Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
October 10, 2008

Dignity

Bho Shell Library

With all the dirt flying around this week from Palin-McCain’s ugly character attacks, thank goodness for Callie Shell.  She shot this photo at the Public Library in Detroit as Obama waited for Michelle and the Bidens to arrive for an interview.

When Bush used to mention particular books, we knew it was Rove who really read them.  Palin flat-out couldn’t think of anything she’s reading.  And McCain’s taste gravitates more toward network TV and pop culture.

If Obama makes a fit here, I think it’s not such an easy thing to pull off.  Someone else might seem to disappear in this large and tall space whereas Obama seems to hold down the center.  So too, he seems that much more appropriate enveloped by voluminous knowledge and the atmosphere of silence.  Perhaps, with the vision pose, he’s also the guy to help modernize this place?

(image: Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME. White House Photo Blog.  2008.  Detroit)

  • Amy

    I was at the Detroit rally. It was held on Woodward Ave. between the Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts, with Wayne State University just down the road, and the Science Center a block to your left. Everywhere you turned, you saw a reminder of art, culture, knowledge, history; And Barack Obama, standing on his platform, was the promise of a future in which those lofty pursuits would no longer be disdained and derided as “intellectualism” by a sitting president.
    Under Bush, Cheney, & Rove, I think we’ve lost a lot more than just money, homes, soldiers, the 3000+ Americans on Sept. 11, our right to privacy, our respect around the world, and a signficant chunk of Louisiana. I think this administration depleted us in ways we don’t even yet realize. And I think we should be thankful that the American spirit hasn’t been completely crushed.
    I saw it with my own eyes. It was alive and kicking and hopeful – and nearly 40,000 strong on that beautiful Sunday afternoon in Detroit.

  • Books Alive

    Having spent much of my youth in Detroit, where my parents ran a business on John R., I was proud to learn that Barack would be holding a rally at the Detroit Public Library. However, my first thought on seeing the photo was that Barack was in a law library. Oh, well, I thank you for bringing it to our attention. The small card catalog is an anomaly in this day of computer screens and database files.

  • http://www.jaxxattaxx.com/ black dog barking

    Senator Obama stands in a library surrounded by meta-data, the information about the books. As such it is a visual metaphor for the job Senator Obama seeks, an administrative position where one’s actions are not directly connected to their ultimate effect, where certain manipulations of abstraction have very direct very real connections to our lives.
    This scene recalls President Bush’s visit to the Bureau of Public Debt in Parkersburg, WV. Standing at the cabinet holding $1.7 trillion in bonds built from payroll tax deductions he tells us “there is no trust fund”, just some iou’s. The abstraction failed to transcend the object for President Bush. Perhaps if there were some common stocks in those cabinets, or maybe some tranches of collateralized mortgage debt he’d have shown more respect. We all pay.

  • nightbird

    Grounded. Notice his feet firmly planted on the floor in the kind of room he has been in a bazillion times before. We see a man waiting to use his intellect and the vast knowledge he has acquired in such settings.
    The air is clear. A sense of freshness and clarity despite an atmosphere normally thought of as musty.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    Oh, please let America be smart America again. I look back at the kind of education I had, the teachers I had, and think about how I picked where I live for having a good school district so my kids could get that kind of education. When I see people dissing intellectual achievement and the “academic elites” in this country, my heart aches. They are so PROUD of their ignorance! It is infuriating to me that we criticize intelligence and academic achievement in this country, and have to have TV shows about being smarter than a fifth grader.
    Save us, Barack!

  • Samantha

    “I think this administration depleted us in ways we don’t even yet realize.”
    I agree. Maybe, hopefully, we’ll see…but I’m counting on a slight cultural shift with his election, an attitude change, kind of what happened when Reagan took over from Carter. I think Carter was the wiser president, but Reagan did bring a sort of sophistication, grandness, big ideas and reformation to the White House. How very different from Bush. Who, by the way, is up to his usual hijinks in that photo from Black Dog – ie you never see Bush without women around, because he sniffs them out like a dog. Amazing that Clinton is viewed the womanizer when you can’t pull Bush away from women, even beyond the rub-the-shoulders incident with the German president. Although, I think Bush’s draw is more maternal, due to a cold mother, and Clinton’s is more playboyish. But I digress.
    The photo itself as a subject matter leaves me without much comment. It’s an odd photo, not particularly expressive, and Barack is looking away, seemingly distracted, even though another person is in the room. Who knows, maybe he was speaking to him and at that moment looked toward the window in anticipation of the arrival of Michelle.

  • 14All

    I think it’s interesting that the posture of the upper half of his body is so different from that of the lower–his head, face and shoulders are in a contemplative pose; yet the feet are separated and knees slightly bent in a fighter’s stance.

  • 14All

    I think it’s interesting that the posture of the upper half of his body is so different from that of the lower–his head, face and shoulders are in a contemplative pose; yet the feet are separated and knees slightly bent in a fighter’s stance.

  • http://theothersideof635.blogspot.com Texrednface

    A little off topic, but…don’t knock the “ancient card catalog” Since libraries have gone digital, information glossed in these so-called relics have not been transfered to computer files. A lot of information for researchers has been lost.

