March 16, 2017

Reading the Trump “First 50 Days” Photo Album

Trump looking out window. WHite House photo by Shealah Craighead

Last Friday, The New Yorker published an article about Donald Trump and White House photography titled: Donald Trump, Hiding In Plain Sight. The article, by Ian Crouch, explores how stiff the news photos of Trump are, how limited the subject matter, and how, in comparison to eight years of the Obama show, few if any pictures of the president are candid or “unguarded” ones. How, Crouch wonders, could Trump, the master salesman and publicity hound, fail to understand the propaganda value of photographs, and the enormous opportunity to personalize himself?

Given the concern, what a stroke of luck for the Trump White House to launch a fifty picture photo album on Facebook the same day. You would think that the gift of this photo album, commemorating Trump’s first fifty days in office and showcasing the work of the official White House photographer, would erase, or at least allay the concerns raised by The New Yorker article. If anything though, the album brings the issues of Trump’s guardedness, the quality and amount of White House visual disclosure, and even internal photographic access within the administration into greater relief.

The photo of Trump looking out a White House window is the best of the lot. It is also the only picture of the fifty that shows Trump in a more reflective, dignified, quiet moment. Even if it is posed. Beyond that, the images are heavy-handed, or they feel rushed and random. Or else they are kitschy, which I don’t say casually as President Trump, just like he did as a candidate, revels in the absence of polish, artistry, protocol or proper (spoken) language. It may be how Trump identifies with and bonds with his base, but the impoverished style does little or nothing for him visually.

While a lot of the imagery is standard promotion, several of the photos are overcompensation for miscues and you will also recognize the pursuit of alternate facts. Chief among them is the first photo in the album. The picture, and the tweet promoting the photo series, rekindles Trump’s obsession with the attendance at his inauguration.

The verification of Trump’s legitimacy — through the documentation of public popularity or simply his command over ritual functions — seems to underlie several of the photos:

Other pictures seem like more straightforward examples of brand promotion. Here we see the celebrity-in-chief signing merch in Palm Beach.

President Donald Trump signs a hat for a greeter on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, after arriving at the Palm Beach International Airport in Palm Beach, Florida. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In this example — a near product placement connecting Ivanka to working women, and more build for her upcoming book on the subject — we see what is arguably the most orchestrated pick of the lot:

You would expect a White House photo album to include some shots that are purely atmospheric, of objects or trappings that convey tone and mood. What this photo represents, though, also reflected in banal photos of placecards and helicopters, are photos that feel more like filler or stock photography:

If you’ll excuse my snark, the following photo is also telling. As opposed to most of the other shots in the album, the setting is great, the access is exclusive, but the President, almost resisting more physical alignment with the pilot, seems to be grudgingly going through the motions. (It’s Trump’s disaffection, I fear, which encourages mine.)

Beyond the vanity, the brand promotion and the damage control, the sudden appearance of the not-so-compelling album highlights other issues about photography and the Trump White House. For example, why have so few official photos been published by this administration? ( still doesn’t have a photo section).

The mundanity of the photos the administration has circulated (mostly through staffer’s social media accounts) also raises questions. Chief among them: what is the role of the official White House photographer, Shealah Craighead? As someone who consumes political photography every day, and who avidly consumed the Obama administration’s exquisite visual PR for almost a decade, it’s painful for me to observe how these chosen fifty photos reflects on the White House photographer.

Is Trump’s difficulty being seen in a more personal way limiting the number, quality and the vitality of White House imagery? Is Trump’s guardedness the reason the White House photographer — someone who served ably under President Bush and is an expert at her craft — is operating from a distance and clearly in a rush? For better or worse, these are question we will have plenty of opportunity to explore more deeply over the coming days.

(photos: Shealah Craighead/White House)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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