Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
December 16, 2011

The Obama Holiday Portrait: Holding on for Dear Life?

Obama family Leibovitz.jpg

(Click for larger sizes)

Since we just did the Romneys, I thought we’d graduate to the White House.

There is probably no family on earth as practiced as the Obamas when it comes to being on camera and looking warm and natural. That’s why I can’t stop looking at this holiday portrait Pete Souza shot earlier in the week. (And for contrast, I’m also putting up the holiday portrait of the Obama’s first Christmas in office taken by none-other than Annie Leibovitz.)

Certainly, there are all kinds of things to talk about here. For me, though, the tell-tale element (on top of, and maybe related to the decision to take a holiday portrait “at the office,” as opposed to a much warmer, more personal-looking space like the Green Room) is the tension in Michelle and Barack’s bodies. Look specifically at Michelle’s right arm and hand, similar to Obama’s hand and grip. At first, I thought they were just love squeezes, but Sasha’s relaxed arms and hands provide a dramatic contrast; Malia, in contrast, seeming like the conduit for both parents. And then, compare all the bodies to two years ago, when the parents, the President loose and leading, didn’t look quite as tight, Michelle wasn’t so leading (in Barack’s old spot?) and Malia, of course, could just flow.

(photo 1: Annie Leibovitz. photo 2; Pete Souza. caption: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011.)

  • http://zatopa.tumblr.com Christine Lorenz

    This year’s photograph looks to me like the Obamas were posed and coached within inches of their limits. Michele’s forehead looks like it’s saying “is this big enough smile? No? is THIS big enough?” They look so much more relaxed in the earlier photo. It’s tempting to see the tension in this year’s image as reflecting the current climate, but it’s a temptation I’ll resist this time.

  • http://zatopa.tumblr.com Christine Lorenz

    This year’s photograph looks to me like the Obamas were posed and coached within inches of their limits. Michele’s forehead looks like it’s saying “is this big enough smile? No? is THIS big enough?” They look so much more relaxed in the earlier photo. It’s tempting to see the tension in this year’s image as reflecting the current climate, but it’s a temptation I’ll resist this time.

  • http://zatopa.tumblr.com Christine Lorenz

    This year’s photograph looks to me like the Obamas were posed and coached within inches of their limits. Michele’s forehead looks like it’s saying “is this big enough smile? No? is THIS big enough?” They look so much more relaxed in the earlier photo. It’s tempting to see the tension in this year’s image as reflecting the current climate, but it’s a temptation I’ll resist this time.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thomasgokey Thomas Gokey

    The thing I like best about both is that they didn’t go with a pyramid composition with Barack the father at the top. I love love love the way that Michelle is the highest head in the portrait in this years photo, and Malia is the highest in the magnificent Leibovitz photo. I remember reading an interview with Luce Irigaray years ago about the importance of disrupting the patriarchal pyramid in family portraits.In this years picture, purples and blues (the kids dresses and Barack’s tie), a few Christmasy props in the background. The interiors spaces in both photos seem more royal first-family than anything that strikes of a family home as most of us would know it.Holding on for dear life? Maybe. You could easily photoshop this into a rollercoaster. Unlike those automatic rollercoaster photos that they have at themeparks catching you when you’re in freefall, this one would be taken on the slow right up the steep climb of the first big mountain of the coaster, or just as their about to reach the top.Also, in contrast with Romney’s photo, it sure is easier to do these things well when there are just a few people involved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570058329 Catherine McCallum

    I really don’t see the tension in Michelle’s or Barack’s bodies, except maybe that slight tension we all get when the photographer says, Hold that pose. I was surprised when I read the comments because my first thought was that this was so much better than the awkwardly ostentatious Romney photo. In the Obamas’ picture, I see nothing more than a surprisingly (given their place in the world) functional family posing for a Christmas portrait.

  • Violet

    In the top photo the four of them look squeezed together in a tight space rather than the more relaxed bottom photo. Sasha is almost like a shield to Obama and this makes Obama appear almost in hiding compared to the more open and engaging posture in the bottom photo. 

    Perhaps Michelle and Obama are more worried about being the teenager’s parents and not letting her go than anything else. (Malia’s fists are held on by both the parents while Sasha’s hand is open and is holding her father’s hand).

    • Glenn

      Your comment about Malia being a teenager is exactly what I was thinking about, but you articulated it before I could put words to my feeling. As many parents of teens do, there’s an impulse to control and protect. Malia looks tense, too. It’s different from the uninhibited embrace of the earlier picture – but hey – teenagers are like that.

      Sasha has grown to be quite beautiful from being a little pudgy ‘tween before.

      The biggest difference is that in the newer photo, Barack is clasped and protected by his family, where in the earlier one he is out front and not contacting them with his hands at all.

