historically has been, being married to the man she is married to. (Nancy Pelosi comes to mind.)
    Just a note: the Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is sch a powerful picture. I used to own an original print of it, and when saw it again, I burst into tears. It continues to tell the story of two Americas. The one John Edwards talks about and care about. Why don’t we elect someone like that to be President!

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    Nice points. Of course, Hillary probably has little or no control on whether or not her hands show up on the covers of these books, most of which are rather critical of her anyway. But notice the cover to Peggy Noonan’s The Case Against Hillary which does include the hands (http://www.amazon.com/Case-Against-Hillary-Clinton/dp/0060393408). They do not seem to be particularly attractive (as per the comments by Megan and Margaret), nor do they seem to be particularly inviting or comfortable. But, of course, this book too is a critique. It might be interesting for us to look at places where Hillary has a bit more control over her representation … say her website. I’ll look at that some more soon.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Um, here’s a book cover showing Hillary’s hand. Looks Palmolive soft to me. I fear this “hand analysis” (or apparent bias against Hillary) in this case can just as easily qualify as ageism (dislike of Hillary means she’s a crone, which would show in her “coarse” old hands). Maybe we should talk about that.
    But biases aside, I think it’s worth noting that bookstores display not just the newest (2007) releases (as above), but older stock like Living History, especially during an election cycle or when another related title is released. So in the real world, we would never see this particular selection of titles. Dreams from My Father would be on display as well.
    And from a strictly down-to-earth book-editorial perspective, compared to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama is untested, a relative unknown. That is going to be reflected in the (uncontroversial) editorial choice of images for books about him. Since he almost always wears a very dark suit jacket, choosing an image that shows his hands on the cover is going to keep him from looking like a mannequin. Just a practical consideration for fitting anyone’s image into a 9×6-inch space (a standard book cover measurement).

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    RBG: Two things. First, I actually did run across a dispaly of the top book coers in something close to that array in a Waldens bookstore. But, second, your point is well taken that there may be other determining factors, and quite possibly ageism. I’d like to hear more about what you have to say there. What point would you want to make? My larger point, however, was to call attention to something more like a tendency or, perhaps convention. Not a hard and fast rule.

  • PTate in FR

    “Hands often function, in gendered contexts, as an allegory for female agency”
    In addition to being aggressive or sociality, hands are used to symbolize hard work, real work, getting down to business. But consider these pictures. Here is Margaret Thatcher, looking fully competent. Here is another shot of her, again, fully competent. So showing hands does not necessarily detract for a woman’s image, though it is interesting to imagine these pictures of MT without hands.
    I would say that Obama’s photos are also picking up on this down-to-work symbolism.
    Hillary has normal human hands, unremarkable, ordinary. This isn’t a flattering shot of Hillary, but it shows that her hands are fully functioning and normal. So this leads me to believe that, yes, we are getting deliberate head shots to put” … the viewer below the picture, in the role of “spectator,” literally looking “up to” the subject as one might look at a statue.” for a reason.
    What that reason might be is not hard to find. Earlier today, Andrew Sullivan published a comment by a reader that seems very typical of Clinton’s base: … “no matter how closely you watched Hillary in the White House, you miss what she meant to some of us, what her senatorial career means to some of us, and what her chances of being the first female president means to us.” What she means to us….
    In other words, we are supposed to worship her, the fulfillment of the feminist narrative. She is not meant to be human, she is important for what she means. Accordingly, we get offer pics because showing her hands might burst the bubble of adoration. Obama is giving us a fuller picture of the kind of president he would be.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    PTate: Your claim that “hands” do lots of different kinds of symbolic work is much to the point and well worth pursuing more fully. But notice that, at least with these Hillary pictures, there are NO hands … She is a head (she doesn’t even have a body … which might open up a whole other can of worms). Sans tout! That, it seems to me, at least, is somewhat notable. As to the reason, I would agree with everything you say here BUT for the fact that each of these book covers is to a volume that is highly critical of Hillary … thus the sense in which she is being put on display to be “worshiped” seems less than salutary (as per the quote from Sullivan’s reader). If anything, it strikes me that the affect is one of an imputed “arrogance” that is often affiliated with the conventional attack on feminism.

