The black and white candidate

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Is The New York Times unconsciously endorsing Obama by running this photo in black and white?

Full image.

Bobby Kennedy and kids, in a strikingly similar photo to present-day Obama. Is Obama the new Bobby? [http://www.bobby-kennedy.com/rfkintro.htm]

bARACK OBAMA MAY or may not become the first black president, but he is the first black-and-white candidate of this century.

The front page of The New York Times suggested this last Sunday. When I saw it, I felt vaguely reassured. There was a great picture of Obama and some shining South Side kids in Chicago. It was taken by Mark PoKempner, who worked with me at The Maroon—the student newspaper at the University of Chicago 40 years ago. So, Hyde Park, PoKempner, a smiling candidate and happy kids all making the front page warmer that Sunday morning. But there was something else at work here: The picture was in black and white.

At first that made me think of the old New York Times, back in the days of Bookman and grainy “cuts,” badly printed. A certain wistful nostalgia.

Others have said that the monochrome photos recall the pre-color press coverage of the Kennedy campaigns, particularly Bobby Kennedy. A quick Google search (Bob Kennedy Black Kids) found, on the first try, a remarkably similar picture, which may even have been taken in Chicago as well. (Is that a Second City checker band on the policeman's hat, top right?)

I asked myself, is this on purpose? Is The New York Times unconsciously endorsing Obama by running the picture in black and white? There are all sorts of reasons to convert from color (since most photographs start in color these days, at least the digital ones): You get a smaller file size; blotchy skin color is smoothed over; dissimilar pictures can be grouped together; you suggest the early street photography of Cartier-Bresson, Atget and Frank; and you evoke “serious” photojournalism from the Magnum photographers shooting for Life in the ’60s. That is why my picture on this blog’s home page is black and white.

But the Times may have been doing more than art direction. The paper fell in step with the Obama campaign’s own efforts to connect the candidate with the Great Old Days, the ’60s. When Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama, the campaign ran a spot (much of which was in black and white), pointing to the Kennedy-Obama connection. The Times took note.

Though conceived by musician Will.i.am, a feel-good YouTube video was another black-and-white, Kennedy era-inspired, Obama promotion, which the Obama campaign quickly adopted. The London Telegraph described it as this, “The retro feel of the black-and-white images is particularly inspired, invoking notions of the ’60s Civil Rights movement, and drawing oblique yet deliberate comparison to two of the most inspirational and affectionately recalled American leaders, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘A president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop,’ as Obama calls them in his speech.”

These promotions, along with the slew of inspirational, black-and-white Obama images found on his campaign’s home page, try to connect to that earlier, important time in history and the idealism of those visionary leaders.

Time magazine took the bait in the March 10 issue, directly comparing Obama with JFK. Newsweek ran a black-and-white photo of Obama on the cover of this week’s issue (May 19), and a black-and-white photo of a young Obama appeared on the cover of its March 31 issue.

And now the Times.

It just shows the power of good visual branding.

Your Thoughts (1 comment)

2008-06-13 by pat Taylor

black on black & white

Great article! Mr. Black is right...hooray for B&W!

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