      Still – I think both photos are wonderful – the differences I remark about are all very subtle.

      Love the purple/blue colors in the newer photos.

  • Thomas

    One of the big difference between the two, of course, is that the girls have grown so much. It’s totally not a political read, but for me looking at the two photos evokes the changes in parenting style that growing kids force. When they are younger you in some ways enjoy a wider range of personality. You get to be sillier, more playful, you do impersonations and piggyback rides, you hold them all the time. As they get older they assume more of their own space and the pressure of their presence changes. The memory of those earlier performances are still there, but you have to be more consistent, sober, maybe a bit impassive. Your conversations become more realistic, their audience more thoughtful, everything takes a tone that feels a bit more consequential. That first card communicates that looser, improvisational power that talented parents create and lucky children enjoy. The second has the feel of the seesaw being slowly pressed toward a more balanced position. Mom and Dad are still the pillars, but one day the whole structure of this grouping will be reconfigured. You’ve got to hold fast while you still can.

    Who knows what is actually going on in their family, but these definitely tell a story of a more dynamic connection than in the Romney card, where husband and wife seem lost in classroom of kids to whom their relationship is not clear or felt.

    • Momly

      I totally agree with your take being the mother of a college student and high school senior. This is a family dynamic.

  • bks

    Is anyone better at portraits of the 1% than Annie Leibowitz?  Outstanding.

        –bks

    • Glenn

      Well, it’s true that the President of the United States is always going to be a member of the 1%.

      The question is – how does the 1% present itself visually to the 99%? It would have been just as easy for Romney to have Annie Leibowitz photograph his family – he has the money – so it’s fair to compare how two members of the 1% choose to present themselves.

  • Anonymous

    The things this guy and his wife have had to worry about: And you wonder why they are not more relaxed ?

    He is part of our team, no? You hit on him, you hit on the rest of us, n’est pas?

    Consider thanking him for his service as we should every member of out military (up to and including its Commander in Chief) rather than attempting to find fault..

    • http://profiles.google.com/thomasgokey Thomas Gokey

      He’s a part of our team? I wish. He’s worked hard for the 1% and when it comes to civil liberties and abuse of executive power it’s no exaggeration at all to say that Obama is Bush’s third term.

      The sad reality is that most Americans don’t have any representation in Washington, and Obama is no exception. He doesn’t represent us. In fact, as we fight for the kind of change he campaigned on, we’re fighting against him.

      Plus there really wasn’t very much criticism in this post or the comments. We’re reading the images visually. 

    • http://profiles.google.com/thomasgokey Thomas Gokey

      He’s a part of our team? I wish. He’s worked hard for the 1% and when it comes to civil liberties and abuse of executive power it’s no exaggeration at all to say that Obama is Bush’s third term.

      The sad reality is that most Americans don’t have any representation in Washington, and Obama is no exception. He doesn’t represent us. In fact, as we fight for the kind of change he campaigned on, we’re fighting against him.

      Plus there really wasn’t very much criticism in this post or the comments. We’re reading the images visually. 

    • Michael Shaw

      The intent here is not to find fault, it’s to find meaning.

  • Afraf

    It seems like a requirement in these photos that the youngest child be posed with the man.  Does this cause some of our natural affection for babies to reflect on him?

    • Violet

      I think it is more of the dynamic of the youngest being “Daddy’s girl” in a family of two girls. Sasha is still young enough to act silly with Dad while Malia is being more of an young lady (in both photos). 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570058329 Catherine McCallum

      I think it’s insignificant, having more to do with keeping the tops of the heads aligned in a smooth curve.

  • Anonymous

    Good discussion.

    Violet mentions that the most recent photo seems more “squeezed together.” I see that (like a group photo where everyone is asked to squish together in order to fit within the frame), but I also see division in both images.

    In the earlier, there are the colors of the clothes, the open space, and the one-girl-to-a-parent snuggle. In the most recent, the snuggle thing is repeated and the vertical greenery divides things symmetrically. Same daughter with same parent.

    I don’t know if that last means anything, or if a switch would have meant anything. Just can’t help thinking of Degas’s early painting of his Italian relatives, The Bellili Family.

  • gastropoda

    I’ve been quite taken with this photo as an antidote to the all “family values” BS being spouted by serial adulterers & worse on the other side. But after your thoughtful post, what struck me is why it’s such an emotional photo. This is undeniably a close family, and I would guess they have gotten closer over the last three years thanks to Dad being home nearly every night for dinner. B.Obama himself has said it was hard to be off working/campaigning & now he lives over the store. Maybe they all just feel closer. (And I say that without denying they are very, very brave people.)