  • Asta

    Bob Dole had an permanently injured hand from WWII and he didn’t let that get in the way. He did use a prop, like a pen, to give the impression he was fully capable of plowing the west 40, but I think most people just don’t notice things like that, unless we are talking about a deformity.
    But of course, we are discussing the techniques of propaganda.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    I’m sorry, but Hillary’s has fat hands. Okay, not “fat” but they are not her strong suit. Her strongest presentation is that aristocratic gaze, kind but firm. Obama’s a long skinny dude and he has pretty hands. The kind they use in ring adds. I think they are just doing their best to make an image of a leader with what they have.
    There is something to be said for the way a woman creates an image of leadership. We don’t have many templates for female leaders. Obama can fold his arms and do the “I’m going to fix it look.” or he might opt for a more formal stamens’ stance (have not seen him doing this, but my point is men have options and templates to choose)
    What american templates do we have for leading women? Um…. I’m just not thinking of many.
    The more I think about it I think the no-hands bust of a woman think is a good choice. What else would she do?
    Maybe she could pose with some reading glasses and paper. That would appeal to me, but maybe not most americans? I think of top corporate women and they are always very through and in to the details.
    Or could she try to seem motherly? Hillary? Nooooo…. don’t think that would work.
    Stick with the bust.

  • ummabdulla

    My first reaction was the same as Megan’s. A lot of times, you see women (often in broadcasting or in TV or movies) whose faces has been fixed so that they look maybe 35, but whose hands show that they’re in their 60s or 70s because they’re covered with wrinkles and age spots. The neck is another place where you can see the age.
    (It’s too bad that women in this society aren’t respected as they get older. Women like Andrea Mitchell or Judy Woodruff have to go all out to pretend that they’re NOT old and experienced.)
    I found this picture, though, which shows Hillary’s hands – and that doesn’t seem to be the case with her. Her hands don’t look any older than her face; her face shows some wrinkles, but her hands look very smooth.
    (And yes, I do feel a little silly spending this much time on Hillary’s hands…)
    So I don’t know if the lack of hands is significant, but the fact that most of the books only show her head might be.
    The photo on the Susan Estrich book is a little different; her makeup is very obvious and not as natural looking as usual. Is that a positive or a negative book?
    Anyway, this post got me thinking about Hillary’s image… Remember how she used to look in those early days in Arkansas? She’s certainly improved her look. And has she completely dropped the “Rodham” from her name? I looked at her website, and they seem to prefer just “Hillary”, without even the Clinton, most of the time.

  • ummabdulla

    I also hadn’t thought about the difference between demand and offer photos; I’ll notice that more now.

  • PTate in FR

    “each of these book covers is to a volume that is highly critical of Hillary … thus the sense in which she is being put on display to be “worshiped” seems less than salutary (as per the quote from Sullivan’s reader). If anything, it strikes me that the affect is one of an imputed “arrogance” that is often affiliated with the conventional attack on feminism..”
    Okay, that’s fair, that’s interesting. Of course, the reason we hang out on BAGnewsNotes is because we are trying to crack the visual manipulation. So the question is now, are the ‘offer’ shots intended for the 50% negative rating crowd rather than her supporters? Sometimes my head spins trying to keep track of the different perspectives and agendas.
    One way to check is to review how her website portrays her…? The first image that I encountered was a request for a donation with a distance shot of Clinton–with her hands folded demurely in front of her, receiving applause. Clickthrough to the next screen, and I encountered a very similar shot, taken at a different time and, this time, without hands. The audience is 95% female, btw.
    I interpret these first two images as very consistent with an “admire me, I’m a woman running for President” spin even by her campaign committee. Perhaps the detractors emphasize the negative, arrogant, haughty image whereas her campaign is emphasizing the modest torchbearer aspect.
    What Hillary’s lack of hands suggests to me is that nothing will be touched. People can rest assured that she won’t bitchslap the nation.
    btw, I would hate to think that someone’s credentials for president are based on whether he or she has fat hands or not.

