49 years ago tomorrow Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. 49 years ago today, I was born in California. Being born within 24 hours of the seated president has made for some interesting insights. I know, for instance, that Obama is the first president who does not remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At 15 months and change, we were too young. Any older, and we might have memories of the turbulent emotional reactions of those around us. But we were still years from any concept of politics.
Even before he took office, Barack Obama was poised to become the most iconic of American presidents. This promise he has kept. Both his supporters and detractors feed a public that doesn’t seem to get tired of pictures of the most photogenic president since JFK. By now it’s cliché that his was the first “viral” campaign. His face was…is everywhere. TIME magazine photoshopped him into a facsimile of FDR, top-down in a convertible, jaunty cigarette holder in mouth; all rendered in black and white, except for his skin. Perhaps this was intended to emphasize the cut between the historical photographs and the contemporary one. No matter. The first Black president is here literally a “man of color.” His image (almost) alone is printed in CMYK – four color process. During the campaign, Mr. S Leather on Folsom Street sold a poster spoofing Sheppard Fairy’s “Hope” poster. It depicts Obama as a Leatherman, jacket and cap surmounted by the word “Obey.” Political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz pictured him as George Washington. On-line Photoshop® contests inspire amateur commentators from throughout the political spectrums. His altered photographic image circulates in various formats as Abe Lincoln, Che Guevara, The Marlboro Man, Uncle Sam, The Terminator, St. Francis of Assisi and Run of Run/DMC. This latter, on a t-shirt, features a caption reading: “Run DC.” Running shoes are printed with his likeness. One brand features both his face and a caption stamped into the soles so the wearer can leave messages in the sand. The caption reads: “A Black Man Runs and a Nation is behind Him.” Where will those footsteps lead? How will the new president’s photographic image continue to be deployed in this new world, this new millennium? What is the relation between the man, the representation of the man and the nation he represents? No easy job to be so “in focus” in a world that is increasingly “a picture.”