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October 6, 2013

New Esquire Obama Cover: What’s in a Background?

I wonder what you think about this portrait on the cover of the Philippine edition of Esquire? Might it signal Obama’s transition to lame duck status, the blank canvas behind him suggestive of what kind of legacy he leaves behind? Or, as in Bush’s case, perhaps it telegraphs an active effort by the minions to help shape that narrative by way of second-half-of-the-second-term themes and programs. On the other hand, though, perhaps it’s more critical than that, speaking about a man who remains overly formulaic about where he stands or what he stands for? And then, speaking to how well or poorly the White House was in control of the President’s image, do you think they had any idea the photographer was going to frame him by isolating the backdrop as a prop?

Just to lend a little more visual background for you to consider, by the way, here is the version of the picture photographer Mark Mann posted to his blog and to Instagram, I believe. The copy reads:

Mr president smile please #potus photographed in the diplomatic room of the Whitehouse sep 2013. #obama

You’ll notice how the more severely-cropped Esquire cover lacks a smile (it’s actually on the tense, or the bored side, actually) and has lost more outside detail. (So long, Washington!)

Finally, I don’t know what you make of the choice of the Diplomatic Room as a setting, or the wallpaper that the crop now chooses to reference.  Titled “Views of North America” and acquired by Jackie Kennedy, it was first printed in 1834 by Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim, Alsace, based on engravings from the 1820’s of the early American landscape as idealized by the French. (Here is a collection of images from the room. The full installation consists of 32 scenes but I was having trouble finding more detailed images of the panels.) This post from provides some commentary on how the mannered mixed-race scenes (closer example), and images of Native Americans “paper over” the reality of American slavery and the contemporaneous eradication of Indian tribes.

Here, by the way, is Pete Souza and the Obama’s playing with the background three-and-a-half years ago. I’m not prepared to say the background has anything to do with the Philippines, or the President’s race, somehow, but the Esquire cover might suggest, at least, that the President doesn’t let his true nature come through enough.

(cover photo: Mark Mann for Esquire/Art Director Ces Olondriz. photo 2: Pete Souza/White House. May 5, 2010. caption:  After doing a series of posed photos, the President started joking around with the First Lady in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House before a Cinco de Mayo event.)

  • Scarabus

    What’s Esquire’s “brand” these days? When I was younger I thought of it as a sort of sophisticated men’s magazine – good articles, good fiction, and photos/illustrations of sexy women. I still can’t help associating it with men’s fashion.

    Here’s a link where you can scan through Esquire covers, starting any year you want. Instructive. I’ve attached a cover photo of Bill Clinton. Quite interesting!

    Anyhow, two thoughts struck me when I first saw the photo. I often use images shot against a white background to isolate the subject with a mask and then put it in any setting I choose. Very easy to use imagination and see President Obama in whatever setting one fancies. I too was left wondering about the way they cropped it. Why emphasize the artifice, so to speak?

    • black_dog_barking

      Why emphasize the artifice, so to speak?

      Given the recent shutdown debt ceiling “crisis” facing history’s most powerful nation ever, and our cringing responses in a social/political ecology that offers no credible threats to this status, I find it very useful that someone is at least pointing out the pervasive role artifice is playing in our lives at a time where it seems to be winning the day. We need to be reminded that our responses are being engineered, coerced, and manipulated.

      Lose your sense of smell, the bullshit will find you.

  • bks3bks

    Rather fetching picture of Michelle.

  • Scarabus

    Yeah, I agree. Don’t know whether that’s what they intended, but it’s a fair reading.

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