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February 8, 2009

Leibovitz The Pest, Among Other Things

Leibovitz Obama Economic Team.jpg

“We had the economic team”—including Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag, and Christina Romer—“for only a couple of minutes before they were off to the next meeting,” says portfolio co-producer Kathryn MacLeod. “It was an incredible challenge. People, you could tell, had their mind on the huge task that lay before them.” — from Keeping Up With History (Vanity Fair)

The main problem with the administration portraits we've been looking at, particularly this latest shot by Annie Leibovitz (who is otherwise treated like royalty by her subjects), is that they aren't really portraits, they're rush jobs. This group looks nothing if not inconvenienced. Summers is fishing around in his pocket. Orzag has his arms and his legs crosses with a peeved expression on his face. Giethner has a "get it over with" look. And even Christina Romer, beyond the background and beyond the male triangle, has a weak smile paired with a circumspect look.   

If I said I felt sorry for Leibovitz, I'd be lying. She's a cultural icon. But, beyond that, photography is always, ultimately, a crap shoot. And this hit-and-run of a session, from the unwilling subjects to the awkward office chairs, down to the industrial carpet and the light panel on the far wall, is an utter disaster.

Given its political saliency however, the relevant question is: how will this photo stand the test of time?

What I believe it will come to emphasize (far more than it does now, given how trained we are to see indulgent portrayals of publicity-savvy political celebrities) is the quality of absolute urgency on the part of this new Administration, especially those tasked with tackling an economic crisis of historic proportions.

At the risk of projecting sourness, lack of cooperation or even hostility, this portrait should ultimately been seen to demonstrate one simple thing: what happens when specialists on their way to an emergency are forced — Leibovitz or no Leibovitz — to suddenly drop everything.

…It seems pretty clear now, by the way, that Rahm Emanuel's look of skepticism and wariness — not to mention, exhaustion — in the NYT "Obama's People" shoot can be accounted for the same way.

Update 11 AM:  Just got finished reading Frank Rich's column today, Slumdog's Unite!, about how most of the big dogs on Obama's economic team have been connected to the meltdown and fundamentally disconnected from Main Street.

Notwithstanding the point above, there are still personality and other dynamics in play in this photo. Notice, for example, how the two high finance types, Summers and Geithner, look like mirror images of each other, similar and more contained in their annoyance that Orszag, with Summers, particularly known for his arrogance, seeming to resist the task at hand by having to cocking his right shoulder and hiding (or reach) his hand in his pocket. (I don't know if Orszag is keeping his distance from Summers or not, maybe it's the angle, but it wouldn't be hard to understand.)

Even more overt, as alluded to above, is Romer's position outside the boys club. If she also looks inconvenienced, she still seems more cooperative, sitting the closest to the photographer and appearing to try and sympathize. Also curious, if perfectly explainable somehow, is the fact she's the only one toting work product. That might not make the woman the water carrier for the group, but it's not hard to read it that way, it being hard to imagine Summers and Geithner, in particular, doing their own lugging.

Enter Obama (VF)

(photo: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair. From left: LAWRENCE SUMMERS, director, National Economic Council; PETER ORSZAG, director, Office of Management and Budget; TIMOTHY GEITHNER, secretary-designate of the Treasury; CHRISTINA ROMER, chair, Council of Economic Advisers)

  • JayDenver

    “…[P]hotography is always, ultimately, a crap shoot.” And, sometimes you end up with crap.

  • ‘contexualsense’

    ‘who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you’
    - e e cummings

  • Martin

    Well, it succeeded on the level of expressing, these people are really stressed out and have no time. The picture succeeds better as photojournalism than it does as portraiture.

  • Michael

    I question whether Leibovitz was ever relevant.

  • yg

    i was going to say, before seeing your update, the portraits look corporate. they don’t reflect the themes obama ran on. obama ran an improbable, insurgent campaign who battled someone who was inevitable. there is nothing insurgent in here.
    yeah, obama has insiders, but you need people who know the intricacies of the system (all the nooks and crannies) if want to change the game. i remember reading FDR hired joe kennedy to tackle market regulation because joe kennedy (who had already made his fortune) knew how to game the system and knew which loopholes needed closing. sorta like sometimes you need a crook to tell you how to avoid getting ripped off.
    i like the cartoon in the rich column. in an interview soon after he got elected senator, obama was asked what was he going to do once he got to the capital. obama joked because of his freshman status, he’s going to be senator pushing the broom.
    p.s. where’s volcker?

  • thomas

    Leibovitz may indeed be a cultural icon but I still feel sorry for her.

  • cenoxo

    (Image by long-time partner Susan Sontag)
    The life and work of Annie Leibovitz — whose images are no newcomers to the pages of BAGnewNotes — are profiled in the documentary Imagine — Annie Liebovitz: Life Through a Lens, directed by her sister Barbara. You can see the BBC version on YouTube: here’s Part 1 (see sidebar for Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6).

