January 14, 2015

With All the Romney Buzz, We Return (Via the Lens of the Brilliant Stephen Crowley) to Where We Left Off

With 2016 speculation breaking like a fever blister, and with Mitt apparently itchy again, we thought it was only appropriate to go back to where we left off. The date was November 6, 2012, the morning of the Obama-Romney election. And who best to visually channel Romney’s fade out than the wry dean of campaign photojournalism, Stephen Crowley?  If we really are going to have Mitt to kick around a third time, it’s worth the eloquent, if slightly wicked reminder of what we’d be re-subjected to.  Did someone say out-of-touch, unrelatable, no stories but fairy tales? Wrapped around Stephen’s best, here’s the rewind:


Before the Campaign ’12 results come in this evening, I want to pay my respects to one of America’s finest editorial photographers. I’m constantly taken by his ability to capture meanings on multiple levels. Take his images from candidate Romney’s final blitz, for example. On face value, Stephen Crowley is merely offering glimpses into stagecraft and campaign ephemera. Look further, though, and the photos are silent editorials, even essays about the candidate, his personality and political culture.

I want to touch on a few of Crowley’s images that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times slideshow entitled: “To the White House? Or Home to Massachusetts?” as Crowley sees Mitt back to the land of the 1%.

Reminiscent of the wonderful black-and-white diptychs Crowley shot from Obama’s pool bus in Ohio (from installment 5 of Crowley’s series, “Smoke Filled Rooms”), the photo above is simultaneously mundane and devastating. The picture is not just about how the candidate is hermetically sealed in a bubble. What’s more salient is Romney’s obliviousness to the citizen/witness standing in the cold outside his window.

Hardly a well oil machine, often more a gaffe waiting to happen, there’s something appropriately tortured about almost every aspect of this Team Romney photo. Sen. Portman, sort of Romney’s version of McCain’s Lindsay Graham, is a little too frozen and deep in his pockets; Romney’s body man –wanting to avoid getting in the way, I imagined — stands like a flamingo; Ann Romney looks “a little too country”; and God knows what kind of clasp that is between the country club Romney and the lead singer from the band “Alabama.”

The artifice of this makeshift backdrop/stage set is hilariously exposed by the sight of the natural turf. If the ticket is merely sprucing up for a photo, the belt-hitching and sleeve buttoning amongst the weeds gives this photo an almost vaudevillian edge. Crowley’s riff is on looking the part.

And then, I credit Crowley for infusing as much sensitivity as satire into this final, final photo of the Romney campaign, capturing the couple under the bleachers. A lot was made about the campaign’s appropriation of the slogan from the popular and liberal-ish TV series, “Friday Night Lights” (over the protest of the show’s creator, Peter Berg). The brilliance of the photo is Crowley’s morphing of America’s love affair with high school sports with what goes on under the bleachers.

If you remember back to her convention speech, Ann Romney — desperate, by then, to make Mitt somehow knowable — insisted her marriage was more than just a fairytale. In spite of that one moment of qualification, though, that’s how she and Mitt repeatedly described it – and how the campaign materials did also. Given two people who resisted revealing themselves to the American public and who were never comfortable in the spotlight, Crowley makes a sweet gesture. In the last photo of the last slideshow before signing off on the Romney campaign, Crowley takes this couple, lost in their thoughts and nostalgic as ever for earlier days and simpler times, and deposits them back in that world of fantasy.

(photo 1: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times caption 1: Mr. Romney eschews the raucous staff dinners and late-night strategy huddles that are a staple of campaign life. At night, he sometimes eats alone in his hotel room, savoring his solitude over takeout meals that aides order from nearby restaurants. Mr. Romney got some work in as he left Kettering, Ohio, Tuesday afternoon, en route to Tampa, Fla. caption 2: Mr. Romney hugged Randy Owen of the music group “Alabama” before a rally in Ohio on Tuesday. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, left, and Mr. Romney’s wife, Ann, right, also attended the rally. caption 3: Mr. Romney is 65, and it is hard to imagine a third presidential campaign. But for now, he seems to be willing himself into the presidency, as much for the confidence of his staff as for motivating the undecided voters who may glimpse him on television. Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, prepared themselves on Friday for a round of photographs with campaign volunteers and members of the local police departments after a rally in West Chester, Ohio. caption 4: Mr. Romney and his wife, Ann, waited on Friday to take the stage at a massive get-out-the-vote rally in West Chester, Ohio. Despite a hectic schedule, Mr. Romney makes a point of talking to his wife — who is keeping her own, slightly less demanding schedule of rallies and talks — every day in conversations squeezed in on the plane just before takeoff, in his sport-utility vehicle between events, or at night back in his hotel room.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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