Smile Politely

Photographic Presidents deftly explores the changing visual values of the American presidency

In the first installment of this two-part article, I shared my interview with Professor Cara A. Finnegan, author of the highly anticipated Photographic Presidents: Making History from Daguerreotype to Digital. We spoke about what inspired her research, what surpised her along the way, and how the unique intersection between technological advances in photography and perceptions of the presidency offers readers a roadmap to both presidential and photographic literacy. Today, I’ll take a deep dive into the book and the many reasons why you need to read it. 

If you’ve followed my work over in the Smile Politely arts section, you’ll know that every now and then I hop up onto my soapbox and call for the breakdown of the town/gown divide. But today, instead of urging you to consider an Illinois student production or arts faculty lecture, I’m coming to you from the culture section to tell you why Finnegan’s pioneering communications research should matter to you.  

Yes, technically this is a work of academic scholarship. And a very significant one at that. But while a reviewer for Booklist deemed Photographic Presidents “a valuable resource for students of both American politics and the history of photography,” this reviewer casts a wider net. So while a recent Publishers Weekly review wrote of the books appeal for “photography and history buffs,” I’ll go a step further and argue that Photographic Presidents should be required reading for anyone living in and impacted by “the changing visual values” of the American presidency. 

Let’s begin with Finnegan’s title and the specificity of the term “photographic presidents.”

In the books introduction Finnegan writes:

“The presidents I study in this book — from John Quincy Adams, the daguerreotype president to Barack Obama, the social media president — are photographic presidents not only because they participated in in photography but also because they engaged the medium at precisely those moments when its visual values were in flux. New visual values like fidelity, wonder, timeliness, candidness, sharing, and remixing, emerged at moments of technological change in the new medium and activated new relations between presidents and the public. “

Later in the book Finnegan recounts the conversation with colleagues that ultimately clarified the book unique focus. When she shared her plan to write a book about presidents and photography, one colleague (who the author believes was playing devil’s advocate) urged her to write a book about Barack Obama’s historic use of photography in both his campaigns and his presidencies. The colleague argued that this was the book people would want to read and that Finnegan, as her past scholarly work proves, was uniquely qualified to write it. But ultimately Finnegan stood her ground, deciding that that was not the book she wanted to write. 

“I wasn’t all that interested in how Barack Obama, or any president, used photography,” Finnegan writes. “Rather, I wanted to explore how presidents became photographic. In what ways, I wanted to know, did photography shape public experience, and how might studying presidents’ engagement with the medium provide insight into those ways?”

I share this story for three reasons. I am fascinated by how authors and thinkers arrive at their focal points and what questions they ask along the way. But more importantly, this anecdote underscores the book’s significance to a general audience while also illustrating Finnegan’s  engaging narrative style. If, or rather, when, you choose to explore this territory, Finnegan is the writer you want to take you there. 

While several scholars have studied “what photography can tell us about a few presidents,” Finnegan is the first to ask “what studying presidents’ relationships with photography tells us about the history of photography itself.” 

The historic election of Barack Obama ushered in a change in our perception of who could be president, but it also, as Finnegan observes “transformed the visual practices of the office.” With a White House Flickr photostream containing upwards of six thousand images, the Obama administration “expanded presidential photograph into an unprecedented, real-time social media strategy” that “offered viewers a carefully curated behind-the-scenes look at the president of the United States.” Think back to Pete Souza’s now famous shots of Obama running playing with Bo, or, perhaps the most iconic of all, featuring “temporary White House staff member” Carlton Philadelphia reaching up to touch the Obama’s hair, realizing it was just like his.

And while, as Finnegan’s devil’s advocate playing colleague argued, for those who lived through his two terms, Barack Obama may appear as the most significant photographic president, he was most certainly not the first.

The book is structured chronologically by technology, opening with the “Daguerreotype Presidents” (George Washington and John Quincy Adams), moving on to William McKinley, the “Snapshot President,” followed by the “Candid Camera Presidents” (Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt), concluding with Barack Obama “The Social Media President.”

Each section is chock-full of photo technology details and fascinating presidential insights. The investigation of George Washington, whose death 40 years prior to the release of daguerreotype technology, did not stop him from becoming the first and the most iconic example of a photographic president, foreshadows the level of exploration and narrative engagement the book delivers from start to finish. Did you know that Congress actually debated which of Washington’s images (drawing from portraits to busts) would be deemed the “official” for daguerreotyping and later on, for reproduction on any number of household items? Or that Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, was responsible for the perfection (by bringing in Rembrandt) and promotion of the daguerreotype, to the exclusion of all other emerging technologies of the time? 

Finnegan writes that “the practice of photographing George Washington offers a helpful entry point into this book’s exploration of how presidents have helped to shape photography a across its history. Because it turns out that once Americans got photography, they needed a photographic George Washington.” 

As the photogenic presidents move from daguerreotype to digital, both the technology and its  impact on the perception of the presidency grow far more complex and more susceptible to ethical debate. Photography began as a singular image, created during long sittings and completed by even longer technical and chemical processes. As imagemaking and production took less and less time, timeliness became a key issue for photographic presidents. Consider the famous search for McKinley’s “last photograph” before his death, or the debate over the media’s complicity in the refusal to photograph FDR in a wheelchair or being carried, despite the presence of his illness in text and in his philanthropic initiatives, when, in fact, he “championed the use of photography both to publicize the the impact of the Great Depression and to chronicle New Deal efforts to alleviate it.” Finnegan considers the implications of half-tone photography, print photography, and the rise of commercial and amateur photography. The book offers a plethora compelling questions and fascinating anecdotes along its deft investigation of presidential photographs as “representations of leaders who symbolized the nation.”

Reading Photographic Presidents, I found myself thinking of another communications scholar who famously wrote that the medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan argued that “a message” is “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation introduces to human affairs.” For as Finnegan often reminds us, presidents were often the first ones to engage with new photo technology, thereby playing a significant role in shaping its use, as well as its construction of the president’s and the nation’s visual values. 

Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”. For McLuhan, it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action. Finnegan offers a plethora compelling questions and fascinating anecdotes during her deft investigation of presidential photographs as “representations of leaders who symbolized the nation.”

Photographic Presidents is an inviting and accessible trip through history led by a wise and witty guide. Pick up a copy. Consider it your civic duty. 

Learn more about Cara Finnegan’s work on her website. Copies of Photographic Presidents are available on Amazon and from The University of Illinois Press.

Cara A. Finnegan is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her previously published work includes Making Photography Matter: A Viewer’s History from the Civil War to the Great Depression and Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs.

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