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Art Forum Editor Gets It Wrong

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Tim Griffin, the Editor-in-Chief of Art Forum wrote an introduction to the annual year-in-review December issue of Art Forum titled "Snapshot of 2008".

In his somewhat bland prologue that reads like the wall text of a neophyte curator's first big show, he makes an error.

Griffin writes of the photographs of Barack Obama and his family on election night that the campaign posted on its its flickr page: "Decidedly vernacular—blurry, poorly lit, and haphazardly composed—the photos are staged less to seem “intimate” than to appear utterly familiar to anyone who has ever snapped a picture at a kid’s birthday party or on Christmas morning. Here the abstraction of the “highest office in the land” is displaced by the visage of an ordinary man. The photographs’ lack of aesthetic nudges the notion of governance from a question of access to a matter of accessibility."

I know that the photos were not staged.

There are obvious issues of "staging" 82 pictures on election night (all posted in the Election Night 2008 set - they were all taken on 11/4/08 - the meta-data on flickr probably isn't a lie). Griffin may be implying that no photograph of a knowing subject goes without some staging, but there'd be no reason for him to make that point in this context.

Aside from that - I know David Katz, the guy who took the photos (disclosure: his sister is a close friend). He has been Obama's personal photographer, and to some extent executive assistant, for several years (with a hiatus for business school). Obama and his campaign's choice to document his family and close associates on election night was a gesture of openness and of generosity. Katz has been a close associate of Mr. Obama's throughout the last several years and providing the opportunity to Katz, and not a photojournalist, to take the photographs also enabled the family to relax (to be natural). The choice to have Katz perform the documenting undoubtedly included some calculation, but not much more than Obama's trips to the bathroom during the final weeks of the campaign. The "familiar" sense that Griffin reads from the photos is as close to the truth as we may ever see in Obama ever again.

Griffin says, "Decidedly vernacular—blurry, poorly lit, and haphazardly composed... the photographs’ lack of aesthetic nudges the notion of governance from a question of access to a matter of accessibility." I believe Katz to done an extraordinary job. The photos are not lit well because Katz relied on ambient light only, he never used his flash. This also caused the images to be blurry. I am glad Katz left the flash off - both the Obama's eye's sake and the documentive quality of the images. And finally, Katz's composition is journalistic; I doubt he had aesthetics in mind when selecting his angle, tilt, height, focus, etc.

It's worth noting here that the images as they appear in the print magazine are far darker than those on flickr and appear with corrupted color.

Griffin, in writing "the photographs’ lack of aesthetic nudges the notion of governance from a question of access to a matter of accessibility," is more optimistic, but his logic remains couched in cynicism. Perhaps Griffin's sense of reality has been warped by his decades of viewing the political theatre we know as presidential campaigns. He assumed that the images were staged without a thought - it was intuitive for him to think the photos were staged.

Griffin's error may have been made because he attempts to discuss culture with a larger lens than he is used to: The sentence "Any impulse to look back at the past year is inevitably matched by a deep desire to look to the future - to anticipate the potential direction of culture and surmise anew art's role within that greater landscape," is blocked out on the page in bold letters. In that vacuous statement (contained within a sentence that takes the us almost nowhere in terms of meaning or moving the "essay" forward) it appears that he thinks the Obama presidency and the recession will usher in a new era of art. OMG, I hope so. If art suddenly stopped exerting pressure on society, it'd probably be due to some sort of cataclysmic event - like an asteroid hitting the planet and everyone dying in the same instance.

Below: Three of the four images that Art Forum selected from the Obama campaign's flickr page. CC licensed image by (David Katz/Obama for America)

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About Author

Christian Holland is an aspiring New York City-based essayist who likes writing about how New York City isn't the center of the world. He was executive editor and founding contributor of Big, Red & Shiny, and sat on the publication's board for V2.

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