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October 23, 2009

Sugar and Spice? Rockstar Annie Leibovitz Serves Up the Obamas

Obama family Leibovitz.jpg

(Click for larger size)

I wanted to look at the pre-holiday portrait of the first family released by the White House today. And, though I know the Obamas love photography and quality photographers, and also know a thing or two about having their picture taken, you can’t be overly naive in hiring the likes of rockstar and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.

With Obama in shirt sleeves, there is a nice mix of formal and informal here, with the theme of black-and-white apparently the fashion of the season. (Note the BAZAAR Tina Fey cover posted yesterday.) One thing Leibovitz seems to be doing is playing up the identity of Barack as shiny; luminescent (the shirt’s sort of blinding); pure; innocent (especially, with little Sasha as sidekick); and ever relaxed.

What is curious about the monochrome, though, is how Leibovitz unbalances the photo with the President and Sasha mostly in white, grouped together, and Michelle and Malia primarily in black (with Michelle almost disappearing by virtue of the contrast).

From looking at family photos, it’s not unusual that Malia would be lovingly draped over her mother that way. It is interesting, however, that the ultimate selection would be one in which America’s First Lady (by virtue of the dress color, Malia’s overwhelming and intimate presence, and the difference between her highly posed look and Malia’s highly relaxed one) would marginalize her be marginalized so much.

So, Mom downplayed and a more innocent skew to the left, huh? My take is that Leibovitz (Leibovitz being Leibovitz) was more than happy to compromise Michelle, along with the larger and safer themes of family and holiday (cute move with the Green Room and the red Christmasy tree, by the way) to subtlety feature Malia’s legs, that curve of the body in the little girl dress and that intimate school-girl gaze.

More Annie (including Michelle portraits for Vogue - 1, 2)

(image: Annie Leibovitz)

  • Blue Shark

    My first take is how dark, cluttered and unattractive the background is.
    …I would have voted for a outdoors portrait or something with a window letting in a lot more light. Maybe it is just the puke-green wallpaper and rug, but I would have nixed this photo in post session review.

  • Karen H.

    Is that a WPA era painting or print to the right of Obama’s head? Interesting choice, even if it’s a little out of character with the decor.

  • Nowhere Man

    I’m really not sure what you’re saying about Michelle and Malia. First, you suggest that Michelle almost disappears in the photo, but then you go on to:

    …it’s not unusual that Malia would be lovingly draped over her mother that way. It is interesting, however, that… America’s First Lady … would marginalize her so much.

    So the almost-disappearing Michelle marginalizes Malia? FWIW, Michelle shows up loud and clear to these eyes.
    (I edited the quote to emphasize my point — I don’t think that I dropped any relevant context.)

  • Thirdeye Pushpin

    Rats Snails and Puppy Dog Tails…What is up with the minuteman by the fireplace?

  • lytom

    Provincial, one does not expect these are the living quarters.

  • Jonathan

    That idea is presented ungrammatically- the author was referring to the ultimate selection- but I got it.
    I agree that the setting is dark and unattractive. Yet that family can do no wrong for me, visually (must be my uncritical worship of His “Oneness”). In this case, I see a real family cast in an uncomfortable-looking environment, which for me is a preferable relationship than effortless inhabitation- previous presidents have looked more well-matched to the stiff artificiality of that space.

  • mcmama

    I love this picture. I see a happy family, not a power couple with well-behaved kids, and it’s refreshing. I’m not seeing a red Christmasy tree, by the way. Where the heck is it?

  • Julia Grey

    I think he meant Obama’s tie.

  • Michael Shaw (The BAG)

    Thanks for pointing this out. I corrected the post to reflect what I meant (which is MO being marginalized by Malia).

  • Bluefish

    Check out all those open doors. Bugged me at first glance, but then I thought: “OPEN DOORS!” Damn right.

  • DennisQ

    I feel a tension between Michelle and Malia in the picture. Maybe it’s that Leibovitz asked them for a pose that doesn’t represent how they are currently feeling about each other.
    Kids often think they’re more grown up than they actually are, and Malia’s at the age where they roll their eyes. Curiously, there’s no tension in Dad’s face or in Sasha’s, possibly because Leibovitz may have staged the contretemps between Michelle and Malia for its dramatic contrast.
    Sasha unifies the family in this picture, with her hand in Michelle’s hand and her arm over Dad’s shoulder. She’s happy to be a kid, and her smile is the most natural. However, she does seem to be aware that her Mom is displeased about something.

  • Johanna

    This is a curious picture to have chosen. Everyone else has an arm draped around someone else, or holding a hand. He is slightly to the front of others, and not reaching toward, or touching another. Very very self contained. What are you saying about the featuring of Malia’s legs? That’s absurd. This is how confident girls that age sit. I see no contretemps between Michelle and Malia. Michelle is not marginalized. She, who is posed the most in the background, is clearly the heart and soul of the family.

  • crabby

    It appears the minutemen are part of the fireplace…history

  • crabby

    are they open to the exterior or to another interior room?

  • crabby

    I fet the sameway about how everyone is touching mom and mom them, but only the youngest daughter is touching dad. I don’t think Obama’s knees are even touching.

