Eagerly anticipated and immediately meme-ified, the mug shot of Donald Trump that the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office circulated last week was in some ways utterly conventional: a head-and-shoulders view with unflattering lighting and a law enforcement logo in the corner.
In nearly every other way, of course, the image is singular, a photograph for the ages, one that will forever punctuate this moment in the history of the presidency. But that wasn’t its only contribution to posterity.
In ways that have been less widely noted, it is also an important new entry in the history of presidential portraits, whose significance lies in how they invite us to think not just about our leaders but also about the nation itself.
Both politically and symbolically, any president represents the nation; by some significant measure, then, his image is its image. In its mood and in the circumstances of its creation, Mr. Trump’s mug shot initially seems like a jarring disconnect from the most august traditions of presidential portraits, with their carefully constructed air of gravitas. But in its effect, and in the way its subject has begun to deploy it, the picture is the natural evolution of all the images that came before it.
Since the first days of the Republic, portraits of our commanders in chief have proved to be important and versatile political tools. Few presidents have failed to note their power. George Washington was known to proudly display his portraits to Mount Vernon visitors, while Barack Obama surprised many by selecting the painter Kehinde Wiley in a clear bid to define himself — visually as well as politically — as something new.
The standard line is that successful presidential images make their subjects look strong, active and, above all else, presidential. When we look deeper, however, we find that the history is more complex and consequential. Time and time again, presidents have wrestled with or in some cases openly fought back to challenge the ways they were being pictured. They sought control. By that standard, Mr. Trump’s mug shot is no outlier. Not all presidential portraits look like the ones hanging in our museums.
Take the example of John Quincy Adams, who was one of the most prolifically depicted people of his age. From his childhood as the son of a president and throughout his long career in public life, he was the subject of dozens of painted portraits, sculptures and photographs. As a result, Adams had clear ideas about how men of his stature should be depicted for posterity. He even made a short list in his diary of the portraits he felt captured him best. Only those few, he said, were “worthy of being preserved.”
After photography was introduced in the United States in 1839, Adams sat several times for daguerreotypes. In fact, the oldest existing photograph of a president is a daguerreotype Adams sat for in 1843, now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Yet Adams never warmed to photography. He had trouble sitting for long exposures, and he confided to his diary that his own daguerreotype portraits were “hideous,” “repulsive” and “too true to the original.” Ultimately, he found the nascent technology too unstable for creating the kind of image worthy of being “transmitted to the memory of the next age.”
If Adams worried about the photographs he posed for, later presidents worried about the photographs they didn’t consent to. Beginning in the late 19th century, the advent of portable cameras made it possible for photographers to capture subjects unawares. Theodore Roosevelt called out what a newspaper at the time called a young “camera fiend” for attempting to “snap” him as he was leaving church. A decade or so later, Woodrow Wilson threatened to punch a journalist who refused to stop photographing as he and his daughter returned from a sweaty bicycle ride. It’s well known that the White House sought to keep evidence of Franklin Roosevelt’s physical disability out of sight, but advisers were also anxious that even the most routine candid shot might make him look bad.
In 1937, Popular Photography magazine reported that the White House press office was up in arms about unauthorized snapshots of Roosevelt chomping on a hot dog at a political picnic. It also objected to blurry photos of the president enjoying opening day at a baseball game. Those photos, taken from far away, were of such poor quality that they apparently prompted messages to the White House questioning the state of the president’s health. In the era of the candid camera, control was hard to come by.
The rise of digital photography didn’t transform presidential portraiture so much as it upped the ante on the question of control. As the first social media president, Barack Obama walked the line between control and interactivity. Finally, it seemed, a president could communicate directly to citizens without having to go through the traditional filters of mainstream media. The administration took advantage of nearly every new social media outlet as it emerged. In addition, White House photographers, led by Pete Souza, built a huge visual archive of presidential photographs shared in real time on Flickr. But those controlled communications butted up against a new culture of remixing and interactivity. Just as soon as those authorized images were released, the inevitable memes followed. Some of those flattered; others, not so much.
In each of these moments, transformations in the technology of photography prompted anxieties about presidential representation. If an awkward daguerreotype, blurry snapshot or quirky meme would come to symbolize the president, then what did that say about the nation? Yet as unwelcome as they might have been for their subjects, these images are presidential portraits, too, and they tell a visual history as important as any rendered in oil paints and framed in gold leaf.
All of which brings us back to Mr. Trump’s mug shot. He posted it on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, declaring “never surrender,” even though he had just literally surrendered. It was an effective move that, like his assertive scowl, was designed to reclaim the narrative. Already, this vernacular image is far more recognizable than many formal portraits that hang in the National Portrait Gallery. Mr. Trump may yet follow George Washington in proudly displaying it to visitors. Whatever the case, the mug shot, like the unstable daguerreotype and the blurry snapshot and the meme, absolutely deserves to be “transmitted to the memory of the next age.”
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Cara Finnegan, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is the author of “Photographic Presidents: Making History From Daguerreotype to Digital.”
Illustration source photographs by Ana Rocio Garcia Franco and seraficus via Getty Images.
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