What do pictures of Tiger Woods mean, both before and after his scandal?

tiger woods vanity fair
The now-famous cover of the Feb. 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. (Annie Leibovitz - AFP/Getty Images)
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By Philip Kennicott
Friday, January 22, 2010

Tiger Woods looks seedy in what the National Enquirer claims are the first photographs placing him at a sexual rehabilitation clinic in Hattiesburg, Miss. The golf legend's face isn't clearly visible, but the dark blur is legible enough to be certain that he isn't wearing his trademarkable smile -- all teeth, and all of them straight as an arrow. We see instead a man with a foam coffee cup in his hand, a dark hoodie draped over his head and shoulders, and a look of annoyance or surprise directed at the photographer. The Enquirer insists that the images, taken last Friday, are authentic; semi-respectable news organizations, such as the New York Post, have taken them at face value.

They exist, says Larry Haley, assistant executive editor at the Enquirer, because of hard work and persistence. "At one point while we were on public land, the gate opened and there he was," Haley says.

If authentic, the photographs complete the downward arc of yet another celebrity scandal, the darkest night of which is always marked by a total loss of control over one's own image. Woods might look like any other celebrity caught by the stalking paparazzi, but these photographs weren't taken on a sun-drenched beach or at an exclusive restaurant in Malibu. The background, a drab brick structure apparently photographed on a gray, wintry day, places Woods in a milieu that would have been unimaginable only three months ago. The Enquirer informs us that the clinic Woods is supposedly attending, Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services, is "located in a gritty, industrial area of Hattiesburg."

The slight turn of his head toward the lens places Woods in unwanted communication with the viewer, which makes these images starkly different from the shirtless, sexualized photographs appearing in the February issue of Vanity Fair. The magazine shoot, by Annie Leibovitz, actually took place in January 2006, almost four years before the scandal of Woods's multiple sexual liaisons broke out. Vanity Fair shows a powerfully built athlete staring not at the viewer, but through him, as if Woods is oblivious to the presence of the camera and the gaze of the reader.

Inside the magazine, yet more photographs show Woods working out, sweating and wearing a black knit hat that is oddly dissonant with his once clean-cut persona. They have a strange retrospective power, showing a star comfortable enough with his carefully constructed public image to risk the dangerous aura of sexual power that has dogged black athletes back to the days of boxer Jack Johnson (and well beyond).

Instant parables result. The Tiger Woods of Vanity Fair is showing the demons that the Tiger Woods of National Enquirer will have to exorcise. Or so it seems when isolated images are placed near each other, and then fused into new meanings by the white-hot glare of a scandalous story.

Both images break with what had become the iconic Woods image, the golfer seen at the end of his stroke, staring over his shoulder, eyes focused in the distance on the ball. It was the perfect image for a man who made a huge living off corporate endorsements. It suggested two things with which any corporation would love to be associated: vision and effortlessness. When other athletes might grimace or show facial strain, Tiger was impassive, confident, with his eyes on the prize.

The blurriness of Woods's face in the National Enquirer images literally erases his identity, an identity which it seems was more manufactured than real. These photos degrade and punish him.

The New York Post, in a story accompanying the photographs, also reduced him to animal status, telling us he had been "bagged by a photographer for the first time since his serial catting around sent his career -- and marriage -- into a nosedive." There was a play on his name ("What's new, pussycat?") that completed a simultaneous act of dehumanizing and castration.

This is the photography of aggression and retribution, an assurance to both Woods and the general public that he will always be hunted, always the quarry, always in the gun sights of celebrity stalkers. The photograph not only says "we're watching," it invokes a psychology of scrutiny and discipline. The camera places the viewer in the position of something that Woods was supposedly missing: a powerful superego.

No matter what one thinks of Woods, or what value one places on the virtues of marital fidelity and honesty, there is something Orwellian about these new photographs. We are invited to celebrate and enjoy frightening powers of surveillance and punishment. The press is still free, and Big Brother is us.

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