Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Image and Drudge

One of the more interesting things about the Drudge Report is his use of imagery. Drudge has never really contributed anything to the journalistic art of word craft. His masterful choice of images makes up for it, even if he didn’t take the photos himself. A few images in particular have stood out and require some commentary. So I have been saving screen shots at different points since the days leading up to Super Tuesday.

The first set of images that started it all for me is this combination of photos of Hillary and Obama. Not to heap too much praise on Drudge, but he chose two images that sum up the nature of the two campaigns. These images have a very different impact when examined side by side as opposed to individually.

First there is Hillary, standing alone. The emptiness of this photo is a strong contrast to the overcrowded Obama photo. Where Hillary stands alone, the leader of a machine working behind the curtain, Obama blends into a crowd. You almost have to search the photo to find him, a commentary on the nature of mass movements and how their leaders often cease to be individuals but symbolic faces lost in the sea of the movement they lead, almost ceasing to exist. Equally important is the difference in size of the two subjects. Obama is small, in front of a large, mainly anonymous crowd. Hillary, again, is the bigger than life figurehead of a political machine. She doesn’t need individuals to support her.

Hot and Cool

McLuhan classified media as being either “hot” or “cool.” Hot media were those that were “high definition” or gave us all of the information leaving little room for participation on the part of the receiver. Cool media were “low definition” making it necessary for the receiver to fill in the holes, so to speak. In these stark, contrasting photos we find Obama and Hillary personifying McLuhan’s classifications.

There is a repeated pattern of the news media using photographs of Hillary Clinton that are very unflattering. In this particular shot Hillary’s most distinct feature is the redness of her cheeks. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to them. More importantly Hillary is the hot medium of the race. The information is all there for us to consume. We know everything about her. There is little room for participation.

This is contrasted by the angular coolness of the Obamas. Much criticism has been leveled at Obama for the vague platitudes of his performances (as if the other candidates use their stump speeches to present position papers). The vagueness is part of the appeal and why he has been successful. He is “cool” in the McLuhanian sense of the word. The outline is there, the receiver gets to fill in the holes. Obama reflects what the viewer wants him to reflect.

These two photos have so much more to say beyond “cool” and “hot” media. There is also a subtle statement about marriage, that I’m sure was unintentional on Drudge’s part. The Obamas have a young, fresh and happy marriage. Hillary stands alone, in the glare of the media. A glare that was, at least in part, caused by a downward spiral resulting from her husband’s outbursts against Obama. The Hillary photo is also very reminiscent of the "big brother" ad that made its way through the media.

Recurring Themes

Hillary and Obama have recurring themes for the photos that Drudge uses. For Hillary it is the machinations of power coupled with femininity. Here she is being prepped by makeup artists on a TV set, an image that recalls the opening to Fahrenheit 9/11 with Wolfowitz licking his comb or John Edwards coifing his hair before a talk show appearance.

In another Drudge draws a connection to the Iron Lady.

Finally, we have the little girl sleeping under the Hillary signs. Suddenly, in defeat, Hillary is transformed into that little girl. Power eludes her.

Obama’s recurring imagery is the mass audience, usually contrasted with an opponent who stands alone. Above I discussed this with Hillary. Here we find the same contrast with McCain. On top of the implications about level of support from the public are issues of age. McCain seems to be struggling to walk, Obama is moving with ease, smooth and cool. McCain’s photo is slow, Obama’s is fast.

Just today the Obama crowd photo resurfaced on Drudge. In this case the mass nature and disappearance of Obama was emphasized by the absence of his face. Obama stands with his back to the viewer, faceless and merging into the crowd. Again, he is the cool medium waiting to be filled in by the viewer.

Image is always a driving force in politics. Obama has largely missed the critical eye of the camera. This is even more noticeable when considering the negative photographic representations of Hillary, not to mention George W. Bush, both of whom are not friends of the photojournalist. But photos say things through more than just the candidates’ facial expressions and postures. Sometimes their surroundings are just as, if not more important. Obama is the “cool” with mass support. Hillary stands alone, larger than life and struggling to balance femininity and power. McCain is just plain angry.

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