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November 7, 2012

Your Turn: Winning Figures

As you know, I look at hundreds of photos most every day with an eye out for those that have something to tell us about our political, social or media culture.  Being a little winded from this whirlwind of a week, somehow not a lot was jumping out at me today. That is, until I saw this.

This photo was in an election slideshow at New Yorker’s Photo Booth titled simply “Scenes from Election Night.” Most of the shots were contributed from NOOR. (Yes, I’m a fan of the photo agency and The Bag’s regular contributor, Nina Berman, is a member.) In the collection, by the way, are photos by that dean of American political photographers, David Burnett.

Anyway, this photo by Andrea Bruce really captured me, but I’m not exactly sure why. As a theme throughout the conventions and the campaign, I’ve certainly seen plenty of images containing cardboard figures. I’m not sure if its because of how many, or because of the particular lineup, or because of the occasion of the re-election or what exactly, but the photo seems to really highlight these figures and their “elevated” roles, not just as political figures, but as cultural icons.

Anyway, that’s as far as I got. If you don’t mind picking up the ball, I’m curious about what you see in this photo, and what it is that might have captured me.  Thanks so much, by the way, for all your support throughout the campaign season. I have to say, I’m pretty excited about where we go from here with a little more open slate.

  • black_dog_barking

    Anyway, this photo by Andrea Bruce really captured me, but I’m not exactly sure why.

    Me too and me neither. It’s different. There’s not a clarity of composition one finds in most of the images here, a focus that tells us immediately what the image is about. There’s a kind of dream-like quality to the vagueness of the real people and the background. It’s not obvious from just the picture where we are or what these people are doing.

    What grabs my attention is the cardboard figures. Visually they are more prominent than the real people and they represent the political leadership of the country, posed somewhat informally.

    Looking more closely at these three this is actually pretty stunning — the political leadership of the United States, 2012, is two women and a black man. I’d call this Change, something we were promised in 2008.

  • BooksAlive

    Is that a figure of Pres. Clinton behind Obama? And in #14, the caption says “reporter,” but I see the face of Frank Luntz, a pollster.

  • robert e

    It’s a remarkable photograph!

    Perhaps you saw, as I did, a renaissance Christian painting. Dark ground, the mortals below in muted colors, the saints both geometrically and optically elevated–painted in higher, glowing tones. Classical organization, too, in a pyramidal hierarchy (conflating the political/public with Christian allegory). Mrs. Obama stands in for the Madonna, but with her hands in prayer position and eyes gazing upward, also evokes angels and supplicants. She is not the most important in the heirarchy, but she is the focus of the image–the most vividly colorful figure, forward, and given the “golden ratio” position. The outstretched arm of a worshipper directing us to her face underscores her importance. Clinton, in the Mary Magdalene position, and at the obverse golden ratio position, is nicely balanced by the other blonde woman, the largest face in the painting, who both anchors the scene and gives us a theme: women (triumphant).

    At the center, the two “ordinary” people, at a smaller scale, at the bottom of the pyramid, yet significantly centered, beam at us with joy or pride or invitation (or all three). There are many other elements that work in this image–just count the number of triangles (especially the blue triangle around Michelle), follow the gazes, etc. It helps that everyone in a photograph, not just cardboard figures, are 2D, but the lighting here exaggerates the effect, while the elevated cutouts catch more of the light and become more vivid than the real people. The line of lights and lighted buildings in the background not only brighten the scene, but demarcate “heaven” and “earth”, though, importantly, both the cardboard figures and the outstretched arm cross that line. Appropriately, the “mortals” physically support the “saints”.

    I’m sure there are better examples, but consider Titian’s “Madonna with saints and members of the Pesaro family”

    Of course, there are similar, grimmer images of the crucifixion, but the mood here is all wrong for that comparison. But the thought brings home the idea that the Obamas symbolize more than just a political platform and party.

    Makes me see the First Spouse in a new light, too–a person at once most intimate to the CIC, yet, with no official powers or political brief, also technically just a citizen–potentially a humanizing and democratizing bridge between the seat of power and the public. Michelle certainly does so for her somewhat distant husband. As does Biden in his John the Baptist role. Clinton as Mary M seems somewhat appropriate as well, as in a sense a rehabilitated persona and now loyal associate.

    (I’m also surprised to remember that we’ve now had two female Secretaries of State in a row, and that it’s already a fact hardly worth mentioning.)

    • boomerangst

      Wow! I’m impressed with your analysis. Thanks.

  • boomerangst

    This photo reminded me of demonstrations in other countries where they carry huge photos of their leaders–sometimes it looks very foreign to me and then other times it looks so cool. This photo also makes me think about Mardi Gras or Carnivale parades with the giant heads. Mostly, it just makes me happy to see, as black dog said, a black guy and 2 women in power in the USA. Yes, Michelle’s power is so impressive. To see Mrs Clinton reminds me how brilliant it was for her to become Secretary of State. Her abilities really shone in that job. And then there’s Joe Biden, too, behind Obama, playing an important role in the re-election. It’s all good.

  • Eddy Collins

    Robert e’s comments are far more lucid than mine, but for me, I see people having so much fun, even the cardboard cutouts look like they’re enjoying it.

  • Christine Lorenz

    I love how the particular light flattens the people in the photograph, so they seem almost collaged in with the cutout portraits they’re holding — yet they seem so natural.

  • Michael Shaw

    Ditto! The point about the Secretaries of State is also quite interesting — and how quickly we do bank the gains in social progress. I’m aso constantly surprised over the kind of impact the First Lady has (or, MO has achieved).

  • robert e

    Just happened to have studied some art history over the last couple of years. Never thought it would come in so handy!

  • BooksAlive

    Three female Sec of State if you include the Clinton’s second, Madeleine Albright, who was the first woman in the post.

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