Trump’s Unsuccessful Images
President Lincoln was the first president to recognize the power of photographs for political use. When he ran for the presidency his image seemed to be everywhere and he continued the practice after he was elected. Without the photographs, he might not have been elected. For the first time people could see a true likeness of a candidate and access what they saw. The photographs revealed a kind, gentle, yet determined, face. His was an honest face with honest and concerned eyes. That honesty and concern aged him considerably over the next few years as the Civil War sapped his strength. Photographs of a tired and overworked man, face furrowed and drawn, almost unhealthy, came through clearly. The pictures showed the toll the war had taken on him. He was as much a casualty as any combat soldier. Because people accepted a photograph as infallible, as a true representation of a fact, they felt that what they saw was a representation of truth. They could relate. He was as tired of the war as were they.
At the beginning of photography, images were regarded as truth. The Greeks felt that all knowledge comes from eyesight. We know only what we see, a rather strange concept. They did not believe we know by touch, or sound, or intuition, etc., but only through sight. Sight gave the true vision of everything.
After the invention of photography, the idea of manipulating a photograph was still foreign. The selling point of photography was accuracy, perhaps too much accuracy. Generally, since the Daguerreotype, invented by Louis Daguerre, was a direct positive, the image was difficult to manipulate other than adding color. Photographers did not think of ways of manipulating a photograph through point of view or various backgrounds except for painted ones to show exotic places.
The honesty of the new invention proved to be a problem in portraiture. People were surprised at seeing a truthful rendition of themselves, rather than their imagined image of themselves. They did not want that mole, that wrinkle, that scar, or that pimple. They wanted to be thinner or plumper and always prettier or better looking. They wanted a lie because, as the man said, “You can’t handle the truth.” Photography fell to the middle and lower classes. The upper classes stuck with painted portraits.
The Calotype, a negative – positive process developed by Henry Fox Talbot, proved easy to manipulate. Blemishes, wrinkles, etc. could be removed with pencil or a paintbrush. Suddenly, the photograph no longer represented truth and lied as easily as the written word. For a few people, even unmanipulated photographs developed a reputation for inaccuracy.
Robert Doisneau, like many photographers, said, “Photography is a false witness.” Ruth Bernhard claimed, “What the human eye sees (in a photograph) is an illusion of what is real” She felt that “What actually exists, we may never know.”
The government was quick to recognize the advantages of manipulating a photograph, either a single photograph or movie film. A newsreel of Adolf Hitler dancing a jig at the fall of Paris is a perfect example. Hitler stomped down his foot once. To sway the public, that single motion was looped on the film to make the gesture resemble a dance of sinister joy. To perpetrate a government agenda, especially in war, great amounts of heavy changes are often needed: people removed, people added, and expressions slightly changed. Today the government of the U.S. eliminates this problem by not allowing photographers to work in war zones without supervision. They claim the shadowing is for the photographer’s safety, a typical ploy to control images. War photographers have never been concerned with safety. As Capra said, “If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough.” Whatever pictures are taken, while being observed by a military handler, are censored. The days of photographers from a free and democratic country freely wandering a battlefield in which they are engaged are over. Not since Vietnam, where freedom of the press proved disastrous, have reporters and photographers been able to tell the truth.
Image manipulation prior to a photograph being taken is now the norm for candidates running for office and especially for sitting Presidents. Backgrounds and settings are carefully arranged, the president framed by the American flag or the flag as a backdrop, special pictures on the wall, a neat desk with a tall pen and notepad often present to show his commitment to work, work he will selflessly do for the American people. Before a single shutter is released, handlers have arranged a convincing lie to mislead, distort, and deceive.
Presidents have not always been overly concerned with photographers and have given them much freedom. FDR did not want his braces photographed or have him photographed in his wheelchair. Truman and Eisenhower had little trouble with photographers and President Kennedy used them to his advantage in a civil manner. Pictures of him smiling with his wife and kids, relaxing or working in the White house, the Oval office, at home or sailing on weekends, were numerous. He seemed to be part of a loving family photo album, the kind most people would like. Johnston seemed not to care how he looked. He was not a handsome man and he accepted that fact. Nixon was more discrete with photographers although his leaking upper lip could not be concealed. Occasionally the photo ops directed by the George W. Bush handlers did more harm than good. His flying onto the deck of an aircraft carrier brought more jokes and laughter than admiration.
