Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pictures of a President

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had a fascinating story in the NY Times the other day. You can find it here.

Morris makes his living weaving story to pictures, and in this NY Times story, he takes a look at key photographs taken of Bush during his presidency. Most of the pictures are ones I've seen before - Bush in the classroom at the moment he was informed about the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Bush with the bullhorn on the rubble of the World Trade Center; Bush on the fly-over of New Orleans after disaster struck;

What I found absolutely fascinating is the number of pictures where he is vitally engaged with someone else in the frame. This is the president of the United States; usually, presidents are photographed in highly staged photo-ops, staring at the audience as they inform us of key messages. And there are a number of these types of photos in Morris' story - the "Mission Accomplished" photo op on the air craft carrier, the President surrounded in 2005 by flag waving soldiers who all happened to be in Texas during a time when we were engaged in two wars in two countries; Bush driving Putin in a Russian Volga, waving to the international audience; Bush giving the "thumbs up" all dressed up in a flight suit.

But many of the images Morris selected for this piece surprised me. They surprised me because a president who seemed significantly tone deaf when it came to reading the mood of the public is seen in these photos as a man of compassion, a man who connects with others in the moment, a man with a sense of humor.

And in all honestly, I did not expect to see this in photos of Bush.

In many of the photos in this piece, he is listening or looking intently at another person in the frame. In one photo, he's staring into the eyes of Nancy Pelosi on her first day as Speaker. In another, he's reaching out to a downcast Rumsfeld at the moment he leaves his post as Defense Secretary. He's reaching for a soldier's baby and looking straight at the mother.

The most remarkable images in this article are found at the end - a series of three photos of Bush as he returns to the White House after his final address to the nation in 2009. Here is a man who is overcome with emotion; in the first two images, he looks physically devastated. In the last one, the wreckage of his reign is written all over his face.

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