February 8, 2009

Leibovitz The Pest, Among Other Things

“We had the economic team”—including Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag, and Christina Romer—“for only a couple of minutes before they were off to the next meeting,” says portfolio co-producer Kathryn MacLeod. “It was an incredible challenge. People, you could tell, had their mind on the huge task that lay before them.” — from Keeping Up With History (Vanity Fair)

The main problem with the administration portraits we’ve been looking at, particularly this latest shot by Annie Leibovitz (who is otherwise treated like royalty by her subjects), is that they aren’t really portraits, they’re rush jobs. This group looks nothing if not inconvenienced. Summers is fishing around in his pocket. Orzag has his arms and his legs crosses with a peeved expression on his face. Giethner has a “get it over with” look. And even Christina Romer, beyond the background and beyond the male triangle, has a weak smile paired with a circumspect look.

If I said I felt sorry for Leibovitz, I’d be lying. She’s a cultural icon. But, beyond that, photography is always, ultimately, a crap shoot. And this hit-and-run of a session, from the unwilling subjects to the awkward office chairs, down to the industrial carpet and the light panel on the far wall, is an utter disaster.

Given its political saliency however, the relevant question is: how will this photo stand the test of time?

What I believe it will come to emphasize (far more than it does now, given how trained we are to see indulgent portrayals of publicity-savvy political celebrities) is the quality of absolute urgency on the part of this new Administration, especially those tasked with tackling an economic crisis of historic proportions.

At the risk of projecting sourness, lack of cooperation or even hostility, this portrait should ultimately been seen to demonstrate one simple thing: what happens when specialists on their way to an emergency are forced — Leibovitz or no Leibovitz — to suddenly drop everything.

…It seems pretty clear now, by the way, that Rahm Emanuel’s look of skepticism and wariness — not to mention, exhaustion — in the NYT “Obama’s People” shoot can be accounted for the same way.

Update 11 AM:  Just got finished reading Frank Rich’s column today, Slumdog’s Unite!, about how most of the big dogs on Obama’s economic team have been connected to the meltdown and fundamentally disconnected from Main Street.

Notwithstanding the point above, there are still personality and other dynamics in play in this photo. Notice, for example, how the two high finance types, Summers and Geithner, look like mirror images of each other, similar and more contained in their annoyance that Orszag, with Summers, particularly known for his arrogance, seeming to resist the task at hand by having to cocking his right shoulder and hiding (or reach) his hand in his pocket. (I don’t know if Orszag is keeping his distance from Summers or not, maybe it’s the angle, but it wouldn’t be hard to understand.)

Even more overt, as alluded to above, is Romer’s position outside the boys club. If she also looks inconvenienced, she still seems more cooperative, sitting the closest to the photographer and appearing to try and sympathize. Also curious, if perfectly explainable somehow, is the fact she’s the only one toting work product. That might not make the woman the water carrier for the group, but it’s not hard to read it that way, it being hard to imagine Summers and Geithner, in particular, doing their own lugging.

Enter Obama (VF)

(photo: Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair. From left: LAWRENCE SUMMERS, director, National Economic Council; PETER ORSZAG, director, Office of Management and Budget; TIMOTHY GEITHNER, secretary-designate of the Treasury; CHRISTINA ROMER, chair, Council of Economic Advisers)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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