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News & Insight

Melania Trump’s Official White House Photo | A Stroke Of Genius Or ‘Glamour Shot By Deb’?

By Kishore Sawh on April 4th 2017

Melania Trump’s first official White House portrait has been released, and oh has it provided publications with column-inches for days, and photographers with reason enough to drink. Make no mistake, this isn’t a poor portrait strictly from the lofty view of those who espouse and wax photography from esoteric corners, but even for the blind.

Truly, it’s low hanging fruit, and while my idea of good sport isn’t shooting fish in a barrel, the portrait is a good exercise in analysis, if also a paragon of what’s wrong with photography.

If you were to have me name the biggest photo-faux-pas of the last 20 years, it would take no pondering, no computing and no pause – it’s overly-airbrushed and unnatural porcelain skin; skin that looks like it can’t breathe. It’s horrendous, and it’s what’s here like some sexist Snapchat filter, or when Apple’s Portrait Mode goes wonky, blurring out parts that shouldn’t be.

This was total poor form 5 years ago, and truly, for photographers reading this, this portrait of the First Lady of the foreseeable future, is really a cautionary tale from the past. In 2017 there’s no excuse for shooting and retouching like this, and the popular trend of more ‘natural’ is here and not going anywhere. Don’t relegate yourself into the dustbin of irrelevance by ignoring it.

Beyond that there’s the somewhat strange framing, ‘Glamor Shots BY Deb’ haze, the ring that could sink the Titanic, and the complete departure from precedent in terms of pose, attire, and expression. The rather tacit assertion here is that this is a different type of First Lady, and, given the Trump administration’s social mores, that the pantomime of stadium lighting and the closed-off, colder body language of a former glamour-girl is good for the ‘business’ in their agenda.

Or, maybe this is a way for a woman who has made a name for herself strictly from her physical form to subvert some self-inflicted gender bias. Certain arms of the feminist institution argue continually that portraits of women as soft and open and smiling –like those of First Ladies past– come at the expense of gender equality. That in those depictions there remains a deep rooted subtext of sexism. It’s a trope, sure, but maybe, just maybe, what Melania and photog have done by challenging it, posterity will absolve as a brilliant coup d’état of stubborn gender bias.

Or as Freud notably said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” and it’s just a crap photo.

But then again it could be that the real trouble is in the comparisons to other White House portraits of resident First Ladies past, which technically aren’t particularly fair. After all, she doesn’t live there…


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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Edward Millership

    This picture may yet find a niche in posterity along side such greats as Ansel Adams, inasmuch as the polar opposite of a great picture..

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  2. Linda Stella

    Funny! Yeah. Completely overdone. Your writing about it gave me a giggle. Thank you!

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  3. John Belleville

    Oh where to start the critique of this image – well perhaps first with the article itself….. 

    So, first and foremost, before I critique the shot I must critique the tone and agenda of the article.  

    The framing of the article  is one that looks more to express, and focus on a political opinion and agenda than to speak to the image/portrait in question. 

    I am with some of the other commentators here – I focus my attention to photography sites for photography and if I want articles or news with no attempt to mask their agenda or bias I will tune into CNN or FOX.

    Now, as for the portrait their is enough to critique if you feel so inclined.

     The over processing of the skin is atrocious.  Even with that level of photoshopping is what was being desired  it does appear a grade school level mask was just layered on the entire face versus professional retouching the skin. There is no sharpness left – or restored – to the eyes or other key areas. 

    The composition is off as the image should be cropped more toward her left arm/elbow to get it off center. 

     Her forefinger on her left hand is annoying my eye as it needs to come more in line with the other fingers.

    The ring on the left hand should be be positioned up versus down facing the camera at a 90 degree angle as it is not sitting properly on her finger. 

     (some may be of the belief this was done to accentuate it but based on some of the other finger issues I suspect it was more carelessness and lack of attention to detail).

    The largest element of the image to me is the distracting background.  The background competes with the subject for the eye with my eye going back and forth.  The fact is when you have a subject that is as striking as the First Lady – even with this horrible level of post processing – nothing should compete with your eye.

     (note to author the need to slide in “First Lady for foreseeable future” just shows your agenda of the article was not “focused” on objective critique of the image and more about a political slant ands how it biased your ability to stay focused on what your topic was)

    Lastly, the  posture & pose is much more closed – perhaps even assertive or aggressive than First Ladies of years past. 

    I would have tried to have had her drop her right shoulder back a bit but from a photographic perspective I am not sure this pose is far of her baseline – or what she – the client – wanted to project so criticizing it for not having it be “open” “soft” and “smiling” is an out of bounds criticism of whomever the photographer was.

    Lastly, it is interesting and ironic that you use terms “sexist” desiring a snapchat and also make other – perhaps valid – observations of how modern photography needs to make women look a certain way yet you – even perhaps subconsciously – fall into the same trap when you dictate how a First Lady should be… what were your words “soft” “open” and “smiling”.

    If your article were a capture from a shoot – I wouldn’t even import it into Lightroom or Capture One much less try to clean it up.

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    • Philip Osborne

      John, your analysis was much more relevant and honest… Like you, I don’t expect political bias when I read my favorite photo articles/magazines/websites… but I’ve come to accept we are in a very politically charged time with tempers flaring from all sides weather the resulted was wanted or not.  Very sad.

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  4. Marc S

    Kishore, stick with what you know…dog parks and flossing.  Your analysis belies your political bias.

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  5. Laura Tenney

    I agree that the skin is a bit much, but the pose fits her and she looks amazing, as usual.  I’d have a problem with the ring if it was purchased through us, the taxpayers, but it wasn’t.  In my opinion, the one of Jackie Kennedy doesn’t do her justice.  It’s creepy; she looks like a ghost.

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  6. Andrea MacLeod

    Those last two sentences were a perfect burn.

    My biggest issue with her is always the eyes. This one is not so bad, but most of the time she squints her eyes, like she can’t see and needs glasses. What’s with that?

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Yes Andrea, I’m with you there. I think it’s the utter lack of any natural looking bags/lines or lower lids even.  I mean, I think it’s exacerbated by the retouch.

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  7. Silvia Orr

    She’s a beautiful model,  but  the photographer could have done much better with a different pose, a different color outfit, and doing a better job at editing her skin (overly edited and unnecessary for her).   

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    • Kishore Sawh

      That’s the thing. There are so many good pictures of her, it makes you wonder what happened here, and why they made her out this way.

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  8. Black Z Eddie

    In terms of sharpness and editing, it’s just bad.  Really really bad.  Even back in 2004 with Laura Busch’s portrait, was much sharper and cleaner.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      On one hand I’m hoping this is what they were going for so at least it was deliberate. On the other, I would be concerned as to why this would be wanted…. Cheers 

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  9. Herve A

    It looks like a Corporate Woman headshot : 4 fingers hand pose .    No symmetry  hair style.   Heavy Airbrushing to the rescue.  No skin texture.  Nothing to be impressed or to be remembered.  Michele Obama pose or Jacqueline Kennedy candid shot are far far better.   

    De gustibus non est disputandum …”In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”——–



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  10. adam sanford

    You realize I go to photography sites to *avoid* all things Trump, right?

    (One exception:  Pete Souza’s IG feed is Trump-trolling magic.)

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Adam dear Adam, can’t you tell I only post things I pray one day will get you to avoid SLRL? Like this, Leica stuff…. ;-)   PS – I want to buy Pete Souza round after round of drinks

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