  • cenoxo

    Liebovitz the Rest

    [Click here to view larger image]
    It looks like VF’s editors were also in a hurry: examine this stitched-together lineup* of Cabinet O in images 2, 3, and 4 of the Enter Obama slideshow:

    • Daschle (sans rose colored glasses) is now an unperson. Out of the frame, please, and do not speak of him.
    • Shinseki, back turned, is ready to about-face and march off stage.
    • LaHood is fading into the infrastructure.
    • Solis looks anxious to get back to hard labor on a full desk.
    • Vilsack is thinking twice about his new job’s salary cut.
    • Napolitano is the friendliest-looking Homeland Security chief we’ve ever had. Watch out.
    • Geithner: “The Dow Jones is at what?” And what’s with the purple tie: didn’t he get the pre-shoot memo?
    • Holder — perhaps pre-confirmation here — still looks a little restrained.
    • Duncan’s hopefully rolling up his sleeves to administer a little school discipline.
    • Rice — no, not that one — is so eager that she’s missed her mark. That will change.
    • Chu (shot separately under different lights and poorly Photoshopped in) is trying to refocus his energy.
    • Salazar (also ‘Shopped in**) is expecting rain indoors. Don’t cowboys ever take off their hats?
    • Donovan has his coat and scarf on. Must be in a rush to another subprime closing.
    • Gates to off-camera shoot assistant: “I’m supposed to make a stand where? Here?” X marks the spot, Mr. Secretary.
    • Clinton is looking left, but is a lot further to the right than we hoped. Is she on Gate’s X?
    • Background Stand strongly supports the Green Revolution, and is the only corporate type getting any real work done.

    Go Team O, Go!
    *Compare details on the left and right edges of slideshow images 2, 3, and 4.
    **Several other people (Napolitano/Geithner, Rice, Donovan, Gates, Clinton) look like they’ve been added too, but Chu and Salazar are the most obvious drop-ins.

  • yg

    ..It seems pretty clear now, by the way, that Rahm Emanuel’s look of skepticism and wariness — not to mention, exhaustion — in the NYT “Obama’s People” shoot can be accounted for the same way.
    i forget who but one of the pundits pointed to faulting rahm for failing to vet the nominees fully or failing to warn obama tax issues might be a problem. if they had owned up to the problem early, say during the summer or fall, that would have avoided the issue turning into a bombshell.
    when rahm was first asked to be chief of staff, he didn’t jump at the opportunity. his initial reaction was to hesitate and say he’d have to think about it. maybe he should have listened to his first instinct.

  • yg

    another economic team member missing is goolsbee.

  • joeradish

    I like this picture. A serious group, with more important things to concern them. I would hope so. All around good color enhances the tie colors and the blue jacket.

  • Neal Deesit

    How uncharacteristic of Summers. For the “solution” to his cronies’ insolvent banks problem, he’ll have his hand in the taxpayers’ pockets, for the next couple of generations.

  • Angellight

    The GOP should stop Hijacking the Stimulus Package and holding it Hostage because the way George Bush and the GOP spent our money will be characterized by an Era of Irresponsibility and Neglect, while Obama wants to spend our money wisely and on rebuillding Americsa, if the GOP lets him. The awful truth is that One Party has destroyed America while the other Party the Democratic Party wants to restore it.
    For instance: If you have a home in which you used your money to spend on alcohol, good times and neglected your roof, your bills, and now your roof is in danger of collapsing because you used your money on good times instead of the upkeep of your home and now the Argument is you are unable to borrow money to fix your roof before it caves in because you used your money foolishly in the past is also recklesslness and neglect on the part of the lender, so they let the roof collapse.
    In the Bush years 30 billion was spent in Afghanistan — 50 billion in Iraq and now Congress wants to say we cannot spend necessary money at home which has so long been neglected? States were given no money in the Bush years and now they still want to keep money out of the States on a fraudulent theory.
    It is now time to for Congress to put money back in to the United States and to spend money wisely and not fraudulently, irresponsibly and in the dark as in the Bush years. Obama believes in transparancey, hence you can find the Stimulus package on line for all to see.
    GOP say this money will be more of the same. It will not be more of the same. This money will be used for Americans, for jobs, to rebuild for improvement and innovations to improve life not on wars and countries which have nothing to do with American people or on big business who do not need the money.
    Bush and the Republicans inherited a Surplus from the Democrats and yet the GOP has created the worst economic crisis ever. The GOP should stop hijacking the Stimulus and do the right thing and let money flow back into America again, instead of holding the Democrats hostage from their quest of bringing help to the people and restoring American again. When will average Americans wake up and realize that the GOP does not care for YOU!

  • Sage

    Geithner always looks (in every photo I’ve seen) like he is hiding something and is very suspicious and defensive. I have yet to see a photo which looks like he is open to the viewer in any way.

  • thirdeye pushpin

    What cookie jar, what cookies, there are no cookies here. You can ask her; she will tell you that the cookies that are not here, and were never here are now gone. We are busy protecting the cookies. So get your hands out of the jar, trust us to protect the empty cookie jar…now get along and get out of here.

  • timolo

    ” This group looks nothing if not inconvenienced “. Yes, could you look a little more cheery as you place your head on the chopping block. You would think after inheriting the sh*t storm that is our economy they would look excited for the challenge.

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