King of the government photo op was president Reagan, a relatively incompetent representative with a keen actor’s eye for deception and illusion. He understood how Hollywood works and was quick to enact these tactics to create an illusion of a confident strong-willed man as leader of the country, something he was not. One needed only to ask the residents of California, where he had been governor, to know that he knew little about government or organization. He was a person without loyalty or understanding of the constitution. Quick to finger other people in the film industry for being members of the communist party, he failed to understand that it is not a crime to be a communist. The foundation of freedom depends upon being able to criticize the government or to have an opinion outside of the accepted norm.
An American patriot is one who keeps a close eye on the government and comments on inefficiency and corruption. He is more likely to burn the flag than wave it. A quick look into the new breed of American patriot often reveals people who have never served the country in any fashion and have never served in the military, but are quick to encourage other to do so. Those who spout freedom are the first to suppress it. They are more similar to German patriots, blindly following the direction of their leaders without question, rather than what should be American patriots who believe in the freedoms for which we are supposed to stand. Regan did not understand such principals, and became a hero to the Republican Party. They still regard this unenlightened actor as the epitome of American values and a true patriot. Whenever the word patriotism emerges, expect misguided policies at work. As Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Almost every picture taken of Reagan was preplanned or staged. He set new standards for political manipulation, therefor, political lies. The public ate the falsifications without complaint and the press allowed the scandal while offering private jokes about someone they seldom took seriously rather than criticism or reproach. They viewed the practice as unimportant, especially from a person they considered incompetent, but harmless. They were also afraid. Anyone in the media who criticized the President was ostracized, barred from staged press conferences, and kept at a distance from Reagan and his government. Either accept the lie and manipulation and perpetuate the falsehood with a planned picture opportunity, or get no picture at all. They chose to take the pictures. Whenever the news media refuses to do its job they become co-conspirators with the political agenda; they become part of that great oxymoron – Fox News.
The Presidential media machine laid out a complete plan for their B actor, a man who knew almost nothing about politics, who was against the poor, the immigrants, the working class, and worked as a big business munchkin with power brokers. The wealthy are always eager to support the wealthy. An A actor would not have taken the part as President since, except for the ego, such a demining, silly, and insincere roll would have been damaging to any career as pitchman. The Reagan crew built a smiling, good-natured, buffoon, who appeared to mean well, loved the people and the country, and remained unthreatening. He was the “Gipper”, but he was also the President, a dangerous combination.
Reagan carried just enough acting ability to pull off the scam. His photo ops outweighed his political agenda. Like most actors, any idea he ever held, usually momentarily, was placed there by writers, by people behind the scenes with their own agendas. To ensure that all went well, photographers were kept out of the room and not allowed to take stills until after Regan gave a talk. After a speech, after makeup was called in, after the lighting was arranged, photographers were escorted in for the pre-arranged shots and seldom allowed more than a minute to take them.
When the press eventually attempted to expose him during the Iran-contra scandal, any unmasking was too late. The first tactic of Regan’s defensive PR unit was to keep him away from the press. Answering questions without a script was beyond his capabilities. Actors are tape recorders on playback. Writers from an outside source supply input, with specific dialogue. He was not placed in situations where pictures of any kind could be taken. Strategies had to be decided, a course chosen.
His handlers understood one thing from the movie industry: the image outweighs the words. They had only to place Regan in the proper setting, arrange the background and, when questions were asked, people would not listen to the words, the insinuations, or the accusations, but let the photographs override truth. The same good-natured, decent, and honest president was still in charge.
Because of this manipulation, he only answered questions in a photo op situation. Regardless of what questions the press asked, the public only saw a kind-faced and well-meaning man, the leader of their country. The public still accepted the photograph as the truth, not as a falsification by an advertising pitchman.
Until recently a photograph has always been considered the ultimate truth. It does not lie. Events like the Holocaust were not believed by word alone. Not until the photographs were revealed did people believe the event. Accepting a photograph as truth is naive. Photographs lie in many ways, and always have.
