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February 27, 2009

Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait (Or: Take That, Jefferson!)

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Props to BAGreaders for nailing the irony and racial dynamics involved in Michelle Obama posing with Jefferson. If it was very clever of the First Lady, it apparently was also quite subtle. I looked at a lot of discussion threads around the ‘nets and hardly saw anyone pick it up. Of course, those dynamics can go in any number of directions, including the “see who’s in the house now!” message implied by Ryan, to the “dirty old man” angle suggested by Dan in the discussion thread.

Some of your email comments:

…Very interesting how it breaks with tradition. Not just a pretty face. A fully EMBODIED woman, standing tall on her feet. And those strong, bare arms. I love it. I had to go back to Nancy Reagan to get a standing shot, but a wholly different affect. (Victoria)

… The portrait of the old, dead, white guy in the background is funny. The Great White Man theory of history laid to rest? OR: Is that a slave-owning president? Jefferson? Looking over the Obama’s shoulders? Also a funny visual. Possessively touching the table: we’re here, we earned it. Definitely a classy, timeless look for a modern woman: no sleeves, simple black dress, white pearls (a nod to the first lady role?). Out of place: the silver wristwatch. Simple, almost non-existent pleats in front of dress call to mind elegance of Jackie or Mrs. Reagan. (Ryan)

…That portrait on the wall behind her, that’s Thomas Jefferson, isn’t it? Someone on MSNBC said it was James Madison, heard that shortly after I’d pegged it for Jefferson, and started looking around for pics of Madison. He was bald on top, and the subject of the pic clearly is not. I say it’s Jefferson, and find dense ambiguity of such a choice fetching. Liberal intelligence embraces ambiguity, thrives on the challenge. After the simple-mindedness of the Bush years, the Obamas feel like fresh air. Smart is in. (Jeanie)

Not unusual MO chose the female WH photographer (also Bush administration holdover) Joyce Boghosian to take the photo. The setting is reminiscent of the photo taken the day after the inauguration in which the Obamas surprised members of the public touring the White House by greeting them personally.   (The BAG)

By the way, if anyone thinks this choice of background might have been coincidental, the fact that MO is posing with Jefferson would be virtually inescapable to her (and might explain the rest of the awkward composition, especially the orientation to the drapes.) A week-and-a-half ago, for example, in one of her first public events, Mrs. Obama hosted an event for grade school children in the East Room. Here’s a snip from the Detroit Free Press article:

Foot-stomping music filled the East Room of the White House today as first lady Michelle Obama hosted nearly 200 schoolchildren for a Black History Month celebration featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock, an award-winning female a cappella ensemble.

Obama seemed a bit surprised when the sixth- and seventh-graders from three local schools said yes, they knew slaves helped build the White House, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation upstairs in a bedroom named for him, and that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders met in the building with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the end of segregation.

“So you guys know your history. That’s a good thing,” she said. “That means your parents and teachers are doing their jobs.”

Besides keying us to the fact Mrs. Obama is thoroughly aware of the racial history and “topography” of the house she’s living in, she also implies — as “First Mom” — that it’s part of her job to clue us as well.
(3/2/08 – Moved things around a little bit)

  • Angellight

    Michelle Obama looks and represents a “Modern Goddess”, Athena, possilby, the spear shaker, against ignorance and prejudice.

  • Dan

    I actually got another vibe from Jefferson behind Michelle. He was a slave owner but we certainly know that he *looked* at black women in other ways as well. He’s sort of a dirty old man up there.

  • elfpix

    Breaks all the good rules and doesn’t look the better for it. Blown out window, tree growing out of head. Bah. Miserable photograph.

  • ratfood

    That is “Portrait of Thomas Jefferson” by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Following is a link to a large version at (gag) The Washington Times. There is a smaller version on the Thomas Jefferson wiki page.

  • Chris Allen

    I kind of agree. Did the photographer not notice the flower bud right in front of her hand? Plus, the expression is a little off. Perhaps it is how the hair is arranged. My eye is drawn to the boundary between her forehead and her hair. Why couldn’t they pick a more flattering photo?

  • Scarabus

    I see the Jefferson (implied?) reference differently. Evidence of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings isn’t definitive (though of course partisans of one position or another treat it as so). Regardless, reasonably informed people are certainly aware of the issue.
    Some stories said that Hemings herself was the child of a black mother and white (sea captain) father. Some of her descendants lived as black Americans, others as white Americans. Barack Obama is the child of a black father and white mother.

  • cherish

    There’s a background? I didn’t notice …
    I see a combo Supreme Court Justice, Lady-with-a-capital-L, and Xena: Warrior Princess.
    Yeah, that’s who I want in the White House!

  • vcInCA

    I was looking at this photo a few days ago too, glad its up here. what i saw–without knowing who the white guy portrait was or really thinking about it especially hard– was three things: first her hand, touching the table, ala what Ryan, above, saw. touching something kinda cements her in there, this is tangible, she isn’t just posing in a room, she is OWNING the room, and by extension, the rest of the place-makes her seem less like yet another family temorporarily occupying this house, and more like her presence is very here, tangible & real–seems like this first family won’t be taking every weekend trips back to their ‘real’ home.
    second, i really liked how she is standing (and its not a full length portrait, 3/4 which is something less feminine than the reagan one, though not quite as ‘official’ as the headshots we get of the prez & VP), and behind her are two chairs. she is stepping up, closer to us, the viewers, and she is literally taking a stand, and won’t be going forward sitting down.
    third, i really like the sleeveless dress, esp in comparison to NR-to me, even though the window shot doesn’t especially look like warm weather, her sleevelessness seems to be saying ‘the weather is nice over here’ and offers a breath of fresh air. when spring & summer come, with all the ways that they can make us feel good, warm, relaxed, etc., one of the ways it is evoked to me is the single layers, arms & legs suddenly visible.
    overall, i really like this shot, both for itself, and b/c of how it stands in contrast to some of the other first lady shots.

