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…