Museum Exhibit: Photos of President Obama's Inauguration at American History

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Perhaps the Smithsonian should have put a little more distance between its prestige and the popularity of President Obama. Perhaps it should have timed the exhibition of "I Do Solemnly Swear: Photographs of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration," which opened yesterday at the National Museum of American History on the 100th day of Obama's administration, a little more discreetly. Perhaps it shouldn't have devoted the bulk of the more than 30 photographs on display to images taken by the official photographers of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Perhaps everyone should step back a moment, and contemplate whether history deserves at least as much time to age as Beaujolais nouveau.

But no. Obama is so popular, so interesting and so photogenic that the Smithsonian can't resist, even if it means violating the best standards of museology. The argument for indulging Obamania, among professionals who should know better, is that Obama's election is particularly historic, because he is the first African American president.

But that's a dodge. The Smithsonian hasn't mounted an exhibit like this, for a sitting president, in recent memory, if ever. And it's not doing it because it's historic -- George W. Bush's first election, which hung in the balance for weeks, was also historic -- the Smithsonanian is doing it because Obama has the peculiar, hard-to-define but easy-to-spot power of the superstar.

The images are closely packed, chronologically. The show begins with the pre-inaugural festivities on the weekend of Jan. 17-18 and includes Obama's first day in office. It opens with the whistle-stop train tour, which began in Philadelphia and brought the president-elect to Washington. One of the last images, showing Obama's arrival in the Oval Office on Jan. 21, reveals the new president in the bright morning light with a stack of newspapers under his arm, a small detail that strikes a strong contrast with his predecessor, who made contradictory claims about whether he read newspapers.

A lot of mythmaking can happen in just a few days. Official White House Photographer Pete Souza captures Obama standing in front of Aaron Shikler's famous painting of President John F. Kennedy, arms folded, head bowed, lonely in his presidential splendor. Obama is seen with his back to the camera, alone, but looking up at a man to whom he has sometimes been compared. Another version of this image, by photographer Callie Shell (in Time), is framed more widely, showing Obama full length and standing almost casually, hands in pockets, before the painting. By focusing more tightly on Obama, Souza's photograph emphasizes a more reverential quality in Obama's stance.

This is a classic "it's lonely at the top" image, which is only true metaphorically. In fact, the president is almost constantly at the center of swarms of people and only very rarely alone. The original Kennedy painting, and Souza's reinterpretation of it with Obama, equates an image of aloneness with the burden of presidential responsibility, one of those tropes that's become so common we hardly bother to question it.

Other images seem designed to emphasize the difference between Obama and his predecessor. A photograph of the two men talking during a pre-inaugural White House meeting shows Obama the Listener, juxtaposed with Bush the Decider. Bush emphasizes his point with his index finger tightly pinching his thumb, a hard, almost angry gesture. You can almost hear the old Bush tone, insistent, didactic, perhaps a little impatient.

All these images are carefully constructed: By the choice of photographers given access to the president, by their framing of the image and by the editing process, which winnowed the thousands of images available for this exhibition to the less than three-dozen on display. In several captions, the Smithsonian curators have taken pains to point out the construction process. The trucks that carried hordes of photographers on the inaugural parade route are included in one photograph and the photographers' platform that stood between Obama and the expanse of the Mall appears in another.

We've come a long way since the press was wowed by President Ronald Reagan's carefully constructed images. Although there were images of photographers photographing him, the ideal Reagan image eliminated the photographer in an effort to create a transparent, perfect window on the spectacle of power. Today, the presence of the photographer is celebrated. Obama is the cynosure of all lenses.

And thus, presidential photography morphs into celebrity photography. For the politician, the camera is a tool. But for the celebrity, it's not just a tool, but also proof of status. The paparazzi are a nuisance, to be sure, but they demonstrate the power of the celebrity to command attention.

Obama is a strange hybrid of politician and celebrity, and so we see him in perfectly framed images, enacting political power, and we see him being borne down upon by hundreds of ominous cameras. Even the supposed victimization of the celebrity by the photographer -- the "dark side" of celebrity -- is hinted at in this exhibition. Obama doesn't just suffer Kennedy's "loneliness" of power, he lives in the Jonas Brothers fishbowl.

The exhibition's version of another famous image -- Obama and his wife, Michelle, riding in a freight elevator during the night of inaugural balls -- is shot without including the four-man Secret Service detail who appear in other documents of that moment. This makes the affectionate interaction of the president and first lady seem all the more intimate, and also more fragile. By eliminating bystanders, the photograph feels even more invasive of the president's privacy. And so one feels sorry for the man, in a way that is more often attached to the phenomenon of celebrity than that of the politician.

These sort of "backstage" images are the most interesting, but they, too, are mostly fiction. If there's a photographer in the room, there's no backstage. Intimacy is always choreographed.

We know these things. We live in a media-saturated culture. We know all the tricks of making the image look candid, real, honest and sincere. And yet the tricks still work, which is maddening if you try to be rational about it. Perhaps that explains why so many of these professionally made images show people with cellphone cameras, trying to make blurry personal mementos of one of the most photographed men in history. It is a mystery: Why does making a bad digital picture on an inferior camera still feel like an authentic act of memory and possession?

Because it seems to stand to the side of the closed, insular process of political-celebrity imagemaking, a process that no longer even bothers to hide its artificiality. Where once a politician reached out to teeming seas of outstretched hands, today, they now reach out to hundreds of cellphone cameras, the new visual analogue to the ancient handshake. And so we clutter up Web sites and Facebook pages, with zillions of meaningless snapshots of Obama, a strange, unconscious revenge on the art of photography that has, in shows like this, merged so seamlessly with the cult of power.

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