A Barack Obama Presidency was always fated to yield a kind of civic
slide show. Obama is hardly the first American President to use
photography for political advantage, of course; the image of John F.
Kennedy, to cite Obama’s most comparable forerunner, worked like an
antidote not only against Nixon but also the departing Eisenhower, from
whose grandfatherly qualities the country maybe wanted a break. Still,
photographs mean something special, something more, in Obama’s case,
because, from the beginning, we consumed him—we couldn’t help but
consume him—as a specifically visual symbol. Talented speaker though he
is, some significant portion of the power of his addresses has always
been just the sight of him: black and so clearly in control. Obama knew
it, too—one of his signature rhetorical moves was to point to his own
presence at the podium as irrefutable proof of real, radical change. It
was a way of re-centering visual attention. Look at me, he seemed to be
saying, as if the looking were a politics in itself.

Now, with “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” a collection of photos by Pete Souza, the former chief White House photographer, the slide show has
become a coffee-table book. Souza became acquainted with Obama in 2005,
when Obama was beginning what turned out to be a quick stint as the
junior senator from Illinois and Souza was working as the
Washington-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune. In the book’s
short introduction, Souza describes his first day on the Obama beat,
during which the young man in a hurry mostly ignored him. “All the
while, it was as if he didn’t even notice there was this
photographer with him, capturing those moments throughout the day,” Souza writes. It
wasn’t a sign of rudeness but of total comfort under the glare. Souza
started wondering whether the upstart might be President sooner rather than
later. He provides an early glimpse: Obama in his new, bare Senate
office, ugly fluorescents beaming down from a low ceiling. One foot is
on a corner of his desk; the other, almost out of frame, is planted
firmly on a puke-colored rug. There’s not even a computer on the desk
(although there’s a hard drive, gargantuan by today’s standards, down on
the floor)—just a few pieces of paper, a mouse pad, a bottle of water,
and two books. He seems mesmerized by a briefing document.

Some of Souza’s most expressive photographs are from the earliest hours
of the Administration, when Obama seems almost as surprised—and, sure,
pleased—by himself as so many of the rest of us were. Just before his
Inauguration, he stands in front of a mirror for what are surely practical reasons. Nobody wants to be sworn in with
a crooked tie. But there’s something else in his face: a slight squint,
a vertical fold between the brows, the smallest smirk, supple lines
bracketing his mouth—he seems almost shocked at how easily he already
belongs. After the parties and the dancing are done, he stands in the wood-panelled West Wing elevator,
now openly and widely grinning, as he loosens his soft white bow tie.
This time, the mirror’s behind him. The next morning, he’s sitting for the
first time in his chair at the Resolute Desk.
Sun floods into the Oval Office and carves a frame around his face. It’s
a far cry from that scene at the Senate.

One of the striking, and sort of disquieting, aspects of the book is
just how many of these pictures we’ve seen before. I flipped through,
whispering, “Oh, yeah, this one,” every few pages or so. (Remember the black kid who touched Obama’s hair to see if it felt like his?) I’d like to attribute this familiarity to my relative overconsumption of the
news, and to my short tenure as a junior staffer at the White House,
where, by long-standing custom, Presidential photos hang on most of the
walls. But I suspect that the effect is much more widespread. Obama’s
White House knew what a photogenic asset it had in its principal, and
was famously sharp about disseminating, in real time, the fruit of
Souza’s labor. The official White House Flickr feed was updated
constantly, and the pictures made their way, through social feeds and
wire services and newspaper splashes and cable-news insets, into the
American visual vocabulary. You could follow the Administration’s
proceedings, and keep an eye on its cool, authoritative, thoughtful
leading star, as, in a different mood, you might check out the pages of
People magazine, or watch a frame-by-frame reality show. It was
reasonable: to follow along with Obama was, in a real way, to experience
an experiment.

Senator Barack Obama on Capitol Hill, January 5, 2005.

Photograph by Pete Souza

We have lately become very aware of—and some of us very worried
about—the intrusion of celebrity culture into the realm of politics and
statecraft, but “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” reminds us of how that
form of glamour functioned in the previous Administration. Sometimes we
get a fleeting reminder of deeper realities: Obama holds a microphone
with one hand and plumbs his pocket with the other, speaking to troops stationed at Camp Victory,
in Baghdad. The troops look ecstatically happy; they flash peace signs
and aim their cameras. However glamorous, this man has more power than
seems human, and this strangely heartening picture—you can’t help but be
moved—is an instrument of war. Combat is a sub-theme: no military hand
goes unshaken. A blurry capture, like a still from a vérité film, shows
us Obama in an unlit helicopter, chopping away from an unannounced visit
to Kabul. One devastating diptych shows a soldier’s two meetings with
the Commander-in-Chief: in the first, he looks bright and hearty. He
pokes his chest out a bit, and the buttons on his uniform gleam. He
meets Obama’s friendly gaze. Less than a year later, in February, the
soldier, Cory Remsburg, lies on a hospital bed, connected to various
machines by a mess of green, red, and white wires. His face is swollen
beyond recognition, and a rope of dark stitches patterns his skull. The
President stands at his bedside, eyes down.

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