Jimmy Carter, who thought it would be a fine way to save money, started the whole brouhaha. Joan Mondale, who agreed, innocently added to it. As for the National Portrait Gallery staff, well, what was fine with the president and the vice president's wife was just fine with them. Carter's idea to have photos instead of painted portraits of his cabinet members has evolved -- 2 1/2 years later -- into political and personal chaos. So far, only two of 11 current cabinet members and one acting cabinet member have sat still long enough to have their photographs finished.

"We're sort of discouraged about it," sighs Bess Abell, an aide to Mondale. "When you try to pin down a cabinet member for a photo session, it's not easy."

The current confusion includes several bruised egos, a few frustrated, disgruntled photographers and brilliant color photographs of cabinet members who are no longer cabinet members. It also includes a planned museum showing that never was, a former energy secretary who has no time for such foolishness and a museum official who doesn't think it's the least bit funny.

"It is not hilarious, I'll tell you that," says Marvin Sadik, the National Portrait Gallery director, who is very pointed about the subject. "There may be half a yuck in it."

Sadik was forced to cancel, very quietly, the first group showing of cabinet portraits in mid-September. No new date has been set.

The history of the controversy began on April 19, 1977. On that day, Carter sent a memo to his cabinet decreeing that commissioned oil portraits, traditions nearly as old as this nation, were extravagant anachronisms. So what if every cabinet secretary since Alexander Hamilton had hung at their departments in oil? So what if hundreds of now-unknown public servants are immortalized in umber and ochre along stone corridors that echo? Carter wanted economy.

"An outdated practice," the president called it. "An unnecessary luxury costing anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000" each.

So Carter promoted the photograph idea, something decidedly cheaper. (Prices can range anywhere from $500 to $2,500 or more each.) "I am sure you will agree," he wrote agreeably, "that this is another excellent opportunity to convey to the American people our sincere desire to revise wasteful spending practices."

Soon after, Joan Mondale got into the act. Through her office, she compiled a fat portfolio of samples from outstanding American photographers, then valiantly lugged it around town from cabinet member to cabinet member.

The idea was for, say, then HEW secretary Joseph Califano to pick, say, New Yorker Jill Krementz as his photographer. Krementz would follow Califano around for a day, snapping him at this hearing and at that meeting, over lunch and cheese and crackers and so forth.

After that, Califano would pick the picture he wanted, it would be printed, framed, then hung with his colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery show. Later, each portrait would be moved to its cabinet department for permanent display.

That's pretty much what happened with Califano -- except that when his picture was finished, so was he. But by then, in mid-summer during the Great Cabinet Purge, it didn't matter much that Califano's likeness was ready to hang in the gallery. Hardly anybody else was ready to hang in the scheduled September show either, both because Carter had fired a sizable crop of Cabinet members and others had balked at a formal photo session.

Leading the balkers' contingent was former attorney general Griffin Bell, who thought a photograph instead of a portrait was historical heresy. So did 96 Georgia citizens, who demurred at Carter's decision and collected $7,000 in private money for a painted portrait. Today, Bell is in oil.

"I never had any idea of having a picture in the Justice Department," says Bell. "It would be unthinkable to have the only picture among 70 oil portraits of all the other attorneys general."

"Bell want bananas," says a friend. "He raised the issue at a cabinet meeting and said it was awful -- that the president didn't have any sense of tradition."

Bell eventually agreed to a photo session, but says he doesn't remember much about it. "I finally got around to letting this photographer come by one day," he says, "and then more time went by, and I finally got the picture in the mail." Bell, who at this point was totally bored, gave the pictures to an aide to deal with. That's the last he heard of it.

But at least Bell sat still. Of 17 other past, present and acting Carter cabinet members -- not including the incoming secretary of education -- only eight have posed. And of those, pictures of only four are printed and ready to hang: Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, former Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams and Califano.

And getting even those four finished photos was difficult: Krementz, who did them, scheduled and rescheduled photo sessions "more times than I care to remember."

And then there was the squabble about color. Krementz started with Adams, Brown and Califano in black and white, then did Vance in color because he asked for it. "But when I did Vance in color," she recalls, "Mrs. Brown said nothing but color would do for his. So as long as I was redoing Brown, I did Califano in color too." Adams lost out, because by that time he had moved out of his office.

The other four cabinet members who sat still -- former Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps, who hasn't been permanently replaced yet; Labor Secretary Ray Marshall; Agriculture's Bob Bergland and Interior's Cecil Andrus -- have pictures that are in darkrooms, shipping crates or reject bins.

The photo of Bergland is in one of those bins. His photographer, meanwhile, is in a state of confusion.

"It was one of the more baffling situations I've been in," says Mary Ellen Mark, a well-known photojournalist who snapped Bergland in his office. "He didn't like the pictures," she says. w"Then I agreed to do them over again for just my expenses. I made an appointment, but the appointment was cancelled. And when I called his office to reschedule, they weren't very polite to me. It was really sort of an unpleasant experience."

Mark, who hasn't been paid yet for the first session, says she still doesn't know what was wrong. Bergland himself doesn't know: "I never even saw them," he says. "But I was told they weren't any good."

As for Andrus, he only agreed to sit still after a lot of begging. "We finally and reluctantly had the picture taken," says a spokesman. "He did it solely as a personal favor to Mrs. Mondale." Andrus, like Bell, didn't like the idea of hanging in paper when everyone else was in oil.

Finally, there was the "I just don't have time" contingent. These include Benjamin Civiletti at Justice; W. Michael Blumenthal, formerly at Treasury; G. William Miller, currently at Treasury; and James Schlesinger, formerly at Energy.

Schlesinger, in fact, doesn't even have time to answer questions about the matter. He says through an aide at his office in the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies: "I didn't have it done, and I doubt if I will, and that's all I have to add." Continues the aide: "And then the door slammed in my face."

And Civiletti says: "I get my picture taken all the time, so they can use any one of those they want. I told them I don't like to segregate a whole working day out for it."

From Blumenthal: "I didn't get around to it. It was not a high priority item on my list."

That leaves four remaining cabinet members (or five, if you count Patricia Harris twice for both HUD and HEW) who earnestly say they'll get around to the picture one of these days. Asked why she hasn't had it taken, Harris replies: "Because I haven't had it taken."

Energy's Charles Duncan, Moon Landrieu at HUD and Neil Goldschmidt at Transportation have pretty much the same excuse. More or less, it goes like this: I just took over this gargantuan department, and you want me to wory about sitting down for a photo session?

Despite the chaos, aides in Joan Mondale's office remain stalwartly optimistic. They say they hope to have the photos completed for a spring show and certainly by the end of the current administration. Plenty of time, they insist.

And in the meantime they can mull over the delicate political questions of just how to hang 17 pictures of a cabinet that has only 11 (but soon 12 and then 13) members. Will the fired Califano and Amams be relegated to another room? Will Bell, who quit, get less-than-prominent display? And will Harris appear twice?

Tune in next spring. So far, nobody has any answers.