  • Aurora

    Their knees are not touching but they are trying to!
    I see a V shape with Michelle at the apex. The girls’ arms almost touching, as their parents’ knees are almost touching.
    A palpable sense of their family unit in that state of being aware of how they are connected throughout time and space. (Belong to a big, loving, Irish-American clan…there is an atmosphere, an energy-cloud that we merge into as a family…clan-speak!)
    OT, but Malia is rapidly approaching her teens; how will this play out in the way the family does and does not open itself to the visual media? I was thinking boarding school…
    But, meh. I am just so happy to see these strong, vibrant, intelligent people as our First Family!
    ps Michelle and Malia on the chair: I think it’s the elbow. I read it as Michelle giving Malia an anchor, others might see it as a brush-off.

  • yg

    how could they leave out moose?

  • Molly

    Shasha looks a lot like her mother’s brother and Malia looks a lot like her father’s sister.

  • Kit (Keep It Trill)

    I love the photo, and don’t see the tension many of the commenters speak of.
    Instead, I see a content and pleasant-looking father who, in this photo, maintains an air of professionalism out of necessity, “Daddy’s girl” by his side (she’s got mad love for him), a confident, slightly tired-looking, devoted wife, and the future heroine of the family, the oldest daughter who has already has more composure and confidence than some adults.

  • Kat

    Malia’s dress is against the dress code where I teach, the hem is too high over the knee – I find the shiny-leggy look from the pre-adolescent disconcerting.

  • Serr8d

    You just knew that was gonna get ‘fixed‘, didn’t you?

  • jtfromBC

    I will never know what you mean by fixed as I stopped checking out your links a long time ago…enough said :-)

  • ggb

    I think this is a beautiful picture. Michelle is best in black and I am soooo tired of those belts she wears high above her waist that emphasize and exagerate her wide behind. The absolute best photos of her are when she is wearing black and when her hairs is down like this. The fact that her two children stand out tells me that she is a mother first. I don’t even notice the background.

  • Bubba

    Hey, this President is BLACK! And his family is BLACK! I don’t think I will ever get over the fact that this miracle happened in my lifetime. Thought it would never ever happen. And the photo points up the fact that this is an AFRICAN AMERICAN FAMILY. In the White House. Not serving at a state dinner. But IN CHARGE! Wow.

  • Progressive Mom

    Malia’s eye contact and look seems to this mom to be a perfect representation of her age: I’m protecting my mom, here, so, go ahead, try something, just try something…..
    Her family is smiling. She is smiling, knowingly. Just my opinion.

  • g

    I am really struck by how Malia seems to “own” this picture. She inhabits it more vividly than all the others – and that’s saying something, with this dynamic family.
    Her position and body language is very dominant and confident. A rare thing for a kid that age – I would have been cowering in the background.
    I predict Malia will be a woman who can outshine even her dad’s charisma and stature.

  • Victoria

    Lots of wild guessing since we don’t know anything about how this picture was created. How much time did A.L. have with the four of them? How much time was allowed for this on the President’s schedule that day? How much did they know about how they would be positioned? Were there other shots with his jacket on? Who all was in on selecting the final choice?
    Here’s what strikes me: the way they are “woven together” – This is so common with them – in candid shots as well. This appears to be a genuinely bonded family. As someone said – not a power couple with two well-behaved kids, but a family. If you drew a line from that central V between Sasha and MO around the heads to their knees, it would make a wide, free form heart. Which suits them and their smiles.

  • nordmend

    i agree with “g” that malia “owns” the picture. i think she’s at the age where she’s discovering the power of flirting, and is becoming aware of her own “rock star” status and power (remember the photos of her in some foreign city with the peace sign t-shirt? made me think of madonna somehow). which is fine, more or less. in this picture, she’s the most sensually displayed, she’s showing more skin than the other three combined, and her body is presented almost whole as opposed to “sections” of the others. and the legs.
    obviously, leibovitz would be aware of these dynamics, being as she’s a rock star and all. if you crop the photo to stomach height, and in to o’s and malia’s shoulders, it’s a much more, hmmn, stable, and direct, picture. but they went with the larger framing, despite the awkward crop-at-the-knees, i think, because of o’s hands and m+m’s legs.
    yea, busy, clunky background.
    anyway, it’s all fluff, because, meanwhile, in wall st and afghanistan…. oh never mind.

  • desertwind

    That sounds like a fun school.

  • yg

    i remember in the iowa campaign portrait that liebovitz also took, where the family was sitting in the grass, malia was draped around her father.
    it was only after seeing this portrait on tv did michelle’s black dress bother me. it brought a note of sadness. i doubt she would acquiesce to leibovitz telling her what to wear. so why did she pick a black dress? before now she’d been wearing lots of prints. is she signaling something? unhappiness with policies, perhaps? does she object being in an environment where she is barred from speaking her mind? loss of independence?

  • Kat

    Technically Dad is bi-racial. He cant check the same census box as his daughters and wife, african-american. He has to check the bi-racial box.

  • doug

    That is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Really, is that the best you can do?

  • doug

    Am I alone in thinking (not just with this photograph) that Liebovitz isn’t a photographer gifted in proportion to her pay? Maybe I’m jealous.

  • Paul_D

    Serr8d moonlights on one of Roger Simon’s broken-down short buses. That’s the best you’ll get.

  • Emjay

    I always enjoy this site; however, I think sometimes the commentors are trying to read too much into the photos. Annie Leibovitz probably took a gazillion pictures and you could read so much into any and all of them. This is a beautiful picture of a beautiful family – that’s all I see.

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