Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
January 11, 2009

BagNewsSalon: Michelle O

On January 11th, 2008 the BagNews Salon hosted “Michelle O”: experts examine a series of images of Michelle Obama that have circulated in the visual media in the post-election period.


Images and Selected Quotes:

Co-Produced for BagNews by Ida Benedetto

Considering the images above, we came to this discussion with the question:
Michelle Obama is an assertive, attractive, professional, African-American woman who is about to become America’s first lady. This combination of qualities poses a unique challenge to the American visual media. How are they handling it? At this BAGnewsSALON, we will examine a series of images that have circulated in the visual media in the post-election period.


The conversation analyzed Michelle Obama as a supportive spouse to the president elect. Based on the images, discussants understood her to be a collaborator in keeping him politically strong, even if her confidence in the spotlight was at times questioned. Consistent attention to her fashion sense and figure often distracted from critique of the photographs, while at the same time emphasizing why Michelle is a refreshing change from other prominent women in politics. Close attention was paid to her facial expressions, alternately seen as signaling anger or attentiveness. Regardless of the situation depicted or Michelle’s relationship with the camera, Barack Obama was a constant presence, seen or unseen.

Photographer Scout Tufankjian offered insight about what Michelle Obama is like in person, allowing the academics and blog readers to size up assumptions made based on viewing the images alone. Discussants noted the consistent absence of images of Michelle working despite her robust career. The late publication of elegant, posed shots of Michelle left some wondering if the elections would have been a bad time to show an African-American woman appearing glamorous and empowered.


(photo: Newsweek. caption: The February 25, 2008 issue of Newsweek, “The Real Michelle Obama,” looks at how the aspiring First Lady is coping with the scrutiny, balancing work and family life, and making sure her husband is “keeping it real” on the campaign trail.)

Cara: We’re getting “the real” Michelle, supposedly, but her arms are crossed, a kind of defensive posture…

Scout: I don’t know how defensive the pose is. I would guess that the photographer just wants to show off her arms.

Karen H.: I always felt the arms could be intimidating to voters. White voters.

Catherine: She is cut–but it also puts here into the “strong black woman” posture to be showing the pipes AND be called his “rock”.

zatopa: true, her arms do look strong.

futurebird: I think she looks guarded and a little shy or nervous.

Scout: I think the expression on her face in the portrait is quite blank, considering how engaged she usually is. The issue with the expression is that she is/was not yet a celebrity, in the sense that she is not used to being photographed.

Loret: The pearls and the dress and all that.. very traditional and conservative. According to Scout, that is actually HER style. We interpret but we can only look so far if we use appearances only.. powerful, yes…

(photo: Newsweek. caption: “Allison Samuels examines how Michelle Obama will change the stereotype of African-American women when she becomes first lady.”)

Loret: Scout, do you think there has been an evolution in the ways she appears?

Scout: Sort of, I do think that she thinks about the camera more, although I think part of it is just an evolution in her personal style

Scout: I think photojournalism style portraits of her often work better. She has an incredible life to her that the staged portraits often don’t capture

John: The B&W adds a degree of authenticity to the picture (ironically enough) …

Cara: I’ve often wondered if discussion of “the real” Michelle is related to a need to quench quash/squelch discussions of her as a professional woman. I’m struck by how few images of her *working* we have seen. The black and white Newsweek cover suggests that side of Michelle a bit.

(photo: First family “behind-the-scenes” Flickr gallery. caption: Election night in Chicago, Illinois, November 4, 2008.)

Cara: The flickr election night image is one the Obamas chose to circulate, right? What does that tell us?

futurebird: This was on all of the internet forums with the caption “victory sex imminent.” People loved it and thought it was cute/sexy.

Catherine: There’s that tight jaw look–that others have interpreted as being uptight or mean.

Cara: They are both looking ahead – I guess at the TV, results, etc. Sort of together but separate.

Loret: What do you think of Michelle’s expression compared with Barack’s? It says a lot about a candidate worrying… his wife’s pleasure at the way things are going…

futurebird: I think it’s about the connection between them– they put it out there to show the family is strong.

Scout: I think this picture is vintage them in terms of content. He never really seems to acknowledge his victories, while she does.

Michael S: Emotional openness is clearly a theme as well as an apparent reality.

Loret: There’s a lot of personality here… they’re clearly a couple and comfortable with each other and their individual personalities. I never saw that of the McCains.

(photo: Scout Tufankjian. caption: Election Night.)

Cara: What I think is interesting is that they look completely alone, but obviously aren’t.

Loret: From their perspective, they were entirely with each other…

Scout: They have this amazing ability to wall off private space in the middle of huge crowds.

Catherine: I’m just glad it’s not like Al and Tipper!!!

Ida: They are leaning into each other while still standing tall, their focus seems sincere, that embrace is full and confident. The view from afar, rather than zooming in, supports that sense of them making private space in public.

Karen H.: Republicans co-opted the flag for too many years.

futurebird: It’s a good change of vocab… it’s our flag too.

zatopa: It was so rewarding, the sense that we’re starting to reclaim what the flag means.

(photo: Elizabeth Peyton. caption: Elizabeth Peyton’s painting “Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008.”)

