The Power Of Brand-Old Message Art

Shepard Fairey's poster-art images of the president-elect are making covers.
Shepard Fairey's poster-art images of the president-elect are making covers.
  Enlarge Photo    
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

At a time when capitalism seems to be foundering on the rocks of risk, greed and general grumpiness, the image of Barack Obama has become a sterling brand, a reliable, iterable, trust-inspiring label slapped on our big box of collective anxiety. The issue of Esquire magazine that hit the stands this week has an inauguration "commemorative cover," which depicts the president-elect in almost exactly the same style and format as last month's Time magazine Person of the Year issue: Obama as visionary, rendered in the bright tones and bold forms of poster art. In November, L.A. Weekly used a similar design, and the holiday issue of Washington Life has independently regurgitated the zeitgeist with an image strikingly similar to the Time and Esquire covers.

It is a powerful if not particularly original visual form. The basic graphics of the design, seen in Shepard Fairey's covers for Time, Esquire and Washington Life (stylized images based on his popular poster art and T-shirts), are strong. A photograph of Obama in his trademark "visionary" pose -- eyes focused slightly above and beyond the viewer, head cocked a bit to the side, a reassuring but mirthless smile on his lips -- has been altered to look like a two-toned print from a retro political poster. The colors are laid down in blunt, easily read fields of red and blue, with the deliberate use of parallel hatching lines to suggest gradations of light and dark.

But none of this is new. The slight turn of the head and upward glance, which allows the subject to look heavenward without seeming to supplicate a higher power, is a staple of political photography (John Kennedy was photographed in this pose very effectively). The blocky design recalls T-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevara, and the mood and basic lines of Obama's face suggest the same pose and far-seeing gaze of Huey Newton that used to appear on the banner of the Black Panther's community news service weekly paper in the 1970s. The "posterization" of photographic portraits was made famous by Andy Warhol, whose spirit haunts all these magazine covers.

It is all recycled, but the precedents are so old -- and designers such as Fairey, 38, are so young -- one is tempted to think they're used without much regard to their historic resonance. New generations of graphic artists are happily stealing and repurposing graphic techniques that earlier artists, such as the postmodern social critic Barbara Kruger, once used to directly challenge the power structure. Pop art now sells vodka and real estate, and radical iconography now sells centrist politics.

But there's more sophistication here than immediately meets the eye, which is the definition of good branding. Fairey's Time cover plays a yin-yang game with the fundamental colors of American political division. The cover image isn't just divided into red and blue fields -- recalling the iconic colors of American political identity -- but the two color fields interpenetrate. It acknowledges difference but seeks to unify it, all the more so if you look into the background, where a windmill (symbol of the new energy economy) has been shaded into the conservative red field, and a military tank and dollar sign are subtly sketched into the liberal blue region.

Although Fairey's poster emerged from outside the official Obama camp (which has been canny in its careful co-opting of good imagery), its use of color recalls the official logo of the campaign, designed by Chicago-based graphic artist Sol Sender. The famous "O" logo was also divided into red-and-blue fields, but suggested the promise of unity with a white sun linking blue sky and red stripes into an organic whole. The consistency of the Obama campaign branding, a discipline much admired by the advertising world, continues today, with Team Obama's careful emphasis on a message of bipartisan comity.

But now it is independent magazines that are carrying on the work of Obama branding -- which is the ultimate sign of branding success. Part of this is simply the allure of a powerful image. Beautiful political pictures -- Ronald Reagan at the Statue of Liberty, Kennedy framed in the windows of the Oval Office -- often overwhelm the objectivity and judgment of supposedly nonpartisan publications. And the stylized Obama-as-poster-art image has many useful attributes at the moment. It is highly depersonalized, showing an abstracted, generic image of the new president at a time when he is still, for many people, a bit of a cipher. The bold contrasts and heavy shading of the photograph also make the face statuesque, which plays into the desire of Obama supporters to believe in his greatness, even before he has demonstrated it as president.

The power of precedent isn't easily dismissed, however, and the new norm in Obama imagery suggests a dividing line that might sort out the Obama fanatics from the Obama skeptics, Obama cynics and the Obama wait-and-see crowd. Perhaps because the fundamentals of this graphic style emerged at a time when the United States was struggling not to go down the paths of fascism or communism, it makes an older generation nervous. Political branding is a staple of political life. But this branding, so brilliant, so airtight, seems strangely indifferent to the iconic precedents of authoritarian propaganda, its origins in forms such as Soviet poster art from the 1920s, that Americans have resisted like the early Romans resisted kings.

At the same time, by using these tainted techniques to stand for a message of hope and unity, the poster reaffirms a message coming out of the Obama camp: We won't be threatened by old symbolism. It parallels, perhaps, the decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren, who opposes gay rights, to participate in the swearing-in ceremony. All are welcome, the past is forgotten, so long as it's being done in the name of hope and unity and the rest of the spiel. Symbolism can be suffocating, and one way to neutralize dangerous or noxious symbolism is to re-brand it, and move on. And the Obama people are all about moving on from the stultified past.

There is a curious omission from many of these magazine covers, and the do-it-yourself downloadable Internet posters on which they are based. It is the name Obama. In most cases, when designers borrow the old agit-prop imagery, they have either left off his name or substituted one of his slogans: Progress. Hope. Change.

That cuts two ways. It advertises the pure celebrity of Obama by showing that his name isn't even necessary for identification. But it might also be a modest gesture, a visual reiteration of what Obama has consistently said: It's not about me, it's about the movement. This goes to the very essence of Obama's phenomenal political rise. He has built everything he needs for a cult of personality, while scrupulously avoiding having much of a personality (no-drama Obama), at least in public. He has brought the American public to the point of believing he might have the most precarious thing of all in a democracy: enough power to do something big, but not so much as to corrupt himself or the system.

And there's the test -- for Obama, for the future and for the fanatics and cynics alike. If this image is a prelude, soon to be forgotten and replaced by a more tangible understanding of the man, then it was all a part of the game of good politics. If, in four years, or eight, this image is still in circulation, and its statuesque vagueness remains all we know of the man, then we will regret the day we first saw it.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company