  • Julie L

    Somehow the awkward composition is dwarfed by the First Lady. What cherish said! Xena, indeed.
    I also note that the dress is not just sleeveless – the shoulders are cut-out as well – reminiscent of athlete’s spandex – it shows more of her shoulders and exposes her athletic side.
    Notice her center of gravity. If we could see her feet, I think we’d see that she is standing with her left hip out – which defines the right side of her body in a very feminine way.
    I’m also bothered by her hairline for some reason – but I think that it’s the contrast of her curly short hairs (growing out as they would naturally lie) and her processed, straightened hair.
    One thing: lose the wristwatch. That stands out more for me than the curtains growing out of her head.

  • cenoxo

    A courtly portrait of Queen M in her Living Room, but perhaps a bit ostentatious in these times.
    If only her subjects possessed as much…

    WILMINGTON, OH – DECEMBER 16: Nicky Lily-Warren breaks down in worry over a potential back operation December 16, 2008 in Wilmington, Ohio. An unemployed single mother with health problems, she is covered by Medicaid but has few recources and may soon be evicted from her home. Finding work in town of Wilmington has become virtually impossible, as the main employers, the German shipping company DHL and its partner ABX are cutting more than 7,000 jobs. City officials say that the total number of jobs lost could reach almost 10,000, as smaller businesses tied to DHL and ABX close up. The massive layoffs are expected to devestate the economies of several counties surrounding the Wilmington hub. DHL is shutting down its domestic-only air and ground services in the United States, but will retain several thousands workers in the U.S. to serve its international express customers.

    More class images at DayLife.

  • dada

    What I like is the dynamic vibe in the portrait.

  • yg

    the first lady took my breathe away in this one:
    wish i had the still shot and not the video freeze.
    it says something that she wanted to get glammed up for the stevie wonder event but not for the vogue cover.
    i caught a glimpse of another layout where her arms were folded and wrapped around herself, forming the shape of a w. she was luminous in that one. shades of edward weston. wish i knew which magazine it was.

  • yg

    she has several looks she picks from. in this one she looks strong, confident, and too busy to be fussy. being first lady isn’t about being a catwalk model. it’s an important message to send in a culture where women are judged by their looks as opposed to their character. which creates a tendency for women themselves to be overly obsessive about their looks.

  • dada

    Give it up… for a new era in the White House!

  • Maximus

    I just wish the drapes weren’t growing out of her head. She looks smashing, but the photographer should have worked on the composition a bit more.

  • Ryan

    The silver wristwatch is really bugging me now. I wish she would have worn either a white or black bracelet around her other wrist, since the flowers accessorize her other wrist enough already.
    Thanks for putting up my thoughts in the post!

  • Paula

    A chin stroker, indeed. The composition sucks from an objective POV, but I have to agree with the person who wrote that the FLOTUS dwarfs most of the objects around her. Actually, maybe the photo was composed as such and MO posed that way in order to underscore a certain amount of casualness. MO is standing, and the hand on the table and her extended hip and the line of her leg indicate that we’ve got her in a brief moment of respite before she needs to go do something else, which means the photographer doesn’t worry about the drapery or the flowers so much. I could easily see her keeping that free hand on her hip in another version of this portrait. Her outfit also underscores that message: she nods to the tradition of First Ladies with a dress and pearls, but her minimal black and sleeveless silhouette is a striking change to say the least.
    Contrast this to NR’s portrait, in which the objects are carefully visible around the first lady and create a very baroque, and to take cenoxo’s wording, “courtly”/royal portrait. NR has that contained, very diminutive little-woman/girl posture. Plus, ruffles!
    Re TJ in the corner: you can write a paper on that. Srsly. 2009 and the events of 200 yrs ago still hits like a ton of bricks.

  • yg

    what a mood lifter that is.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    Another point worth mentioning. This picture was all over the nets, but a lot of MSM outfits cropped it so that Jefferson doesn’t even show up.

  • Palau

    She’s amazing though :)

  • C.J.

    Do not like this photo at all. Poor composition, leads one to believe she indicated she wanted Jefferson in the photo and the photographer had to work around that fact. Drapes look strange behind her, watch should go, flower in front of her hand is odd, her not standing on both feet evenly looks like she is trying to be sexy (inappropriate), and I do not like her shoulders being revealed. Awful.

  • Pingback: Reading the Pictures: The Most Important Michelle Obama Photo Ever, Clarified | Political Ration

  • Brendan Dunne

    I am a bit late to the discussion but this is an interesting image. I am struck by many details here, certainly i am sure that there is very little accidental or inadvertent about it. From what i know of the Obamas they take image and brand management very seriously. they understand how to make a statement and they know their history and their place in it. For me I start with the dress. It’s such a deep black that it draws my attention to the fact that she is definitely not. She is many things but she is not black.
    The table, which she appears to be holding down or controlling with her bare, powerful looking arm is white. And the flowers are white. They are white tulips, from the old world, the forefathers. White lilies, a flower of innocence and purity.
    Upon the wrist of her left arm she wears a silver watch. It’s not too great a leap i dont think to see this watch as a shackle. Through this watch she has found a way to include the slaves of Americas past in the photograph. They are in the white house too.
    As for the blue curtain I can only presume it is in homage to that other great mother of America: Marge Simpson.

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