Photographs lie at the whim of the photographer. The position the subject is taken, the angle, and background all contribute to a falsehood or particular point of view. Photographing an upstanding citizen seeming to exit an adult bookstore, although, in fact, he may have just been walking past, is a lie. One thing known about American’s, they have always been unable to handle the truth. And, no wonder.
Almost from birth we are fed lies and fairy tales: the stork bringing babies, comic books, bible stories, shows about purple dinosaurs, Tinker Bell, and flying elephants followed by history books praising Columbus, the need to kill the uncivilized Indians, and pushing the Mexicans off their land. The media added, and still does, to the fantasy: the brave John Wayne (who skipped the military) winning World War II, Custer and his men dying with “Their Boots On,” Rambo and Black Panther. People no longer know what the truth is. Perhaps they never did.
Most previous presidents could fool most of the people most of the time. Only occasionally did something slip by and the words overpowered the images: “I am not a crook,” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Historian Robert Dallek, referring to LBJ, said, “When he begins to move his lips you know he’s lying.” The Washington Post claims Trump has made over 10,000 falsehoods or misleading statements. Never believe the government until they deny it. Images still overcame everything except for the most blatant lies.
That brings us to the present situation. Donald Trump counters the normal rules of the photo op. He keeps tight control of everything but, generally, he cannot overcome looking bad. The photo op often works to his disadvantage. Attempting to photograph Donald Trump looking sympatric at the site of a mass shooting is impossible. He has been constantly proven not to care about anyone or anything except himself. So, why is Trump not able to use the proven photo op to his advantage? Because all photographs still contain facts. A photograph is almost a contradiction, a combination of fact and fiction. In Trump’s case the eye is able to discern the inner character from the outward appearance. To many people what come through in any of his images are corruption, sexual depravity, solipsism, a chronic liar, an a-moral creature and a coward. His true self is so strong that the image overcomes the illusion the photo op is attempting to create.
Although these defects are clear to others, he remains unawares of them. An Emperor unable to see his own nakedness is unlikely to witness his own buffoonery. He does not see the chimp in the mirror. Yet, there are many people also unable to see the truth of his photographs.
There are always at least two forces at work regarding a photograph: the image and the person viewing the image. Photographs, historically, have always been more interesting than words by the lower classes and under-educated. Until the introduction of the cell phone camera, they had more cameras than the better educated and upper classes, who had their pictures taken by others, and they viewed more pictures. The camera documented their daily lives, special occasions like birthdays, holidays, weddings, and they could witness outside events without the effort of reading about them. Magazines like “Look” and “Life” gave them the opportunity to garner some kind grasp of a situation without any strain. With that kind of photographic knowledge one might think they would see the evil in Trump.
Instead, photographs of Trump work as a metaphor. People remember the days of their own photos, of those special occasions, and connect his photographs with their lives. Stir in the fact that Americans, unlike all other countries, are drawn to the uneducated, what they consider the wise country bumpkin, the simple working man, the Davey Crocket for senator syndrome. Americans have imposed their own class system with the working people near the bottom. People running for office seldom expound on their educations, but rather on their humble beginnings and how they pulled themselves up with boot straps rather than boat shoes. Even Trump portrays himself as a self-made man and seldom mentions he received millions from his father only to fail over and over again. Add in the appropriate surroundings in the pictures and they have someone with whom they can relate. The lie is complete.
The evil of people shines through in photographs whether it is Gobbles staring menacingly up from his chair, or Hitler and Mussolini ranting behind a microphone. However, that may be more the effect of history than of fact. Because we know what these creatures eventually accomplished, we are biased in our interpretations of them. Germans may have seen early pictures of Hitler in a positive light as he put a devastated nation back on its feet and returned pride to the people. Eliminating the educated classes, burning books, subjugating the Jews, seemed not to be a problem just like devastating social programs, taking money from the poor and middle classes to give to the rich, and subjugating immigrants is not a problem for Trump followers. One would hope that Americans are smarter than that, but, as photographer Helmut Gernsheim said, “… to the mentally blind, nothing is obvious.”
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