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January 24, 2011

Congressional Characters

I’ve been thinking about this match, inspired by the new Congress, for about a week now.

What you see above is a juxtaposition created by photo-blogger Rachel Hulin at A Photography Blog pairing new Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, a new Tennessee Republican, with a promo poster promoting the 40-Year-Old Virgin.  If you read Rachel’s interview post with Washingtonian Magazine photographer Chris Leaman, the text is fairly straight.  Leaman had access to incoming Congresspeople at a casual-dress conference Nov 30th and December 1st and lined up as many portraits as he could. Many of the new Representatives never had portraits made and so many were fairly candid. The rest of the interview is about technical details as well as Chris’ job.  Things get more interesting just after that, though, as Rachel shows us 10 of the photos, ending with her Chuck/Steve side-by-side.

Terri Sewell (D - Alabama)

Billy Long, (R- Missouri)

Rob Woodall (R - Georgia)

In the interview, Chris said he was inspired by Avedon’s Portraits of Power and Nadav Kandar’s Obama’s People.  It’s hard not to see many of these Congresspeople in Chris’ portraits, though — more so in Rachel’s edit than the Washingtonian slideshow, but in the latter as well — as (small “c”) constitutionally naive and gullible as much as “just off the bus,” and more disheveled, even unwashed than simply common.

So, here’s my question.  What I’m trying to figure out is how much these portraits reflect and suffer from a general cheap opinion of the Congress and the Representative versus how much the institution, particularly in this anti-incumbent and “Tea Party” year, is attracting some real characters.

The Freshmen: Snapshots from the 112th People’s House (The Washingtonian)
Chris Leaman’s Freshman Class (Rachel Hulin)

(photos: Chris Leaman)

  • Vvoter

    Cheap opinion of Congress or “real characters”? An arbitrary dichotomy, for sure, but a nice setup nonetheless. Are we witnessing an emergent type-casting in congressional representation, or are the types representing themselves?

    As one who deviates sharply from Tea Party and GOP policy platforms, it’s tempting for me to revel in Rep. Billy Long’s unkempt snapshot as evidence that the new climate of populism in Congress necessarily lowers the bar for representative gravitas. (“Real characters”).

    But when we think further about the concept of representative democracy, we ought to allow for a liberal conception of representation itself. To the extent that any member of Congress actually represents the constituencies that sent them to Washington – which includes stylistic and aesthetic, as well as political-philosophical representation – I would argue emphatically that we should recognize this as a sign of a healthy democracy.

    I could be mistaken, but I detect in this post a strain of what the right loves to characterize as a kind of leftist elitism, one that seeks to erect barriers of entry around public office, barriers that would, if they function properly, ensure that no squeaky clean virgins, or ragamuffin hunter types masquerading in second-hand suits ever find their way to influential posts of public responsibility.

    But don’t we also recognize the problems that accompany a representative structure that favors the wealthy, the privileged, and those who seek public office as a means of buttressing their own advantage? I, for one, do not want a representative government in which only those connected to society’s upper crust have a genuine shot at meaningful participation.

    While I dread the Tea Party’s politics, I am encouraged by their presence in Congress, simply because I see it as a sign that the delegate style of political representation still acts as a counterweight to the trustee style, which, as I recall, favors a more conservative kind of representation where the ‘natural elites,’ if you like, rule more in accordance with their own judgement than with those of their constituents.

    If these photographs capture delegates, and not trustees, then I, as a progressive, see them as evidence that political representation in the US still maintains a real connection to real people, and that is good for our democracy.

    • Michael Shaw

      Nicely put.

  • g

    I’m not a professional photographer, but it appears to me that these photos were posed against a white background of some kind – meaning that the subjects were placed in a position that was contrived, even if momentarily. This takes them out of their element and makes them look awkward. “Stand on this mark, look over here, pose, click, thank you very much.”

    I feel mistrustful about these portraits, that the subjects appear “on display” in a way that’s not comfortable to them. Ms. Sewell looks perplexed. Mr. Long is caught with his eyes closed. Mr Woodall is in mid-question. I almost feel the photographer deliberately chose unflatering or uncomfortable shots.

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