Political Portraits

Obama White House photographer recently shot the official Presidential portrait — you know, the one that will appear on the walls of the post office and other federal buildings.


Photo by Pete Souza

From what I understand, it’s the first official photo that was shot digitally (on a Canon 5D Mk II for those that are interested). This straight-forward image was a pretty stark contrast to the images that I saw next.

Nadav Kander was commissioned by the New York Times magazine to produce portraits of some of Obama’s staff and aides.


Photo by Nadav Kander

I have to be honest, my first reaction was, “What the hell is this?” I assume that Rahm has some pretty dark circles under his eyes, but the lighting wasn’t helping. Here’s a few more.



There is a strange, offset ring flash shadow. But ring flashes produce an even shadow, so I’m surmising that Kander used a ring flash at an angle to the lens to produce this effect (I acknowledge that I could also be smoking crack on this issue). Not the most flattering images, but perhaps it was his intent to make the images a bit more controversial, and perhaps even position the characters as more human and approachable.

After all, we have images like this by Platon:


Photo by Platon

And images like this by Chuck Close.


Photo by Chuck Close

The Platon photo caused a minor uproar when it came out (“omg, look how big his hands are!”, “He’s obviously grimacing as he exposes his crotch,” “the tie is pointing to his penis!”), and it makes you realize the importance of photography in people’s perception of others.

Henry Leutwyler, one of my favorites, went to the Mayor’s convention and shot a bunch of potraits that don’t look so disimilar from Kander’s, but I like them better.

Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence:


Photo by Henry Leutwyler

North Highlands Mayor James Joe West — thar’s some character in those highlands.

Photo by Henry Leutwyler

And we can’t forget Ray.


Photo by Henry Leutwyler

Henry also took a portrait of Eliot, which combined with artist Barbara Kruger’s caption bubble, won the Magazine Publishers of America’s top cover award.


Photo by Henry Leutwyler

Portraits of our politicians have often strived to make them heroic, and certain Joe McNally’s life-size polaroid (RIP) portaits from Ground Zero have that effect for “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani.


Photo by Joe McNally

It’s interesting to see these highly stylized photos, many of which are photoshopped, compared to Pete’s straight portrait. I suppose if Lenin was alive today, he’d commission a commercial photographer to make him look really good. Can you imagine if Dan Winter was commissioned to do the official portrait?

Since the inauguration is less than a week away, it seems appropriate to leave with one last image of 44 taken by my friend Peter Yang for Rolling Stone magazine. He’s not topless, he’s not looking particularly Presidential, but hey, he wants you.

Photo by Peter Yang
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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. s malone at 8:07 am

    my thoughts exactly thru thru Close’s Clinton pics. Every one I looked at, I exclamed, OMG, and it even got the the point of LOL! What are these photogs thinking? I’m suprised you didn’t throw the McCain photo in there from, oh what was it, Atlantic Review?

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