  • Asta

    Susan Murray, your commentary is very astute. And I agree with you. But what you said raised a red flag in my head. Yes, Obama has pretty hands. As a fellow artist, I do so appreciate the beauty of the human anatomy, and Obama has the hands of a concert pianist, a sculptor, or a neuro-surgeon. I love his hands.
    I am afraid that such beauty will be perverted by the homophobic rightwingers.
    As an aside, when I first heard Obama at the Democratic Convention, my immediate reaction was, “OMG, he’s our next president.” I hope my words will come true. He’s special.

  • arty

    Asta – For the record, Bob Dole still has that “permanently injured” hand. He’s alive and kicking. OMG.

  • Asta

    When you make the comparisons, Bob Dole would have been a much less malignant leader than what we have now. I have no problem with him. Had he become prez, maybe we would not be in Iraq now, I don’t know, who can say?

  • http://home.comcast.net/~sfs73/index.html MonsieurGonzo

    damn, John ~ that was interesting.
    “Hands often function, in gendered contexts, as an allegory for female agency.”
    Beautifully said. otoh, no [citation] given; no way save anecdotal example to fact check this (perhaps it is simply, your perfumed presumption?) imho the female hand stereotype would be “grace,” whereas the male hand, surely “grizzled“, perhaps Sergio Leone gritty-like mitt.
    But why gender, John? would it not make more scents to context class? ie., the working hand -vs- that of the effete; the un-cut fingernails, un-used manuals of the Emperor’s caste elite?
    Reading Images “focus is on the structures or “grammar” of visual design: color, perspective, framing and composition; their work provides a “tool-kit” for interpreting images…”
    So, you are employing / suggesting, what ~ that not unlike Oenophiles, we BAGistas could employ a common language toolbox of what, adjectives & metaphors? to decontstruct The Image with self-same discipline savoir faire?
    (note to Michael: please provide the check-list so that we can enjoy this mode d’emploi :)
    But then, why not just burn da da Vinci code into the firmware BIOS of our scanner/cams?
    et voila! here are your pixels, Madame, and this: _____, is what The Image means {grin}
    me so lazy, John; me love you long time (^_^)

  • Cactus

    Interesting point about the hands. I can’t get inside a man’s head, let alone a black man in America, but is it possible that he keeps his hands up front very intentionally to show that he is holding nothing (weapon?) back and/or is willing to shake hands with the viewer? Also, in the one cover of him not looking directly at the viewer, his hand takes over the ‘action’ for him. OTOH, in the 40’s, 50’s and even into the 60’s, women were told not to shake hands, and if a man were to take her hand, she’d better have her gloves on. Do I remember right that in Hillary’s video her hands were not expressive, but rather limply falling over her knees or something?
    I may be projecting here, but Hillary looks as if she does not want to engage the viewer. If I didn’t know who/what she is, I would assume she is someone who was famous for something, but not someone asking to be a president. Her accomplishments are behind her. Her expressions remind me of my mother’s………one of years of disappointments and missed opportunities. Obama, OTOH, looks to engage us, he’s looking forward, he’s active rather than passive. He wants our attention now!
    Could someone tell me if persons who use their hands expressively while talking are more eager to engage the other in dialog, and the person who talks with hands quiet or hidden, less so? Just askin’………

