Arts & Culture

Picture Perfect

4 min read

Adatto talks about life in the age of the photo op

We live in a world flooded with images. There has been an explosion of cell phone cameras, social networking sites, digital photography, blogs, and surveillance cameras, and we have a 24-hour news cycle that feeds on pictures.

In her new book, “Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op,” Kiku Adatto tries to make sense of this world. Adatto, who is a scholar in residence at the Humanities Center in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a lecturer on social studies, chronicles the rise of America’s photo-op culture, which has been expanding since World War II.

“When the photograph was invented, it was celebrated as a powerful form of documenting, witnessing, and truth-telling,” says Adatto. “Today our sensibility has changed. We pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, that pictures can be fabricated, packaged, and manipulated.

Adatto argues that the “photo-op consciousness” is not always liberating. While “the documentary power of the camera has vastly increased today,” she notes, “so has the ability of the camera not only to falsify information but also to falsify ourselves. We have more opportunities to live at the surface, continually posing, to see and measure ourselves by the images we make and the images others make of us. When everyone with a cell phone is a potential member of the paparazzi, when any picture posted spontaneously among friends can become a part of the permanent record, the line between public and private lives begins to dissolve.”

Adatto’s book provides an interesting frame on the 2008 presidential campaign. She offers evidence that politicians from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to John McCain draw on the movies to cast themselves as mavericks, cowboys, citizen heroes, and war heroes. Referring to Osama bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared, “I want justice … and there’s an old poster out West I recall that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” Similarly, Adatto says, John McCain has said that he will “follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell.”

Maverick heroes are appealing, Adatto writes, because they show the power of the individual in a world of economic and political forces often beyond individual control. They are also appealing, according to Adatto, because they are both insiders and outsiders — insiders in that they support the goals and ideals of American institutions, but outsiders in that they buck bureaucracy and are critics of the establishment. Reagan was a master at criticizing the Washington establishment as a sitting president, and, Adatto claims, “McCain is trying to do the same by portraying himself as an outsider even though he has been a senator for over two decades.”

Presidents using pictures for political purposes, observes Adatto, is not new. Abraham Lincoln wryly thanked his photographer Mathew Brady for helping him win the White House. Lincoln’s campaign was the first to distribute mass-produced pictures of the candidate. Their popular appeal led one of Lincoln’s advisers to conclude, “I am coming to believe that likenesses broad cast are excellent means of electioneering.”

Today we take televised photo ops for granted, but they are a fairly recent phenomenon. During the 1968 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the phrase “photo opportunity” was used only once on the network evening newscasts, when network correspondent John Hart referred to Nixon’s “deliberately casual moments, moments his programmers have labeled ‘photo opportunities.’”

By the 1988 presidential race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, more than half of the network evening news coverage focused on photo ops, ads, gaffes, and the machinations of media advisers.

“Today, with 24-hour cable news and the Internet,” Adatto observes, “what was set in motion in 1988 has become full-blown, with ordinary citizens entering the fray of ‘gotcha politics.’”

But, Adatto notes, words still count, as her take on a recent event illustrates: “George W. Bush’s top-gun landing on the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 was celebrated as the greatest photo op of all time. But two words on the banner, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ came to haunt his presidency.” Adatto’s point is that even in a world flooded with images, words matter.