The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. Or at least so we are told. And photographic representations of him typically reinforce the point, commonly filling the frame with his visage, often shot from a low angle to accent his omnipresence, frequently surrounding him with an entourage in courtly fashion, locating him in the midst of cheering crowds, and so on. The conventions here are so familiar that we normally don’t even notice them until they are ignored or otherwise distorted and exploited. Consider this image that appeared in the NYT on July 16th, 2007:
The president is speaking from the Cross Hall. Built as part of the original White House plan in the 19th century, it connects the State Dining Room and the East Room. The floors, walls, and pillars are made of marble. It is often used for receiving foreign dignitaries, and it displays all of the grandiloquence we would expect as the location for putting the most powerful head of state in the world on display in all of his magnificence. And all of the accoutrements of the presidency are here as well, including the U.S. flag and the presidential seal displayed twice. Clearly, the stage is set for majesty.
And yet, the force of the image is anything but majestic. Ironically, what is most striking about the photograph is the president himself, who is barely noticeable, a tiny head protruding from the podium, fully and completely dwarfed by his surroundings. Shot from below, as per convention, it is from such a long distance and at such a wide angle that it makes him seem out of place and altogether inconsequential. Cast in a diminutive register, he seems more akin to Comedy Central’s “Lil’ Bush” than to the portraits of past presidents that grace the walls surrounding him. Indeed, the angle is so low and so wide that it not only miniaturizes the president, but it calls attention to how truly alone he is, with no visual evidence of an entourage or a viewing audience—let alone an adoring American people—to be seen. The president’s reflection on the floor in front of him suggests that perhaps he is only speaking to himself. And indeed, it would not be a stretch to see this photograph as a visual metaphor for a presidency that has become increasingly insular and isolated, performing only for its own pleasure: a Court without courtiers. Contrast this image with the photograph of the same speech at the White House website and the capacity of the camera (or perhaps, more properly, the photographer) to manage the conventions of visual representation to maximize or minimize presence and power is palpable.
Photo Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times