  • readytoblowagasket

    John,
    I’d like to try a different approach to discussing the images. I want to do some dismantling before building from/adding to your original post or my first comment. I’ve never done this on a blog, but I have in mind a process of critique to get to a less biased (or, strangely enough, more biased) evaluation. I expect it will take me several separate comments (rather than one excessively long comment) over the next day or two, if you’re up for responding. (Of course it could conceivably go on longer if others continue to comment too!) As far as I’m concerned, there’s no rush.
    You said: Because the images [of Hillary] are so similar, I’ve chosen to compare them with a sample of cover shots of Obama biographies published this year.
    One problem with this intellectual exercise is that the deck is stacked visually:
    1) If we are to consider all of the covers equally, then they should be sized equally in the layout. The 3 covers in the middle row are smaller than the covers in the top and bottom rows. Hillary is not only smaller in the center, but she is, quite literally, boxed in. My own reaction to this is I do not stay with the center image (Hillary’s best) for very long because it feels claustrophobic.
    Even if this were the exact arrangement in a bookstore, we as viewers would have the freedom to see the arrangement more fluidly (by walking around the table, picking up a book, etc.). I would like to see this original layout compared to a revised, more equitable arrangement to see if it makes a difference. (My guess is it would.)
    2) The cover of Vanity Fair is not an Obama biography. It doesn’t belong with this grouping unless you include a magazine cover for Hillary. Surely one exists from 2007. I like the Vanity Fair cover, however, and want to talk about it later. I’m just observing it doesn’t belong.
    3) The inclusion of the Vanity Fair cover gives Barack 1 more cover than Hillary, so 4 covers to 3. The covers are followed by the nytimes.com twin images of Barack, so now he’s up to 6 images. Despite weighting the number of Barack images by twice as many, commenters led with Hillary. I think this is fascinating.
    4) All of the Barack books presented to us are “positive.” There are 2 “negative” Hillary books out of the 3.
    I’m interested that despite giving Barack what seems like a significant visual head-start in the layout, Hillary actually gets more bang for the buck (more talk with fewer photos).
    If you haven’t seen this article “What Women See When They See Hillary” by Lakshmi Chaudhryin in The Nation, it’s as psychologically complex as this layout!
    rtbag

  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com The BAG

    Like rtbag just above, my concern, when John originally sent me a draft of this post, was that his observations about visio-political gender dynamics were limited to specific book covers, and that an inherent bias existed between the two “anti-Hillary” books and the three “pro-Obama” covers.  In emailing back and forth, however, John insisted the distinction were largely global, not specific (and, in general, encompassed pro- and negative depictions of each candidate.  To prove it, he sent me several examples of so-called “pro-Hillary” material — which is why I included the Susan Estrich cover — as well as a pics from recent critical coverage of Obama in the NYT and on Drudge). 
    Personally, I was skeptical of the theory, but I immediately started going through random newswire images and the thesis seemed to hold up.  In contrast to John, however, I think the issue with Hillary and her hand gestures (as with any candidate) is partly gender-based and partly character-based.  Following John’s observations, however, I now see, as I believe someone mentioned above, that when Hillary isn’t folding or holding her hands, or she isn’t photographed in a more “demure” position — such as using (only) one hand to hold up her chin, as she does on the cover of her biography, her movements do seem more brusque, awkward or presumptuous.  (Frankly, I’d love to see John do a follow up post on Hillary where we grab the first 10 or so images of her off the YahooNewswire — without any editing — to see how/if it demonstrates the thesis.)
    Lastly, I believe the “Palmolive” comments miss John’s point.  John is not talking about the hands as physical objects in themselves.  He is referring to hands as they are manifest expressively, and mostly, gesturally in social space, be they fat, skinny, young- or old-looking, or even damaged or deformed.
    By the way, the fact that it is so hard to wrap our collective heads around this thesis, or to lend ourselves to it (intellectually, politically, gender-wise, whatever) if we do get it, makes it that much more pleasing to have John playing with us here in The BAG.