  • http://www.rhubarbpie.typepad.com Megan

    Your feet point to what you really want, right? He’ll take the picture and face the photographer if he has to. But he would really love to pore through those card catalogs for a long peaceful while.

  • matt

    i’m struck by how retro this photo looks.
    aside from very tiny details – the camera (?) on the wall next to the door, the red fire alarm strobe light on the wall on the right – this looks like a moment from the 60s or 70s.
    the card catalog, the file drawers, the chair and table, even obama’s classic suit seem to come from another era.
    what’s remarkable, of course, is that the man who is the focus of this photo is not only black, but likely the next president.
    anachronism?
    or a reflection of the fact that, despite the novelty of his becoming the first black president, obama is actually the conservative (small “c”) candidate in the race, reminding the nation of our historic, romantic potential for unity and progress?
    obama looks out toward the light, his pose reflecting strength in his stance (as noted above), calm in his hands, and purpose on his face. note also the smiling, disembodied white face watching him from a distance.

  • jtfromBC

    matt, “note also the smiling, disembodied white face watching him from a distance.”
    I suspect he is probably a bodyguard with another one checking things out to Obama’s left, otherwise its a very peculiar photo, suspended in time and space.

  • bystander

    Here, he seems to have big feet. They’ve carried him to big places. We hope his shoulders are broad enough to carry us along.

  • zzyzx

    “I think this administration depleted us in ways we don’t even yet realize.”
    And
    “The small card catalog is an anomaly in this day of computer screens and database files.”
    Both those statements are metaphors for where we find ourselves today. Aside from those of us who are obsessed, most people don’t yet know what has happened to our country. They don’t know about all the signing statements and executive orders and “legal” opinions that have taken us into this dark territory. And this library room is it’s own metaphor for the state of our infrastructure. The old card catalog as a stand in for our hodge-podge of communications networks whereas the EU has the entire modern system at relatively low costs. In the good old days, the library could afford matching file cabinets, but now must settle for a gray one here, a tan one there, all a patchwork like our bridges and roads.
    In the center, Obama, not exactly holding down the floor but slightly off balance, as if just about to take a step in one direction, but not sure if he’s ready, or perhaps hears another voice calling. And, really, how can one person be certain of the next step when all around us is everything we knew crumbling, or just about to do so. He’s looking out the window, to the light, the hope of better things. As are we all.

  • jean

    “I think this administration depleted us in ways we don’t even yet realize.”
    Oh, it’s been going on since the ’80’s, at least. The government is depleted too, thin and shabby.

  • Books Alive

    The old card catalog as a stand in for our hodge-podge of communications networks whereas the EU has the entire modern system at relatively low costs. In the good old days, the library could afford matching file cabinets, but now must settle for a gray one here, a tan one there, all a patchwork like our bridges and roads.

    zzyzx, didn’t realize that there are communications networks in Europe that outdistance ours. I have seen that each American community library has its own online options, according to what their budgets allow, apparently.
    As far as uniform file cabinets, I know they can be painted, as I worked in a office that redecorated and changed tan cabinets to teal blue to match the carpet! So, librarians probably choose to put their money into books and programs, rather than upgrading their workspaces. A company, whether for profit or not-for-profit needs to keep up its appearance.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~sfs73/images/WordyGrrrl.jpg MonsieurGonzo

    imho, This image is remarkable for its presumptuousness. Foremost it presumes that you recognize the figure of an otherwise nondescript man as being the person, “Senator Barack Obama; ie., one of two candidates vying for the presidency of the USA.”
    Without this presumption the image evokes an entirely different message; it demands much more participation of the viewer’s imagination to resolve the dilemma of incompleteness. For demanding such an effort by the viewer, the successful artist must supply a reward of some sort, which most often is the gift not of the mere sight of this thing, but of something more insightful.
    Should you, the reader think it outrageous that i propose we become illusionless viewers of this image for what it really is, as an abstraction, something un-apparent ~ i state in the rhetorical: How many people not in our culture = Conversation would recognize this man? Indeed, how many citizens of the USA, itself could name this figure? {grin} But, perhaps most interesting of all, imagine that the image is displaced not by cultural “space” but by time : as if you were in a gallery, looking at an image of a person, some old Royal or nobleman, or a commoner, and you haven’t the foggiest notion WHO this person is ~ yet here you are, viewing, e.g., the image of this lady, finding and expressing yourself, ultimately, in her expression.
    Once Upon A Time something such as the ‘Mona Lisa’ would have been news to you: Today there is in-between that past and this present tense the tension that exists between that ‘artifact’ of then and this being ‘art’ now. I long to liberate myself, thus and swim in this image for what it’s worth by it self : Would it be so wrong of me to be so self-indulgent ?
    Because it is the very presumptuousness of this image that provokes me to do more than merely react to it, that causes me to become reactionary: What conceit! Foremost that I should recognize this person; but so much more than this: that, having put a name on ‘He’, the pronoun we should then believe that we now know who or what the character, “Mr. Obama”, really is.
    When in fact, You don’t know “Jack”.

  • ScottDaytonOH

    A couple of things strike me. First, he’s clearly gazing towards the window. In setting with file cabinets and card catalogues it gives me the impression he’s looking for the future; for more.
    I also notice in his posture, the holding of his hands. It is a mindful, respectful gesture. He’s not sitting, not leaning, just keeping to himself and waiting patiently.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes