Power wears a smile in America.
Michael Evans, the White House photographer who created the monumental gallery of 595 portraits that is the "People and Power" show at the Corcoran, says he didn't ask them to smile.
"I just wanted a pleasant expression, a twinkle," he says.
He got smiles. Wary smiles, frozen smiles, patronizing smiles, fearful smiles, friendly smiles, twisted smiles, tentative smirks that barely stretch the mouth and large-bore dental grins that crack open the whole face.
He got scowls, too. Important scowls, irritated scowls, puzzled scowls, nearsighted scowls, suspicious scowls, comfortable scowls, Napoleonic scowls, the habitual frown of the harried executive and the sudden solemnity of the nouveau elite.
And hands: Nobody knows what to do with his hands. Most fold their arms or stick the hands in the pockets. There are also fingertip-pressers, behind-the-backers, chin-caressers, knuckle-crackers, glasses-danglers and J. Carter Brown's finger-binoculars, through which he seems about to peer.
And clothes: dark suits and striped ties. Military jackets. The occasional sheepskin coat. Open collars on the journalists, by far the most appealing and raffish group. On the women, who make up about 10 percent of the show, plain, elegant dresses and blouses. Hardly any of those dreadful floppy ties.
These black-and-white studies, all rigorously standardized with a thunder-gray background and the north light of Evans' tiny studio in his S Street row house, cover wall after wall of the second-floor gallery, nearly all of them 5-by-7s, a selected few spectacular 20-by-24s. From now until the show ends Feb. 24, you can be sure they will be parsed and pored over by half of Washington.
For power is the local industry, and this is, as George Will pointed out in his preface to the excellent catalogue, "a class picture," reassuring to those who made it and shattering to those who felt they should be in it but aren't.
When Evans started his nonprofit, nonpartisan Portrait Project in late 1981, cleared by the White House and sponsored by American Express Travel Related Services and CBS Magazines, he lined up 150 names. He had an awful time. Nobody, especially on the Hill, could spare 10 minutes to pose. Then Washingtonian magazine ran several pages of Evans' portraits and mentioned power. That did it. People swarmed to him.
It is meaningless to say you like the show or you don't. It is beyond that. The sheer scale of it forces you to discount the ordinariness of the repeated head-on poses, the deliberate effort by the photographer to avoid the subtle connection between artist and subject that makes great portraits, even to discount many of the individual faces themselves, hermetic, glazed with self-absorption, the kind of people you instinctively duck at a cocktail party.
Of course, there are some wonderful faces. The engaging charm of Sen. Henry Jackson, who died two days after writing Evans a thank-you note. The calm assurance of Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam. The bushy-haired intensity of People magazine photographer Stanley Tretick. The equable, contained force of Rep. Claude Pepper. The concern and humanity of U.S. Treasurer Katherine Davalos Ortega. The tenacity of British Ambassador Sir Oliver Wright. The kindness that lurks in the piercing eyes of Franklyn Nofziger. Faces, faces, faces.
But what sticks in the mind is the cumulative effect. This is the look of the Washington establishment today. For the benefit of future historians and readers of memoirs and the merely curious, this is who we were. All the negatives will be donated to the National Archives, and a selection will go to the National Portrait Gallery, whose director, Alan Fern, helped pick the choicest images for enlargement.
The work belongs, as Fern noted in an essay, to a tradition that goes back to the classic Roman busts. It reminds you of the stark pictures of August Sander, who recorded the German people of his time in a plain frontal style just as Eugene Atget recorded the look of Paris buildings.
"This is a pageant without artifice, irony or drama," wrote Jane Livingston, associate director and chief curator of the Corcoran. Though "such an audacious act of unmitigated artlessness" might have produced nothing but a vast banality, she added, the images as a group "bespeak a poignantly specific character of being which reverberates in our nation's governmental persona . . ."
Whatever you think of the pageant, it's some cast of characters.