  • ummabdulla

    I went back and looked at this BAGnewsnotes post from the debate of Democratic candidates, and it does seem like everyone except Hillary has hands.
    I was also reminded of the portrait of the Cheneys with their new grandchild, where the hands were noticed and mentioned.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    Lastly, I believe the “Palmolive” comments miss John’s point. John is not talking about the hands as physical objects in themselves. He is referring to hands as they are manifest expressively, and mostly, gesturally in the social space- be they fat, skinny, young- or old-looking, or even damaged or deformed.
    But That was kind-of the point. While I do think that Hillary has a problem showing agency, since it makes her seem “too aggressive” –I don’t think that the hand thing has much to do with it.
    I think it’s a more simple matter of trying to “look presidential” –something all candidates must do, but something that also presents a unique challenge to a female candidate because there are fewer “ideals” to copy for the women. What is a “presidential” woman like? One answer: like a marble bust.
    Maybe there are others answers? Is Thatcher fitting in to some kind of model? It’s not the same for the UK, though right?
    So I’m asking what could Clinton do that would “play” better than what she seems to be doing? I think she’s doing a great job, so much so that he enemies have picked up on it.
    That is: it is possible and perhaps easier to look presidential and have “agency” sans-hands.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    And it’s possible and easier because the kind of presidential “look” she seems to be going for is like a marble bust. It’s a very old feeling and “look” and reminds me of the photos they would place in gilded frames earlier in the century with the candidates photos. A time when you could profess your love for a leader based on lithographic images and the text of speeches (most people would not get to even hear the candidates actual voice) It is the image of the face of the president with roses all around it and a bit of a scroll underneath that might read “Our President.”
    This “template” is one that can work for women. It has been used for women forever. Was it okay for women because it didn’t have any hands and therefore “agency”? …. maybe. As soon as I can remember an example I’ll post it.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    This is the kind of thing I was babbling about when I said “gilded frames” it’s not from the turn of the century, but even earlier.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    I see a hand! and we’ve seen this one with two hands.
    The first one is too much like a year book photo. These aren’t as “presidential” as the cover above. Why? Maybe because she’s not doing anything with the hands?
    But then maybe the whole bust thing isn’t such a good idea after all.
    Okay I’ll shut up for a bit now.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Re: my concern . . . was that . . . an inherent bias existed between the two “anti-Hillary” books and the three “pro-Obama” covers
    As long as you can identify something as “pro-” or “anti-,” a bias does exist. Isn’t that the definition of pro- and anti-? One excludes the other? I think we have to begin by wrapping our collective heads around that.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    To All: I’m really quite knew to the blogsphere and I found this all rather invigorating — and a bit overwhelming. I’m not sure how to respond to so many comments and thoughts so quickly. But I want to thank everyone. One last (sort of) thought here: My goal here was not (is not) to create some sort of science for reading images that ultimately dictates meaning. I think that reading images is an “art” (or in my vocabulary a “rhetoric”) of interpretation and engagement. As Michael pointed out above, the “hand” for me (in these posts) is referring to a symbolic or representational artifact. Sometimes a hand is just a hand, as it were. But sometimes it marks other things. AND when we find it repeated over and again in a particular register or context it invites meaningful consideration. It is something of a “visual trope,” an inventional device for creating/interpreting meaning. Of course, because it operates in an interpretive frame that means it is open to both intepretation AND appropriation to create “new” or “different” meaning. So, it is not uncommon to find such tropes being picked up and used by satirists and parodists of all sorts. I think the “bust” that Susan linked to is an excellent example of that. As to Hillary: I think folks have made lots of great points pushing and pulling my thoughts. I don’t think gender is the only context we should consider here. Someone mentioned class, and I suspect that this is an additional register or context that needs to be layered (or possibly placed in opposition) to gender — though given the current media climate gender “seems” to be the obvious context, clearly that may also be playing to contemporary socio-political biases and the very disciplining of class-difference — in engaging these imges. And though there were scant references in our collective comments to race, that too would seem to be something we need to take more careful attention to. For me the tragedy of verbal langauge is that we are forced to operate in a more or less linear fashion, i.e., we can only say one thing at a time. And so, sometimes it seems like we are being reductionistic when we are simply being constrained by the technology of words and reason. Interestingingly, images don’t seem to have that constraint. And that’s why I think discussions of this sort are so important — and fun.

