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THE ART OF BARACK OBAMA

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 18 OCTOBER 2008 — Modern masters such as Gordon Parks and David and Peter Turnley and even the illustrator Al Hirschfeld have had big opening nights at Leica Gallery in New York, but few can recall anything like the night of September 18, when the white walls on the fifth floor at 670 Broadway seemed to contain half the population of the city. The occasion was the opening of an unusual exhibition of news as art: a collection of photographs of the presidential campaign of Illinois Senator Barack Obama - put on while that campaign was still being waged, its outcome in question.

The contributors are not generally known as fine-art photographers but as working journalists. Because their photographs are of a campaign that has not yet come to an end, each of their portfolios is by definition a work in progress. By holding such an exhibition, Leica Gallery - which has long upheld the tradition of showing disciplined "decisive moment" photographs on silver gelatin prints made from black & white negatives - has leapt over its competitors. It can afford to experiment: the gallery, maintained as a showcase for excellence, does not have a stable of artists in need of care and feeding; it stores no prints after shows are taken down. What it has done here is take full advantage of its own flexibility and the incomparable speed at which digital images can be produced and displayed. You missed the best photographs of the Democratic National Convention in the newspapers a couple of weeks back? Go to the gallery: they're already matted, framed and on view.


© Terrence Jennings: Obama Rally, Washington Square Park
New York City
, September 2007
All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of Leica Gallery, New York

Technically, the show also reveals some of the unresolved challenges of the digital revolution. Digital photography, so necessary online and so useful in print, falters under bright gallery lights, which do no favors to its flat, pastel-like palette. But on a developmental time line, digital capture is not far advanced from where chemical-based photography was during the American Civil War, and street photography has always been about immediacy first, with technical refinement placing a distant third, behind composition.

If the philosophical part of the show's message is to illustrate how photography can be both news and art, the message of the content was clear: all glory goes to Barack Obama. One need only look at the accompanying exhibition in the Oskar Barnack Room of the Gallery of images of presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush (the work of David Burnett), which contained probing images of its subjects, and contrast those with the images of adoring masses and ennobling upward gazes of Senator Obama himself to see the exhibition as a study in a kind of hero worship. It is clear that the photographers love their man, as did the great crowd in the gallery that night.

As to be expected, photographers from Magnum had some of the more compelling images. A black and white photo by Bruce Gilden shows a woman at the Democratic Convention, her head dipped to show only mouth and nose, the crown of her white ten-gallon hat sporting a large Obama button and a rhinestone broach in the shape of Texas. Another strong group was by the TIME photographer Callie Shell. One image, taken outside a Burlington, Iowa hall at night showed the candidate through a closed window, speaking like an impassioned preacher to attentive parishioners, an American flag spread on the wall behind him. In another, cast in moody sepia tones, a reflective Senator Obama is seen sitting in a back stairwell, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, an open door on the landing above him letting in a symbolically bright light.


© David Burnett (Contact Press Images): Obama Enroute from Omaha
to New Orleans, February 7, 2008

All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of Leica Gallery, New York

If journalism is indeed the first draft of history, it is easy to dismiss these photographs as sketches for the illustrated edition. But news photographs, unlike the stories they represent, do not alter over time. The power of photography in the context of news is in its inherent and nearly exclusive power to preserve. That is, unlike news reporting, news photographs neither start nor end as interpretation. They become, instead, part of the documentary record that must be interpreted by historians. This uniquely timely art exhibition may therefore be a more accurate account of the Obama campaign than any of the reporting surrounding it.

Obama remains popular among United States voters, and if he were to run for president of Europe, it appears that he would be elected handily. Sands can shift in an American election year, but Obama certainly had many friends at the gallery that evening. With luck, a few of them who haven't collected photographs before have now started to do so, transforming a love for the man into at least an infatuation with the art.

Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs
Curated by Deborah Willis & Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
Through 8 November 2008
Leica Gallery
670 Broadway, 5th Floor
between Houston and Bleecker Streets
New York
Tel: (1) 212 777 30 51

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual-property law. He has exhibited his photography at Leica Gallery in New York.

External Link

Obama Campaign Website

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