“I’ve been staring at this photo for three hours. I’ve got to go to bed. Back at it tomorrow,” one person wrote on Twitter, seemingly capturing the mood of the Internet. As of Tuesday morning, more than 13,000 people had retweeted one of several posts with some version of that inquiry.
Never mind the many posts that riffed on the title of a 1989 science fiction comedy, declaring, “Honey I Shrunk the Carters!” The explanation, according to Jonathan Alter, author of “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life,” lies somewhere in between variations in presidential height and unusual photography methods.
At 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-10, the Carters “aren’t tiny people, but they are in the medium-to-smaller size among presidents and first ladies,” Alter told The Washington Post. That, and “the fact that when you’re very old, you shrink.” (Joe Biden, by comparison, is just under 6 feet tall, although the first lady is about half a foot shorter.)
Marlena Sloss, a freelance photographer in San Francisco and contributor to The Post, said the image also appeared to have been captured with strong flash and a wide-angle lens.
Although President Biden is kneeling much farther in front of Rosalynn Carter, the flash reduces shadows, a key part of what allows objects to have depth. The resulting effect is that Biden and Rosalynn Carter appear to be side-by-side on the same plane, she said.
This illusion is magnified by the fact that the photographer probably used a very wide angle lens, which helps to capture everything in the frame from within a tight space.
Another factor in the optics of the photo, perhaps, is Carter’s slim build, Alter said. The former president regularly ran long distances while living in the White House, learned to ski in his 60s, and — even well into his 90s — traveled to exotic locales like Siberia for fly-fishing trips. He was also a skilled carpenter who crafted many pieces of wooden furniture, including the round coffee table on display in the image.
Alter noted that Carter went decades post-presidency without using a walker and began to use one only in 2019. Even now, at age 96, he tries to swim most days in a pool by the Carters’ modest ranch home in Plains, Ga., Alter said. When the Bidens dropped by for a visit, Carter skipped his swimming hour to have tea with them and take the photo in question.
Throughout it all, Rosalynn — a pioneering force in mental health policy who some say was the most powerful first lady in U.S. history — was right alongside him in terms of physical endurance. This year, the couple is set to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary.
That physical ability became clear to Alter when he joined them a few years ago at a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis “He’s a pro,” the author said, “but she had very good hammering stroke and a lot of experience.”
Still, Alter’s main takeaway on the whole presidential visit to Plains has less to do with photography or height than with Carter himself. As the author noted, Biden’s trip last week was the first time a president has visited the tiny Georgia town since Carter had left office.
“What’s just wonderful to see,” he said, “is that he’s finally getting the appreciation that he’s long deserved.”