February 27, 2009

Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait (Or: Take That, Jefferson!)

Michelle Obama official portrait as First Lady of the United States. 2009. Official White House photograph by Joyce N. Boghosian.

Props to our readers for nailing the irony and racial dynamics involved in Michelle Obama posing with Jefferson. If it was very clever of the First Lady, it apparently was also quite subtle. I looked at a lot of discussion threads around the ‘nets and hardly saw anyone pick it up. Of course, those dynamics can go in any number of directions, including the “see who’s in the house now!” message implied by Ryan, to the “dirty old man” angle suggested by Dan in the discussion thread.

Some of your email comments:

…Very interesting how it breaks with tradition. Not just a pretty face. A fully EMBODIED woman, standing tall on her feet. And those strong, bare arms. I love it. I had to go back to Nancy Reagan to get a standing shot, but a wholly different affect. (Victoria)

… The portrait of the old, dead, white guy in the background is funny. The Great White Man theory of history laid to rest? OR: Is that a slave-owning president? Jefferson? Looking over the Obama’s shoulders? Also a funny visual. Possessively touching the table: we’re here, we earned it. Definitely a classy, timeless look for a modern woman: no sleeves, simple black dress, white pearls (a nod to the first lady role?). Out of place: the silver wristwatch. Simple, almost non-existent pleats in front of dress call to mind elegance of Jackie or Mrs. Reagan. (Ryan)

…That portrait on the wall behind her, that’s Thomas Jefferson, isn’t it? Someone on MSNBC said it was James Madison, heard that shortly after I’d pegged it for Jefferson, and started looking around for pics of Madison. He was bald on top, and the subject of the pic clearly is not. I say it’s Jefferson, and find dense ambiguity of such a choice fetching. Liberal intelligence embraces ambiguity, thrives on the challenge. After the simple-mindedness of the Bush years, the Obamas feel like fresh air. Smart is in. (Jeanie)

Not unusual MO chose the female WH photographer (also Bush administration holdover) Joyce Boghosian to take the photo. The setting is reminiscent of the photo taken the day after the inauguration in which the Obamas surprised members of the public touring the White House by greeting them personally.   (The BAG)

By the way, if anyone thinks this choice of background might have been coincidental, the fact that MO is posing with Jefferson would be virtually inescapable to her (and might explain the rest of the awkward composition, especially the orientation to the drapes.) A week-and-a-half ago, for example, in one of her first public events, Mrs. Obama hosted an event for grade school children in the East Room. Here’s a snip from the Detroit Free Press article:

Foot-stomping music filled the East Room of the White House today as first lady Michelle Obama hosted nearly 200 schoolchildren for a Black History Month celebration featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock, an award-winning female a cappella ensemble.

Obama seemed a bit surprised when the sixth- and seventh-graders from three local schools said yes, they knew slaves helped build the White House, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation upstairs in a bedroom named for him, and that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders met in the building with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the end of segregation.

“So you guys know your history. That’s a good thing,” she said. “That means your parents and teachers are doing their jobs.”

Besides keying us to the fact Mrs. Obama is thoroughly aware of the racial history and “topography” of the house she’s living in, she also implies — as “First Mom” — that it’s part of her job to clue us as well.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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