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April 29, 2009

Kander’s Obama: The Listener


I know I was critical of photographer Nadav Kander’s NYT inauguration series “Obama’s People” (1, 2). I found a lot of it either irreverent or rushed.

Kander’s image of Obama unveiled today, however — on Obama’s 100th day in office, previewing Sunday’s NYT Magazine feature — is decidedly different. Beyond a thoroughly serious portrait, I would go so far as to say it captures a defining quality of Obama’s presidential character — and does so with a clarity and conviction I didn’t expect to emerge for sometime.

The consequence of being a multifaceted person with many fine qualities and strengths is that Obama presents with a lot of looks. What Kander confidently clarifies, however, is possibly the “presidential quality” that distinguishes itself above all others.

Barack Obama, as the image conveys in the most luminous way, is a listener.

(Update 3:35 PST: So, that’s the beauty — and treacherousness– of reading photos, and character. The commenter, ids, “points out” in the discussion thread that Obama could, as well, be flipping (the photographer? us, by extension?) the bird. What would be helpful to know, in that case, is whether the index finger is up, or if it is down. …Funny, my very first — and fleeting — impression, which I dispensed with as snark, had to do with how accomplished Obama is at sitting for the camera. Looking again, could those lips be sporting an every-so-slight impish smile?)

(image: Nadav Kander. Oval Office, April 14, 2009)

  • ids

    To me, its more about the middle finger he sticking up to whoever.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    I’m fascinating by your take which I elaborate on in my update above. Makes me wonder where other readers land on this.

  • vcInCA

    I saw it when i looked for it, but not before. then, looking at it, it resonated strongly w/ the rahm E pic b4/during inauguration, within that series of pics of BO’s incoming administration, where rahm (consciously?) flips the bird w/ (if i’m remembering correctly), his partially amputated finger. i don’t really see the smirk though.
    however, what startled (and fascinated me) was how much this picture pops-it feels very 3-d, and through that, personal, like he’s right there in front of me, not on a computer screen.

  • Joseph

    He’s holding two fingers against the temple (and it’s a hallowed head that has thought far into the future). No bird-flipping in this pose. He’s a sincere dude.

  • Matt Lutton

    Glad you posted and are open for discussion on this. I’m struck by the ‘photo-making’ part of this portrait (as you might imagine). The colors are so odd, the background almost superimposed. The caption mentions that it was taken during an interview. Often, though not always, this means the subject (and/or the interviewer) did not make time for a proper portrait ’session’. It is a strong photographer who can make a (great) picture while the subject is glued into someone/something else entirely. I think the ‘listening’ motif is well seated, but I come back to that blue hue over his face, especially in his eyes. The man is thoughtful; caught in thought and engaged. But not to (his) image, and the photographer not only captured that but enhanced it by the ‘look’. I haven’t gone/thought deeper than this yet, but there is such a raw/detached but so in-the-eye quality about this image I can’t look away.. I’m very impressed. I could link to all sorts of similar work but Platon’s Putin portrait comes immediately to mind.
    I can’t put my finger on it but the odd, disconcerting colors of the image draw me ever more into the striking, tired but utterly engaged gaze of the President. A proper portrait of a man, this really is a timeless painting. (said by a photographer).

  • quincyscott

    I find this image a little bit disturbing, primarily because the background appears to have been edited out, a la Photoshop. The shadows around the president seem far too perfect, the background far too neutral. President Obama does strike a piercing pose here, but I think the edited gives the photo a sense of stage-y falseness.

  • mcmama

    Oh, for heaven’s sake. He’s not flipping anybody off. I can’t believe you people are even discussing this. It’s ridiculous.
    (Sorry, but I’ve really had it with all this crap.)

  • Vulture Breath

    No, there is no impish smile. You can tell by his eyes – the cold, stony, mile long stare.
    I agree that the picture seems remarkably 3-D. I’m also always struck by how big Obama’s wedding ring is. In every photo it looms huge. You can see it from 40 feet away.

