LESSON THREE: Politicians
Well aware of the power of their own images, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy used photography as an effective tool during their political campaigns and subsequent presidencies. In fact, our understanding of these modern leaders is deeply connected to our recognition of them through photography. A comparison of the photographs in this lesson will reveal how these leaders and their photographers arrived at a new understanding of the political power of the medium.
- Students will compare the implications of pose, setting, focus, and framing in two photographs.
- Students will consider the role of vantage point in two photographs.
- Students will consider the two different historical contexts in which the photographs
- Ask your students to think about where they see images of presidents. How is a president pictured on currency? What are the props and staging of a press conference? Does the president usually sit or stand? Besides speaking at a press conference or delivering a formal statement, what else is the president doing when photographed or televised?
- Ask your students to reflect on their observations and to consider why and how politicians are photographed and televised. Why is the image of a political leader important? On a sheet of paper or on the board, write down some of your students’ ideas.
- Ask your students to bring in a newspaper photograph of a politician (online or printed). Ask them to write in response to the following questions: What kinds of choices did the photographer make? How is the image cropped or framed? What about the focus? From what point of view was the photograph taken? Is the caption important? Is the politician portrayed in a particularly positive or negative way? Now ask them to trade photographs with a partner and answer the same questions about the one chosen by their partner. Ask your students to share their analyses with one another.
Matthew B. Brady (studio of): President Lincoln, albumen silver print, 85×53 mm, c. 1862 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Show your students the image of President Lincoln, from the studio of Matthew Brady. What does Lincoln seem to be doing and what can be said about the setting? Do your students think the photograph conveys the personality and political status of Lincoln? What messages about the president are communicated through the photograph?
Lincoln had been in office for two years when this picture was taken by a photographer from the studio of Matthew Brady. Lincoln himself admitted that Brady was instrumental in helping him gain the presidency. Before giving his famed speech at Cooper Union, on February 27, 1860, the then-unknown Lincoln posed for Brady, a photographer who had established a reputation as a political portraitist. The photograph was reproduced on buttons and posters and, like the photograph in this lesson, as thousands of cartes-de-visite. Cartes-de-visite, pocketsize photographic versions of traditional calling cards, were an inexpensive and popular way of collecting photographs for albums. Widely sold, they became a valuable political tool. Susan Kismaric, curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, writes that widespread distribution of campaign photographs of Lincoln meant that “for the first time, citizens had more than the name of a person running for president. They knew what he looked like, which made him more real to them. Lincoln understood the value and meaning of a photograph." [Susan Kismaric, American Politicians: Photographs from 1843–1993 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 15.] Like the images in which Lincoln directly gazes at the viewer, this photograph of the president as introspective and thoughtful is entirely posed.
Garry Winogrand: Democratic National Convention, gelatin silver print, 398×267 mm, 1960 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Ask your students to compare President Lincoln with Democratic National Convention, by Garry Winogrand. How does Winogrand’s vantage point provide a different perspective?
- Ask your students to look closely at the image for clues about what might be going on in Winogrand’s photograph. How does body language and the photographer’s composition, framing, focus, and use of light indicate that we are looking at someone important?
- What is the connection between the action in the photograph and the television? What information has Winogrand left out of focus or out of the picture frame?
- Inform your students that this is a photograph of Kennedy giving his acceptance speech for his presidential nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. The convention was held July 15 at Memorial Coliseum, an enormous venue in Los Angeles. Given the context of the photograph, Winogrand’s decisions about framing and focus are especially important. Winogrand didn’t like being singled out for his “snapshot aesthetic," the fast and informal quality of his work. “I’m pretty fast with a camera when I have to be," he said. “However, I think it’s irrelevant. I mean, what if I said that every photograph I made was set up? In the end, maybe the correct language would be how the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it." [Garry Winogrand, quoted in Barbaralee Diamonstein, Vision and Images: American Photographers on Photography (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), 185.]
- Ask your students to consider Winogrand’s choices and how his framing affected the composition. How is his decision to exclude the huge crowd important?
When he took this photograph, Winogrand was interested in American politics and photojournalism and was a member of the Young Democratic Club and the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Known for his charisma and energy, Kennedy captivated and motivated many young Americans like Winogrand. During his 1960 convention speech, Kennedy declared, “We stand at the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams.… Beyond that frontier are…unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." [Address of Senator John F.Kennedy accepting the Democratic Party Nomination for the presidency of the United States, July 15, 1960. John F. Kennedy National Library and Museum.]
By 1960 ninety percent of American households owned a television, and Kennedy was highly aware of his presence in that medium. His success in the first televised presidential debates with Richard Nixon revealed his understanding of how television could be used as a powerful political tool. During the debates, radio listeners thought Nixon had defeated Kennedy, while television viewers felt that the well-groomed and composed Kennedy was the overwhelming victor. Shortly after winning the election in November 1960, Kennedy remarked, “It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide." [John F. Kennedy, quoted in Louis Menand, “Masters of the Matrix", The New Yorker, January 5, 2004, 83.]
- Ask your students to consider how the point of view presented by Winogrand and his photograph as a whole is a form of social commentary. Invite your students to reflect on their interpretations of the photograph. Do they consider this social commentary to be negative, positive, or ambiguous?
1. Ruling Through Their Images
Images of leaders have historically been used to evoke support, sympathy, and even fear. Ask your students to choose and research how a leader from history or from today has used carefully constructed images of himself or herself for political purposes. How does an image of a political leader become an icon symbolizing a greater idea? There are many such powerful figures to choose from, including the Roman emperor Claudius, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, Eva Perón, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong.
2. A Televised Presidency
Ask your students to research the relationship between Kennedy’s presidency and television. Key events may include the 1960 Kennedy–Nixon debates; Kennedy’s first live, televised press conference in 1961; coverage of his young children, Carolyn and John F. Kennedy, Jr.; Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised tour of the restoration and redecoration of the White House; and Kennedy’s assassination and his funeral. Students can begin their research at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Web site, or the White House Historical Association Web site.
3. On the Campaign Trail
Political campaigns have caught the attention of writers as well as photographers like Winogrand. With dramatic flair, in 1972 “gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson memorably wrote about trailing Nixon in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72. Today blogging has become a popular means of following politics and critiquing campaigning candidates. Send your students on a Web Quest to popular and established blogs, such as Wonkette and Dailykos. Please note: you may want to review these Web sites before sharing them with your students. Create an offline class blog and ask each student to contribute a written opinion on a political issue of their choice or from a selection of topics provided by you. Now divide your class into small groups, and ask each student to pass their statement to one of their groupmates. Ask each student to write a short written response to their classmate’s opinion. Have them continue to pass around their statements until everyone in the group has had an opportunity to comment on each one. Invite your students to post their statements on a wall or on the board for a larger class discussion.
4. Pop Art and Photography
Along with the optimism of Kennedy’s presidency came new battles for civil rights, the tension of the Cold War, and an increasingly bloody war in Vietnam. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, two years after Democratic National Convention was taken and Kennedy was sworn into office, even Winogrand became disenchanted with politics. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol explored the complex and contradictory culture of the 1960s by appropriating photographs from popular sources, such as newspapers and magazines. Along with representations of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol devoted numerous paintings and prints to the Kennedys, images of electric chairs, and civil rights clashes. For more information and lessons about Pop art, please see Modern Art and Ideas 7: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading
Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics, discussed in this lesson.