  • readytoblowagasket

    P.S.
    Michael: You cannot compare news images, which are supposed to be “objective” (as in “a fair and balanced press”), with book cover images, which have no obligation to be objective and never pretended to.
    John: I get that this is an intellectual exercise, like going to a museum and discussing what we see together (that’s why you like all the art references). However, we at BAGnewsNotes have been “trained” to look at news images, and many commenters in the discussion thread are applying that training to your theory, which, imho, doesn’t work cleanly. For one thing, there’s a rampant misconception about Hillary’s (or Barack’s) influence in choosing cover art for books.
    Note to all: Hillary and Barack do not choose the cover image for books and magazines. Therefore, they are not manipulating us or deliberately communicating anything.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    rbg: It might be interesting for us to think some about the difference (or relationship) between images “which are supposed to be ‘objective’” and what we find on book covers (or in museums). I agree that there is a presumed or cultural difference between what we expect from photojournalism (“fair and balanced…”) and what we expect in other artistic contexts, BUT I also think we risk a mistake if we forget the ways in which the two interanimate. For me the big question is: How do we learn how to see (as a citizen, for example)? Personally, I think that we draw tropes and symbols of all sorts from a multitude of places and we can’t neatly parse them so that some are “objective” as per your reference, and others are something else. When we locate a picture on the front page of the NYTs we bring certain assumptions and expectations, but then sometimes we frame the same picture and put it in a museum (“Iwo Jima,” “Migrant Mother,” “Accidental Napalm,” “Challenger Explosion,” e.g.,) and we it them differently. Or sometimes what makes a photojournalistic image powerful is that it somehow mimes or otherwise appropriates artistic genres with all of their conventional and symbolic resonance (Iwo Jima as statuary, Migrant Mother as Madonna and Child portraiture, etc.). The visual world simply isn’t all that discreet (and in the end, the notion of “objectivity,” especially when applied to the visual, isn’t all that useful — even though we use it in particular and pronounced ways). All of this by way of saying that for me this is not just an “intellectual exercise” if you mean by that that I see this as simply a game w/o serious political consequences (and possibilities) … rather, following the late social/literary critic Kenneth Burke, I think we need to “use all that there is to use” to make sense of the “scramble of the human barnyard.” In any case, I appreciate your serious engagement and look forward to being a member her at The Bag.

  • readytoblowagasket

    John, thanks for hanging in there. I appreciate your extremely valuable contribution, and I think there’s a need to expand our horizons here. I’m trying to say two things, and in the process build a bridge to your theory. I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, I am just making some observations.
    1) We at the BAG are biased, having been trained by Michael Shaw to look at and analyze news images and political propaganda every day. That “training” informs at least some of our response to your dramatically different approach.
    2) My own background is not in news publishing, but in trade-book publishing and magazine publishing. That direct experience informs my own response.
    Trade book and general-interest magazine publishers do not care who anyone votes for; they care only that we buy their product. It is completely and absolutely all they care about. I try often to make this point in the discussion threads when a misconception arises and gets repeated because I think it’s important that people know who’s doing the selling to them. I think I am rarely, if ever, successful.
    Trade book (general interest) publishing is very conservative and lemminglike. Cover design for books is based on sales figures for similar titles in the marketplace. For this reason, yes, there are visual trends, but not necessarily for the (conscious) reasons you seem to be suggesting. If a book cover with an unflattering photo of Hillary sells more copies than one with a flattering photo, you will see more book covers in the marketplace with unflattering photos of Hillary on them. If a book cover showing Hillary’s hands sells poorly compared to one that doesn’t show them, I am not kidding when I say you will see more covers that don’t show Hillary’s hands. It is that imbecilic. Covers are, in truth, “designed” by marketing departments who, again, base their ideas on sales figures/statistics. Art departments, in reality, execute what marketing dictates. Therefore, the consumer gets fed only the tiniest sample of Hillary images. If we aren’t exposed to anything else, however, that makes us all biased, does it not?
    I think it is relevant to consider this when mixing commerce and art. Sometimes the intersection is fashion, sometimes the intersection is psychology, sometimes the intersection is symbology, sometimes the intersection is very hard to identify.
    rtbag

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    rtgag:
    “I think it is relevant to consider this when mixing commerce and art. Sometimes the intersection is fashion, sometimes the intersection is psychology, sometimes the intersection is symbology, sometimes the intersection is very hard to identify.”
    ++++
    I think we are on the exact same page here. For me the interesting question is: Why do some “covers” (or images more generally) resonate more than others in a particular context? I don’t mean to suggest that the cover selections for Hillary were necessarily conscious in the manner of “let’s get” or “let’s promote” HIllary. I have NO DOUBT that your marketting analysis for book covers is largely (if not entirely) correct. But let’s start with the first point: Why does that “first” book with or w/o hands (or whatever) sell? It may have nothing to do with the cover, of course, but still, someone picked the picture to put on that book because they thought it was/was not “flattering,” because they thought it mimed other trends (that sell books), and so on. That is, even here, there is some degree of “convention” that guides how we have been taught to “see” (and in turn “to be seen”). While I don’t think it is the only (and maybe not always the most important) factor, I do think we are creatures of such conventions, styles, genres, and the like … and it is probably why images operate very differently in different cultures, because different cultures operate with different conventions.

