September 8, 2008

The Palin Nerve

Time Palin Cover-1

This idea that she’s some sort of fragile, know-nothing amateur who is going to quiver and collapse when subjected to the rough and tumble world of American journalism is painfully ludicrous….

Moreover, Sarah Palin isn’t Dan Quayle. She is extremely smart — much smarter than the average media star who will eventually be interviewing her — and she is very politically skilled as well. She didn’t go from obscure small-town city council member to Governor to Vice Presidential nominee by accident. She’ll be more than adequately prepared for the shallow, 30-second, rote exchanges that pass for political interviews in our serious mainstream discourse. Anyone expecting her to fall on her face or be exposed as some drooling simpleton is going to be extremely disappointed. That might (or might not) happen with real questioning, but she’s not going to face that.

–  from: The mighty, scary press corps / Glenn Greenwald

Even without the larger media sensationalizing and the echoing of GOP spin about Sarah Palin, this would still represent a very fine cover.  You don’t get this kind of portrait without a photographer daring to look at a not-so-passive subject — and requiring the subject to have to deal with it.

… But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Just what is so impressive about this image?

First, you have to appreciate we are looking at someone completely new to the national stage being asked to present herself for the first time to potentially hundreds of millions of Americans.  In response, Palin is not only not daunted or nervous (or even flattered or honored).  Instead, in her fixed gaze back at us, she chooses to defy the task.  In other words, she is not offering herself up to be looked at or studied in the way a portrait requires some submission or buy-in.  Rather, Palin exercises the authority to defy the exercise and examine the photographer (and us) back.

But, brilliantly, that’s already built into the editorial context, as TIME acknowledges Palin’s skill, political intelligence and nerve in a completely matter-of-fact way, alluding to a political education and (in the title of the cover story“How Sarah Palin Mastered Politics”) the mastery that, in a national debut, could produce a maverick (read: defiant) stance and a gaze like this.

The other telling thing about this image is Palin’s complete subversion of the color pink.  In her acceptance speech last week, Palin went out of her way to blatantly recode the way the public is to understand her lipstick.  What it is to signify instead — completely bastardizing the more typical feminine, softening and peace-loving associations to the pink of her lips, and by extension, her clothing — is the violence and intimidation of the pit bull.

Two more features here, one of which is probably a bit of a commentary by the photographer.  It’s interesting how Palin, so fixed as she is, is captured off-center.  The feeling I get, although it’s subjective territory, is that placing her at the edge or the margin was how the shooter used the frame to speak to her underlying temperament and carriage.  Finally, an astute reader alerted me to one other “off-kilter” element here.  If you follow the line of Palin’s glasses using the bottom of the TIME letters as a level, you’ll notice her head is frames are tilted to the right.  I don’t know how to interpret this except to say that, in the portrait, it’s another element that lends tension and contradiction to a person who, in the rest of her presentation — her hair, her makeup and her designer glasses (which are creating so much sensation) — is otherwise so carefully composed.

Either tomorrow or Tuesday, I’m going to touch on the new Newsweek cover, which I see as little more than blatant Palin PR.  Beyond the TIME cover, however, what the public needs is a more uncomplicated view of the Alaskan governor, in the vein of Sarah Palin buddy-buddy with Senator Stevens; or Sarah Palin addressing the secessionist Alaska Independence Party; or the glorified hunter with the bloody animals; or Sara Palin — with a smug expression, surrounded by smug-looking aides, Sarah Palin bumper stickers and a soda can with a Superman emblem on it — touting The Bridge To Nowhere.

Palin-Stevens Palin-Independence-Party Palin Caribou


h/t: Eric

(image 1: Richard Fleischman/Time.  September 3, 2008. Minneapolis.  image 2: TPM.  image 3: Alaskan Independence Party website. image 4: Associated Press. caption: A HUNTING TROPHY: In this undated photo, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and one of her daughters pose with a caribou she shot. A woman in an exceedingly macho state, Palin has not always been taken seriously. But opponents cross her at their peril.image 4: Obama Campaign via

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Michael Shaw
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