Cara: I think they do look tired, and also she’s very focused. That’s a face I saw a lot when they’d show her watching him speak. She’s very focused on his performance.

Catherine: Again–you can see the tightness in her jaw. I know others think I’m projecting too much, but there is a reason why there is the phrase “my jaw was tight.”

Michael Catherine mentioned how the Flickr shot was used to critique Michelle. The Payton painting seems to also have that pull — whereas it conveys to me the long slog of a campaign, especially the grueling days of the convention.

Loret: But in the painting, both Sasha’s and Michelle’s mouths are amplified.

Karen H.: hmmm, I thought artist got the gist of their faces, although made some decisions in altering the original photograph to take the focus off the daughter.

Loret: There’s a great deal of difference… in the photograph the expressions are much more subtle. So we should be critiquing how the artist chose to amplify expressions to make them look unhappy and perhaps even angry?

Al: What do you think of the sea of ambiguous white faces behind them?

Catherine: Since the features of the other folks aren’t defined, why not make a range of skin tones?

Cara: Barack’s not in the painting, but he is, right? He’s the absent presence, if you will.

(photo: Alan Chin.)

futurebird: This is one of the few images that shows that she can be assertive to me. “Michelle Obama is an assertive, attractive, professional, African-American woman who is about to become America’s first lady.” But I keep asking is she really that remarkably assertive? I ask could we be projecting this quality onto her from Barack?

elfpix: It was before she began her speech.

Loret: She’s smiling and her eyes look engaged. Her extended hands are elegant.

elfpix: But her mouth is pursed.

Loret: I don’t think the mouth is pursed as much as she’s smiling and waiting…

(photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP/Getty Images. caption: Landing in Pueblo, Colorado on November 01, 2008.)

futurebird: I think it’s cute. It’s like a sitcom– dad is coming home from work on a plane instead of a car.

Catherine: What is interesting to me is that he always seems more playful and she looks tired or stern when they are with the kids.

Scout: Catherine, While I agree that’s totally true for this image, I don’t think it is true in general.

Cara: airplane also = Kennedys. Michelle with her hand to forehead, worried or tired.

Scout: She’s pushing her hair back- she was laughing.

Catherine: He seems like the “fun” parent, and she is the one who reminds them to eat veggies. His big smile is so clear, and her face is obscured by her hair, so you can’t see if she is smiling as she hugs her daughter

futurebird: Dad is with the plane and “work” she is on the ground “at home.”

Ida: She’s not jetting around with him, but she’s not the passive ground support either.

Scout: She has her own plane.

(photo: Joyce N. Boghosian / White House. caption: First Ladies on November 10, 2008.)

futurebird: L. Bush looks like she has put on her best and she’s trying hard.

Scout: Plus Michelle Obama looks like she is actually smiling and Laura Bush looks, well, medicated. I wouldn’t know for sure, but she certainly has always seemed a bit checked out every time I’ve photographed her- could be her way of dealing with dull political events, could be more.

Loret: Laura B has most often looked very fake. The Obamas in contrast most often have looked very human.

futurebird: Do you think L. Bush “owns” the last photo?

Loret: No.

elfpix: Interesting that the editor chose the pic with the flowers blocking Michelle.

Cara: I don’t necessarily see this pic as a juxtaposition of two types of first ladies so much as out with the old… Not like activist Hillary vs. Barbara Bush.

(photo: Annie Leibovitz for Paris Match.)

Cara: It reads to me as someone who co-constructed the image with the photographer.

Ida: regardless of photoshop, it is highly controlled if it’s a Leibovitz.

Catherine: I think it is a fabulous picture–it looks a lot like stuff you’d see in Vogue–which rarely has black models, by the way…

Loret: Liebovitz tends to see people a particular way… whether it’s kids going to a promo or a country singer…

Catherine: I don’t think Michelle looks “hot” so much as she looks sophisticated. I think it says something like, the first lady isn’t used to being in second place.

Karen H.: This is what evokes Jackie, it’s not just the flip of the hair.

Ida: Looking off frame creates an interesting tension that heightens the elegance.

Cara: As Al mentioned, there was that New York Times piece that emphasized how her interest in fashion could be good for the economy.

Scout: I think it’s a lovely picture, in that it is clearly a glam shot, but it actually looks like her, as opposed to a made-up/photoshopped version of her.

Cara: When I first saw the Paris Match photo the first thing I thought was; Oh, I never saw this during the election.

Scout: The picture dates back to the Vogue profile of almost two years ago.

Catherine: I think it would have been risky for her to be too glamorized during the election, because SOME folks thought that they were trying too hard to make her the new Jackie O.

  • Panelists
  • Michael Shaw Host, Publisher, BagNewsNotes.
  • Cara Finnegan Moderator, Professor of Communication – U. of Illinois, Co-editor: Visual Rhetoric: a reader in communication and American culture.
  • Michael Steinberg author and historian.
  • John Lucaites professor at Indiana U.
  • Loret Steinberg Professor of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography/R.I.T.
  • Catherine Squires U of Minnesota.
  • Scout Tufankjian photographer and author of YES WE CAN: Barack Obama’s History Making Campaign.

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