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Behind 'Obama's People': In the Footsteps of Richard Avedon
source: New York Times magazine


washington monument
The photographer Nadav Kander at the Washington Monument earlier this month.
Arianne Teeple for The New York Times



Published: January 14, 2009--Editor's Letter-EARLY IN 1976, with both the post-Watergate presidential election and the bicentennial celebration in mind, Rolling Stone approached Richard Avedon, America's most celebrated portrait photographer of the time, with the idea of spending the year shooting pictures on the campaign trail. Avedon had other ideas, or, better, a bigger idea: To photograph the men and women he understood to constitute the political leadership of the United States.

The result, published in Rolling Stone's Oct. 21, 1976, issue and taking up the entire feature well of the magazine, was a portfolio of 73 black-and-white portraits - formal, frank in a stylized way and, page after page after page, thoroughly absorbing.

It was with that project very much in mind that The Times Magazine asked Nadav Kander - one of the more original and highly regarded portraitists at work just now - if he would like to photograph the administration of Barack Obama as it was being assembled.

We, like many of our readers - like most Americans, it seems fair to say - sensed something eventful and potentially far-reaching about the election and the challenges the new president and his team would immediately face. Why not take account of this with portraits of those whose character and temperament and bearing may well prove consequential in the coming months and years?

The result is what we have titled "Obama's People" - 52 full-page color portraits of the vice president-elect and the incoming president's advisers, aides and cabinet secretaries-designate (some of whom may have been confirmed or may have withdrawn by the time you read this), along with those legislators who are likely to prove influential in helping to usher into law what the new administration sets out to do. (President-elect Obama declined to pose for a formal picture.) The portraits were taken in mid-December and earlier this month in Chicago and Washington.

The magazine's editor of photography, Kathy Ryan, along with two members of her staff, Kira Pollack and Stacey Baker, organized and oversaw the sessions. (To get a glimpse behind the camera, see the magazine's back page.) Matt Bai, who has been the magazine's chief political writer through the last two presidential-election cycles, drew up the list of whom to photograph and also wrote the elegant essay that serves as an overture to the issue and the moment.

But Kander's portfolio was never intended to be any sort of definitive representation of who mattered in and around the White House at the dawn of the Obama era. That will be the job of history. Kander was shooting in the conditional.

IN "CAMERA LUCIDA," his searching reflection on how photographs convey their meaning and emotional power, Roland Barthes suggests that any time a subject steps in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, four people show up: who that individual thinks he is, who he wants others to think he is, who the photographer thinks the subject is and whom the photographer will try to make use of to bring about his art.

To take a subject out of his environment and situate him under elaborate lighting before a sheet of white, seamless paper for 10 or 15 minutes has a way of heightening the tensions among those various self-presentations. A traditional portrait produced by a painter over the course of many sittings is an accrual of impressions building toward something conclusive; photographs like those Kander creates draw their power from the charge of brief encounters - theatrical moments of physical and psychological arrangement: what is Robert Gates saying (about himself? to the camera? to us?) with that parade-ground stance of his? Is Rahm Emanuel's unflinching, impatient stare aimed at Kander - or at Capitol Hill?

Kander's portraits also, perhaps, cannot help speaking as a whole: whom, or what, do "Obama's People" add up to? Photography's own history invites this kind of thinking.

It was August Sander, the German master, who, in the decades before the Second World War, set out with a certain Teutonic orderliness to take hundreds of stark portraits of Germans from all walks of life, assembling them according to types (skilled tradesmen, professionals, artists and so on) like so many zoological specimens. Avedon fell under Sander's sway in the 1970s, and his decision to title his Rolling Stone portfolio "The Family" was meant to impart his understanding that the specimens he had documented - elected officials and political candidates, left and right; cabinet officials; Washington fixers; labor leaders; newspaper executives; generals; and on - amounted to a genus: a photographic analog to C. Wright Mills's "Power Elite."

America's leaders, Avedon's pictures evince, were for the most part grave, glamourless, white men of a certain age who wore dark suits and, if not all instantly recognizable to us, would (like members of any extended family) be on familiar-enough terms with one another.

This sort of Big Think about power and politics, provocative as it could be, seems to have gone out with the 20th century. It never really said as much as it thought it did. (Whatever else Avedon's portfolio revealed, it failed to limn that America was on the cusp of a conservative revolution that would transfigure politics for a generation.)

It is true that more women and more blacks, more Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans, found their way before Kander's camera than before Avedon's. But this says less about Obama and his being the first minority president or a liberal president than it does, simply, about the passage of time - about the impact on society as a whole of the civil rights movement and feminism and the country's recent waves of immigration.

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