Dawoud Bey’s photograph of the man who would soon be president was taken on a Sunday afternoon in early 2007, at Barack and Michele Obama’s Hyde Park home. The portrait is at once stately and informal. Obama’s hands are folded gracefully in his lap. He wears an elegant suit and white shirt, but no tie. He stares intensely into the camera.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography had commissioned Bey the year before to take a portrait of a notable Chicagoan. He had known the Obamas for several years, and saw them periodically at social gatherings. Impressed with Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Bey sensed a “growing air of expectancy” about him.
“When I was asked who I wanted to photograph,” Bey said, ‘it took me but a second to decide that I wanted to photograph him.”
Bey posed Obama at the head of the dining room table, light reflecting off its polished surface, and photographed him from an angle. “I wanted an interesting animation of the body, and finally through camera positioning and having him turn himself slightly I figured it out.”
The photographer and his subject were comfortable with each other. Bey recalls that he asked Obama, who intended to be photographed in shirtsleeves, to put on a jacket. “I told him that I didn’t want the portrait to be that informal, and he was fine with that.”
The portrait, which was featured in the Whitney Biennial this spring, reminds us of how much has changed in the intervening seven years. Looking back, we grasp the physical toll the weight of presidential responsibility has taken on Obama. His hair is considerably darker and his expression more serene than in photographs of him today.
“It’s an unguarded intimate moment that Barack’s becoming president made less possible,” Bey recalls. “Certainly the ease with which the photograph was made, the lack of security, hanging out in the kitchen afterwards, all of that changed.”
The photograph depicts its famously private and introspective subject only months before he was to step into the abyss of presidential politics. And it defines him free of the stereotypes and myths that have come to characterize his presidency.
Idolized by supporters and attacked by enemies, presidents to a great extent lose control of their public image. They inevitably become the one-dimensional clichés that underwrite popular conceptions of them: John F. Kennedy as the tragic hero of an unattainable Camelot, for example, or Richard Nixon as the faithless “Tricky Dick.”
Obama’s race has rendered him particularly vulnerable to this kind of myth-making. Right-wing extremists see him as an exemplar of what is wrong with America. He has become a symbol of a dark and foreign otherness, a threat to white supremacy and racial purity. To some, he is a Muslim conspirator, bent on dismantling American mores and traditions. To others, he is an angry black man covertly intent on avenging slavery and other historic injustices.
This myth-making has not been limited to conservatives. A year after Bey photographed Obama, the candidate was rousing messianic fantasies on the left, stoked by the election’s most iconic image: Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster.
Distributed independently by the artist and later adopted by the Obama campaign, the poster was visually dynamic and politically effective. It radiated an aura of confidence and optimism. But Mr. Fairey’s schematic rendering of Mr. Obama—branded by a single, amorphous word—reduced the candidate to a cartoonlike, racially ambiguous cipher.
Raking across Mr. Obama’s face, in a picture devoid of the color brown, was a broad swath of off-white paint, a metaphoric blank screen onto which voters were invited to project their dreams and aspirations. The “Hope” poster visually transformed a man who unambiguously defined himself as black into an icon of the unthreatening “post-racial” politician.
The poster foreshadowed the myriad ways the image of this president would be appropriated, for better or worse, for political effect. In hindsight, Bey’s nuanced portrait—intimate and complex—provides a corrective to history. Rejecting political clichés and symbols, the artist reveals a dimension of Obama rarely evident in his politically charged public image: his humanity.
“The portrait conveys a degree of complexity, a sense of engagement, comfort, and a hint of weariness,” Bey observes in retrospect. “It breathes with the sense of a real person being described. That’s always what I hope to come away with: not merely the visualization of Barack Obama, but a momentary sense that a full and dimensional person is being described and looking back at you.”
This essay was also published on the New York Times Lens blog July 25, 2014.