  • nina

    I’m very ambivalent about all the photoshopping that went into this image. Why are so many photographers doing this? See I feel that the humanity of the person is somehow drained. The blue reads cold to me, almost wax like, or embalmed.

  • Withnail
  • wisewebwoman

    What holds my attention at first glance is his left eye. How amazing the clarity of that eye is, his true eye. It sees everything. And there is no hope.

  • MS

    RIDICULOUS. Where do you put your hands when a photo is taken? How do you stretch your fingers? Not always a nefarious motivation. It’s just a relaxed and thoughtful pose!

  • acm

    I guess neither the pose nor the expression really struck me at all — my response to the photo was 100% to the strange after-processing that is obvious here. The odd overall hue, the fake background/shadows, the strange “3-D” effect that somebody mentioned — I feel like I’m viewing a screenshot from an Obama videogame character rather than the man himself.
    I just can’t imagine why the photographer would do it, nor why the NYT would feel the need for such a processed image to accompany their piece. Strange almost beyond words.

  • g

    You know, most people stopped thinking about secretly “flipping the bird” while appearing in public at the age of 13 or so.
    I am certain this is the last thing that could possibly be in Mr. Obama’s mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to consider him a marxist-socialist-isalmofascist-terrorist-gun-confiscating-Kenyan- whatever, he still is not likely to be secretly chuckling about surreptitiously raising the middle finger at anyone.
    Why this has become a subject of adult discourse, I have no idea.

  • Kelly Cooper

    Here’s a thought: The responses bemoaning Photoshop are – in this instance – misguided. This image has clearly undergone alteration and should be viewed as such. Any reasonable person can discern this. I think the initial focus on “listening” is apt. Beyond that, I think the manipulation of the photo makes Obama seem “more human.” Specifically, the sharpening of detail with respect to his skin texture and other corporeal detail is significant (insofar as it deviates from conventional – even hagiographical – political photography). Likewise, the effect of this photographic manipulation accents symbols of power: namely his lapel pin and tie. While ubiquitous among the political class, these emblems pop in a way that resonates as antitheticals to the aforementioned “corporeal detail.”
    Consequently, this picture seems like a construction which marries two competing narratives. Democracy demands that a human helm the ship, and yet democracies simultaneously demand that such humans who assume the mantle of power are somehow godlike (i.e. sentient of order and blessed with the ability to provide it).

  • ids

    His index finger can easily be hidden behind and there is no indication it is up (evidently, he is being interviewed by NYTimes at the time). To deny it, and not see the possibility, and be insulted by the thought, is not healthy, when it is staring you in the face. It is the first thing I noticed. The shot almost looking up at him, from the right, reminiscent of Fairey’s iconic image, it wouldn’t take a great photographer to take that shot. Obama is in the prime of his life, still excercises, good looking, an accomplished poser. I am struck by the other elements in the picture – the wedding ring, A-flag, watch, suit and tie, which tells me how human he is, fallible.
    That’s really cool to get a bump, thanks.

  • paulo

    I’m not convinced you can hide your entire index finger in that pose if it was bent down as if to give the bird. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. But then you know those superhuman crypto-islamo-fascist-socialists are capable of incredible feats as long as it doesn’t involve water or insects.

  • Carolyn Kay

    And we already know that he’s a flipper.
    Carolyn Kay

  • Julie L

    That photo is so processed that I immediately IDed it as an oil painting. The blue highlights in his eyes and skin look so false and forced.
    I don’t care for it at all.
    And I don’t see any kind of impish grin – the expression on his face looks hollowed-out, gaunt, and haunted to me.

  • yg

    he looks tired, disappointed and fighting to contained disgust if not simmering rage. the hand propping forehead suggests to me stress, impatience and weariness.

  • yg

    puma crazies deserved to be flipped off.

  • david

    An amazing photograph of an amazing person. Wow.

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