PRINT May 1988


The News and Its Pictures

CONSIDERING ITS POSITION AS A general-interest news magazine, Newsweek has gone out on a limb in its election-year coverage. Even before the Iowa caucuses the magazine was on a roll, slashing away at the campaign with an unusual blend of traditional political scribbling, crowd-pleasing gossip, and new-found “metajournalism” that critiqued both the election process and its symbiotic media machinery at the same time. At its best, Newsweek has begun to unveil the fraudulence, hype, and overweening theatricality of the whole sorry charade.

Newsweek may also be readying itself for another form of critique. In March the magazine ran a fairly silly shot of Mike Dukakis, grinning woodenly in suit and cowboy hat, his arms stretched out like some dime-store savior imploring his flock. On the facing page was an image of Big Joe the Isuzu salesman, grinning woodenly in suit and cowboy hat, hawking a truck. Big Joe’s shtick is his mendaciousness. The joke and the message were unmistakable, and were almost certainly no accident: when magazines like Newsweek are put together and checked, this kind of zingy juxtaposition is usually the first to go. It may have been an easy shot, but it was still a far cry from the umpteenth closeup of George Bush furrowing his brow.

Readers find very little Newsweek-style unveiling, let alone humor, in the great majority of photographs printed by news publications covering the election. Sure, candidates will be pictured in goofy hats or aprons or jogging suits. But most images show the expected: candidates with American flags, shaking a fist, pointing a finger, sucking a microphone, or drooling on some unsuspecting baby. A candidate may get savaged in print, but in pictures he’ll still look almost, well, presidential.

In recognition of this situation, Newsweek has sent staff photographer Arthur Grace to do a series of “revealing” candidate portraits. In square-format, black and white images, Grace has managed to record some of the barren artificiality and soul-buckling arduousness of the campaign trail, showing candidates when their public faces were down. But the very act of commissioning special pictures, which are printed with separate profiles, is an admission of the run-of-the-mill campaign shot’s complicity in the long preelection photo opportunity.

Photo editors who really wanted to expose the campaign circus might start by never showing the candidate alone, because he cannot exist alone. Without his media appendage he is nothing. Their pages would show the press mob packed around the candidate in its loving stranglehold, moving relentlessly through the stifling dullness of endless malls and factories and old-age homes. Most of all, they would show the emptiness in which much of this takes place, the voters either unwittingly trapped in the event or trucked in from parts unknown. The media would eliminate the well-mannered campaign shot completely and go for laughs and pathos. It’s worthless to challenge the candidates in print and then legitimize the process in pictures.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.