A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Ruddy Roye’s photograph of Robert Scott and the Shack Up Inn. Today, I want to briefly touch on how we can incorporate another image from latter part of 2016 into the classroom. The same week that Time named Ruddy Roye its Instagram photographer of the year, the publication named Donald Trump its 2016 person of the year. Nadav Kander’s portrait of Trump occupies the cover of Time‘s person of the year issue, and some have used visual analysis to explain the photograph’s message. Taking these articles, which will be discussed below, we can help students learn how to analyze images in a detailed and nuanced manner.
“Why Time’s Trump cover is a subversive piece of political art” provides a detailed examination of Kander’s photograph, presenting students with various aspects of the image to explore: the color, the pose, and the chair. Commenting on the color, The Forward and Jake Romm note that the palette resembles what you would see in a Kodochrome photograph, a type of film popular during the mid-twentieth century. Through this correlation, the viewer begins to see the image of Trump in relation to mid-century events such s World War II moving towards the Civil Rights Movement. Forward and Romm claim, “This visual-temporal shift in a sense mirrors a lot of the drives that fueled Trump’s rise. Trump ran a campaign based on regressive policies and attitudes – anti-environmental protection, anti-abortion, pro-coal, etc.”
Focusing on Trump’s pose, Forward and Romm point out that instead of entirely facing the camera, as one would expect from a portrait, the chair faces away from the camera and Trump turns around to look at the camera and the audience. The traditional pose would have Trump looking at the camera, body forward, and possibly at an elevated angle. Instead, we get Trump facing away with his head turned towards the audience at eye level. Forward and Romm read this as a subversive position that implicates the audience in Trump’s electoral win.
Trump’s turn towards the camera renders the tone conspiratorial rather than judgmental. There are two images at play here – the imagined power-image taken from the front, and the actual image, in which Trump seems to offer the viewer a conniving wink, as if to say, look at how we hoodwinked those suckers in the front (both Trump and the viewer are looking down on those in front). By subverting the typical power dynamic, Time, in a sense, implicates the viewer in Trump’s election, in his being on the cover in the first place.
While I can agree with this reading of the image, I also have another take. On the background, we see Trump’s shadow looming over the image, increasing the feeling of a conspiracy at work. If we take the two Trumps (sitting and shadow), we can see the image as a play on what version is real and which is the facade. Taking Trump as providing the audience with a wink and nod as co-conspirators, the shadow comes across as the “true” Trump who will renege on his positions, thus leaving those who assisted him in the dust as he looks out for himself and his own interests.
The chair completes the image, presenting the audience with an image of the past, specifically Louis XV and his ostentatious and lackadaisical rule.While we can view the chair in this historical context, Forward and Romm argue that we need to see it as “a gaudy symbol of wealth and status, but if you look at the top right corner, you can see a rip in the upholstery, signifying Trump’s own cracked image.” Noticing this crack leads us to see the other imperfections in the chair: “the splotches on the wood come into focus, the cracks in Trump’s makeup, the thinness of his hair, the stain on the bottom left corner of the seat – the entire illusion of grandeur begins to collapse.” In this way, Kandor’s photograph subtly comments on Trump and his rise to the presidency.
With all of this in mind, students could examine other Person of the Year covers, specifically from the 1940s through the 1960s, paying particular attention to the color palette, the orientation of the image, and the supporting items. Even though these covers are not photographs, the colors and images could be assessed in relation to Kander’s portrait of Trump. For example, one could look at the 1945 issue that depicts Harry S. Truman on the cover. Truman does not take up the entire cover, like Trump does. Instead, he occupies the bottom right corner of the image while a fist bursts out of the clouds in the top left while grasping lighting bolts. This image, taken in relation to the political machinations of the period, speaks volumes as well.
After the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Truman became President of the United States, famously “ending” World War II by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, these acts were not necessarily required to end the war and they ushered in the Cold War era. The Time image foregrounds the creation of the atomic bomb as a heavenly weapon that controls the world. In fact, Truman and the US used this poker chip to negotiate with Joseph Stalin and Russia.
Truman’s image at the bottom right shows him from the shoulders up facing the front. To the left, we see the Capital Building. This aspect is important, because it subtly suggests that others possibly have a say in Truman’s actions. This, of course, was the truth. Individuals such as James Byrnes influenced Truman, calling upon him to use the atomic bombs on Japan.Like the image of Trump, the portrait of Truman subtly comments on the power of the 33rd president. For a detailed discussion of Truman, Byrnes, Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, and others during World War II, see The Untold History of the United States.
Another exercise would be for students to look at the image of Trump in relation to Kander’s 2012 portrait of Barack Obama for the 2012 Person of the Year. This could be done with the recent Rolling Stone cover of Obama as well. Both images show Obama in black, gray, and white, one in profile and one face forward. The 2012 Kandor portrait recalls the profile images of former presidents that appear on the penny, nickel, dime, or quarter. It brings to mind a person who will stand the test of time as a revered president. The Rolling Stone image shows Obama slightly smiling, juxtaposed against a plain white background. What does this image say? Its almost as if Obama, like Trump, is smirking. After the 2016 election, maybe that is all he can do.
These are only a couple of things that can be done with Kander’s portrait of Trump in the classroom. What are some other possible activities? As usual, let me know in the comments below.