  • PTate in FR

    So this conversation has taken an interesting turn. If we just look at these images (excluding the vanity fair one) as book covers, and assume they were chosen only because they sell, not for any other reason, then one has to also assume that they are appealing to people unconsciously.
    So that takes us right back to the original question. Why headshots of Hillary’s profile but Obama’s torso and hands?
    One imagines that the marketing group of different publishing houses do research, etc, comparing consumer reactions to alternate images, but I suspect the cheapest, most popular strategy is to be a copy cat.
    That is, when one book sells well, the next takes a similar approach. Is that the case here? If that’s the case, then what appears to be a systematic representation is just coincidence. As Freud says, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But this being BAGnewsNotes, I can’t believe that!

  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com The BAG

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the launching point for this post ( which was originally the comparison of book covers) is confusing, or at least complicating John’s theory — and our discussion.
    I don’t know if I can get to it tonight (I’m still in Spain for another 10 days or so, so 6 hrs ahead of the East Coast) but I promise, by the time most of you check in tomorrow, to have posted about 20 or so recent Hillary newswire thumbnails. I will try and edit only to the extent I eliminate redundancies, but drawing samples from, say, her last three appearances. Then I hope we’ll have “better data” (and, perhaps, an “acid test”) to continue what I consider a really fascinating and important conversation.
    I’ll post the images after the jump.

  • readytoblowagasket

    PTate, I have an idea: Let’s look at the Vanity Fair cover and the cover for Audacity of Hope. Those are the only two covers that Barack would have been allowed some (limited) “input” on. What do you see? I see that Barack is presenting the exact same posture for both: elbows on knees, leaning forward like he’s engaged in an intimate conversation with us (Cactus identified Barack “engages” with the viewer, and Susan Murray associated the “I can fix it” idea with Barack). Also, Barack is smiling on the Hope book; deeply concerned-looking on the VF cover. The posture, smile, and look of concern, I think, are deliberate on Barack’s part in these two images.
    Which makes me wonder this: Do these two images warp our perception of all of the Barack images?

  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com The BAG

    Okay. I’ve posted the last 36 thumbnails of Hillary off the YahooNewswire.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    Do these two images warp our perception of all of the Barack images?
    I’m confused about what you’re asking here.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    Images with hands: 12
    About 1 in three.
    I’m struck by the open arms gesture she seems to do a lot. like in row 11 column 2.
    I don’t quite know how to read it.
    Thanks for all of the images!

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    Well, I’m not entirely sure what to make of all those images. The question for me would be which get picked up and reproduced, circulated, and the like. That said, and writing off the cuff, I find line 11 the most interesting because we see three different ways in which the trope of the “hand” might work. In the first we get the doubled image which implies a certain “Big Brother”/oath of allegiance quality to it, the second is the open arms/come to momma I’ll take care of you quality, and the third has a don’t you dare quality to it. But these are tendencies, I think, that rely on various cultural and gestural conventions, determined equally by public perceptions of Hillary herself as well as public recognition of the problem of gender and presidential politics and so on. They do seem to be rather different than many of the other pictures, w or w/o hands in them. I’ll think more on it and try to write more. I’m interested in how others respond to them.

  • PTate in FR

    I hate to be a nag, but it would be useful, perhaps, to also see the 36 most recent pictures of Obama off Yahoonewswire. Then, of there pictures, which ones are picked up by the newsmedia.
    Because what we are seeing in this set of 36 are snapshots of Clinton during various campaign events–the candidate is not posing (other than being conscious of being in front of many cameras) in the same way as on book covers. In the first set, during the exclusive fundraiser in which she is wearing pale blue, Clinton appears very comfortable and at ease. Her hands in this pictures are kept close to her body. At the event at which she is wearing orange, she appears to me (and the tiny pictures could be distorting my impression) to be less at ease, forced to be outgoing in ways that may not be natural for her. Here her arms are widespread and she is making big gestures.
    So it would be interesting to see a random set of Obama pics to compare. It will be very interesting to see which pics are picked up by the media. For example, if they pick up the picture in column 2, row 5, they will be choosing a picture that will make a very different impression than, say, column 3, row 10.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Murray

    THE HAND
    I looked through the yahoo photos of Obama. I found that he is shown waving to people all of the time. If we dig can we find Clinton at some less formal events?