  • dissector

    The older image seems relaxed, genuine. Comfortable and warm. The more recent image feels stiffer, posed, strained – but still pretty genuine. In some ways, the newer image might seem like a more common family portrait for those reasons (really, they almost always look stiff or posed or strained). But what really strikes me is that the older photo seems warmer, not just because of the faces and postures, but because of the palette. The room itself in the older photo is set in deeper, more welcoming hues. But then again, so too are the skin tones in that image. I suspect (hope) it’s a trick of the lighting, but the background and complexions in newer image seem washed out, over exposed – lighter – than the warmth of older image. I don’t want to reach or read too much into this, but the older portrait seems to have more depth than the current, generic, shallow, beige one. Many might say that mirrors the changing perception of the administration itself; from something originally thought to be deep and genuine – an administration that would be different – to just another whitewashed politician, like those that have posed in that office before.

    • dissector

      looking at the full size images, the color difference between the two photos is not as great as in the side-by-side images in the posting; my comments above stand, but the difference is not as extreme as I thought originally.

  • Pingback: Weekly Photo Links | PhotoWeeklyOnline INC.

  • tinwoman

    It’s beautiful, it looks like they know and love each other, and it’s miles away from that collection of identically-clad puppies that Romney has on his card.  It looks like if they left a couple of them behind at a gas station ol’ Mittens wouldn’t notice much.

  • tinwoman

    It’s beautiful, it looks like they know and love each other, and it’s miles away from that collection of identically-clad puppies that Romney has on his card.  It looks like if they left a couple of them behind at a gas station ol’ Mittens wouldn’t notice much.

  • tinwoman

    It’s beautiful, it looks like they know and love each other, and it’s miles away from that collection of identically-clad puppies that Romney has on his card.  It looks like if they left a couple of them behind at a gas station ol’ Mittens wouldn’t notice much.

  • Gassho

    The recent photo is unquestionably more stiff, and the hairs are more grey on papa’s head, but the family is still hanging in there and they can still smile, which is miraculous. Think about what they’ve been through. The constant attacks from the right (and the left!) would be enough to stress any family – but on top of it, dad here had to order a political assassination without a trial (read: murder someone), participate in war planning sessions, order drone strikes, and who-knows-what else — this year alone.  The job is FRICKIN’ tough.  How does any of that get communicated among family members? 

    If I had a job that was that tough, or if my dad had a job like that, I’d be hard pressed to show up and smile for the cameras. This family can do it, though. Give ‘em a break for showing the tiniest signs of stress, eh?

  • Tzctplus -

    I love the over analysing. Keep it coming…

  • Pingback: You picked 'em: 2011's most hated TV commercials

  • Lisa

    Not qualified to comment.  I haven’t studied body language although I have a psych degree.  I’ll leave it to the “experts.”  PS.  Who cares?

  • michelle lover109

    i hope u be our president forever

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570058329 Catherine McCallum

    In my (admittedly brief) investigation of the Obama family income, I found that his inclusion in the 1% is as recent as 2007, and is due to book sales and royalties. The Obamas’ combined salaries in 2007 were around $260K, but book sales netted them another $3.9M. As president, he makes a salary of $400K, with a $50K expense allowance.

    For that same year (2007), Hillary and Bill Clinton reported $109M in income, also largely from book sales.

    So, who exactly are you pining for as president? Hillary? John McCain? Me? I’d at least make the grade financially…

  • Regina

    Beyond the visuals, President Obama is doing more than the media would like you to know. Just yesterday there was a push for better pay for home health care aides:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-15/obama-proposes-extending-minimum-wage-rights-to-home-health-care-workers.html
    And then there’s this whole site:
    http://whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com/

  • http://profiles.google.com/thomasgokey Thomas Gokey

    I don’t want this thread to turn into a political debate instead of focusing on the images, which is what I think Bag is for. Suffice it to say that when I say that he’s working for the 1%, this doesn’t have anything to do with his personal income. It has to do with his policies and who those policies benefit, who they were written by and who they were written for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570058329 Catherine McCallum

    Letting the Bush tax cut expire for all but the highest incomes? Regulating banks and Wall Street? Investing in green energy? Reducing the income gap? Providing affordable health care for everybody? Those are his policies. Don’t confuse the laws passed by Congress with the direction in which Obama is trying to push the country.

    Obama wanted a lot of stuff to happen which the Republican minority in the Senate and later the Republican majority in the House have refused to allow. He would have liked clean bills, but when he saw how intransigent they are (since their prime goal by their own admission is to ruin his presidency), he didn’t quit. If you can’t get Congress to pass the laws you know the country needs, you dig in and take your progress inch by inch. That’s what he’s doing. You should be getting behind him and helping instead of whining.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes