Friday, May 16, 2008

Cover-ing Obama: Time Magazine

When Barack Obama appeared on the cover of Time in October of 2006, it was an important moment for a number of reasons.

Until this feature, almost no one thought this senator from Illinois could reasonably contend for the Democratic party's nominee for president--much less actually be president. And yet, there was Joe Klein making a compelling argument that a relatively inexperienced, relatively young African American, with a relatively Muslim sounding name could hold the highest post in the land, be the occupier of the whitest house in the country.

What is most interesting about the cover, though, is the image of Obama. Rather than feature a photo of him and his attractive family or a picture of him giving his now famous speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, the editors of Time chose a close-up--a tight shot of little more than Obama's face, bookended by his trademark ears. Handsome, well-groomed, and ethnically ambiguous, the image oozes an earned, intelligent confidence that is both engaging and mysterious.

For better or worse, the tightly cropped photo of Obama called up Time's embarrassing O. J. Simpson cover, in which Simpson's skin was intentionally darkened by artist Matt Mahurin. One wonders if this flattering (though not altered) photo of Obama was a kind of reverse homage to that cover, a semiotic I'm-Sorry-Don't-Hold-It-Against-Us entreaty. Regardless of intent, though, the effect of this cover was staggering.

John Berger has written effectively about how reproduced iconic images, like that of the Mona Lisa on t-shirts, coffee mugs, ties, the sides of barns, billboards, in Dali paintings, and on postcards, alters how we see, conceive, and feel toward the original image. So ubiquitous is Obama's visage now that it is difficult to remember back to when this image was fresh, when it was exciting, when it may have even been transgressive.

Indeed, contrasting the original Time cover with the "contender" version that appeared in 2007 is illuminating. In the first, the TIME letters are red, here, they are white. Also, in the most recent version, Obama's head occludes the TIME letters, whereas, in the first one, the big, red, TIME font tattoos across Obama's forehead. Notice also how, in the later version, a sort of angelic glow seems to emanate from Obama's body, as if he might be illuminating, radiant, even holy.

Additionally, one can't ignore the camera angle. Positioned just below his waist and shot upward, the perspective makes Obama seem larger than life, even gigantic. The low-upward shot was a favorite for directors in classic Western films. The cowboy, often John Wayne, was frequently filmed from a low angle to reinforce the thematic of the hero as large, capable, and towering. One also wonders if the whiteness of the cover is an attempt to soften Obama's blackness. It's a complicated and extraordinarily delicate subject to talk about--how visual culture represents a person's skin--but the first cover certainly and silently references it where the second seems to obviate it.

One could accuse TIME of cagey visual rhetoric here. Without question, they have manipulated the tools of graphic design, semiotics, and visual iconography to make an argument about Obama's aura, his candidacy, his magnetism, his star status.

The semiotics of both covers reveal how visual culture can alter how we see and how we see images--even those of people who we think we see so often, we are inured to visual rhetoric. But, Obama is a complex text, and almost every group has some interest in shaping how we (and others) read him.


Max I.M. said...

This is a very cool blog. I think you skirted around the issue of the 2nd cover lightening Obama . . .clearly, it was intentional, and I guess you hint at that, but I think it's more obvious that you maybe.

Charles S. Harris said...

What's your take on the current (Sept. 1) TIME Obama cover?,16641,20080901,00.html

The same tight close-up as the Oct. 2006 cover, but with a black background instead of white. Conveys a totally different impression!

I was immediately reminded of TIME's notorious (doctored) O. J. Simpson cover:,16641,19940627,00.html

The black background and Obama's disembodied head looming out of the shadows evokes (albeit to a much milder cegree) the racially-charged menace of the O.J. image.

Why would TIME choose to do this, given that their deification of Obama has not lessened since their 2007 haloed portrait? Were they just trying to tactfully downplay his iconic ears?

SemiObama said...

Thanks for the questions and comments, Charles. Check out our most recent post!