  • PTate in FR

    rtbag: ” Barack is presenting the exact same posture for both: elbows on knees, leaning forward like he’s engaged in an intimate conversation with us”
    I see the same thing. The cover of the third book, Hopes and Dreams, strikes me as being very similar as well. In all of these, he is looking straight at the viewer (the “demand” shot).
    I believe it was Richard Avedon who commented that people present their “true” selves in portraits, or at least, they present how they want others to see them. If we take that as a hypothesis, then I would say that Obama has a desire to be viewed as straightforward and transparent, someone who wants to make a connection with me. Given the three images of him looking straight at me (which makes it much harder to discount him as a person), the fourth image of him with that raised, scolding right hand is neutralized.
    Which still begs the question of what meaning hands add.

  • Cactus

    Very Interesting Discussion! I just saw The Bag’s posting of the 36. (BTW, quite a tour de force, I’m sure) I googled The W + hands and I didn’t see much difference in the expressive use of hands between the two, with one exception……….No shots of Hillary shaking hands – with the possible exception of 9-2, which is out of sight. But these shots really bring out the campaigner; vivacious, energetic, engaging with everyone around. Maybe this is what Hillary followers see. Of course, I’m sure that some campaign events are more fun than others. I don’t know why, but my impression of The W is that he doesn’t always know what to do with his hands aside from gripping things (mics, podium) or shaking hands. Does any one else notice this.
    More on hands. People have called me weird, but I do notice hands. Not just manicures, but hands and how they are used by the person. Sometimes it’s just annoying but it can be very telling about the person. There have been several photographic series about hands and, I seem to remember, at least one book, just photographs of hands.
    Aside to PTateinFR: If we keep this up, The Bag will be running around in circles.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    Cactus: Can you point me more directly to the photographic series and book about hands?
    Thanks, JLL

  • MonsieurGonzo

    images on products are wrappers; as rtbag says, they are packaging, branding-it, thus.
    images else (e.g., “news”) tend to be reflectors; as rtbag says, they are either illustrating text context, or illuminating [either the viewer's or the the image vehicle's] self concept: news be like this; i be like this-Him, or i be like this-Her ~ i like Him or Her this, thus…
    me be-brand Him; or, me be-brand Her. iow, most folks don’t see, or even look, they consume images; and: you know that what you eat, you are.
    [image set here] has nothing to do with hands, per se; “hands” or “hands not” certainly has nothing to do with gender, herein ~ and to say that “hands” here say any thing more than blonde hair, or brown skin, is akin to finding a pattern prevalent because i am searching for pattern a priori.
    …as rtbag says, “the message? it’s the medium, stupid!

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/ John Lucaites

    “Searching for a pattern a priori …” That’s a good definition of “meaning.” And it seems to me that we do that all the time. The question is whether or not we can make a plausible (or better) case for featuring identifying/featuring/emphasizing some patterns and ignoring or refusing others.
    Of course, maybe you want to argue that there is no meaning … but then we would be best advised to stop the conversation, non? Or put differently, perhaps, what would you say is the point of the conversation?

  • Cactus

    John, I wish my memory was better, but as to the book, it was in the early-mid 80’s and I want to say Judy Dater, but that may be way off. I do think it was a female photographer. I believe the series of hands were local to Los Angeles & environs, as the gallery I was involved with was in mid-LA. I just don’t remember names, sorry.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    the pattern we see in your images, John, is Dust Jackets.
    what would you say is the point of the conversation?
    why, we are your mirror, John.
    we reflect, and/or reject your illusions.
    God created Man in his own image. God created creators, thus.
    Welcome to The BAG, man.

  • John Lucaites

    Touche.
    I agree that dust jackets are the pattern you see. I do too. But its not the only one or, for me, at least, the most interesting one. And, again for me, the point of the conversation is to figure out what that means (or might mean).
    In any case, I’m glad to be here. And (Louie), I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship … :)

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