NEW BEDFORD — The first thing to say about “Obama: An Intimate Portrait. A South Coast Look into the White House — Photographs by Pete Souza” is that it’s the clear front-runner for longest exhibition title of 2019. With 50 images on display, that works out to just over two photographs per syllable.
The show runs through June 16 at the New Bedford Art Museum. The “South Coast” part of the title comes from the fact that Souza, who served as chief White House photographer throughout the Obama administration, is a South Dartmouth native.
The second thing to say about the show is that it might be thought of most usefully as three windows.
Window number one is narrowly photographic. Metaphorically, all photographs are windows, showing us what lay before the lens when the photographer clicked the shutter. So these photographs are a window on a particular person: his character, his family, his job, his travels.
Even in the extremely unlikely event that a viewer didn’t know that this slender, intense-looking middle-aged man was once the president of the United States, he’d still be visually compelling. The camera recognizes neither name, rank, nor serial number in the favorites it plays; and the camera clearly favors Obama (even with his prominent ears and that odd upper lip).
It doesn’t hurt that Souza is an expert craftsman with an excellent eye. Before becoming chief White House photographer under Obama, he’d worked on the photography staff of the Reagan White House and as a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune.
In the extensive and usefully informative wall text accompanying the show, Souza notes that he worked days of 10-12 hours, often six or seven a week. He accompanied Obama to all 50 states, more than 60 countries, and took nearly 2 million photographs. It sounds like both the best job in the world and the worst. It sounds not unlike the presidency that way.
There are only a few missteps in the show. A view of Obama at Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue is a window, yes, only this one has stained glass. A 2011 photograph of him standing in silhouetted profile in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., is more than a mite stagy. Conversely, one of him sitting in the bus Rosa Parks momentously rode in feels, and looks, just right.
The reason Obama was at the King Memorial and sitting on that bus — why his doing those things mattered in ways it would not have with any other president — was, of course, his race. Obama’s being the first African-American president meant that he could have done nothing for eight years and still been a historically consequential figure.
This is the second window: on history. Hung chronologically, the show gives a sense of the evolution of a presidency and offers moments of high historical drama. To see Obama letting himself be zapped by a trick-or-treating Spider-Man or making snow angels with his daughters on the South Lawn is great fun (also a real window — that word again — on character). But we also get a view out over the crowd at Obama’s first inaugural, of the crowded conference room where the president and his senior aides watched in real time the 2011 mission against Osama bin Laden, and Obama placing a note for the president-elect in the Oval Office desk on Inauguration Day 2017.
This is the third window: on today. It’s difficult not to sound partisan here, but try to set aside ideology. The human differences between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, or between Obama and Bush, while considerable, are matters of degree not kind. Here they seem almost taxonomic. The sense of discrepancy between the man in the White House from 2009 to 2017 and the incumbent is so vast as — well, simply consider the hair photo. You know the one. Obvious comb-over jokes aside, try — come on, try — to imagine Obama’s successor letting a 5-year-old touch his hair. And that’s leaving out the whole aspect of using hair as a statement on race and possibility and aspiration.
People would often comment on Obama’s formality, how professorial he could seem. They tended to do so as an implicit criticism. There was truth to such comments, but what they missed is how Obama’s sense of correctness in personal conduct, something so notably lacking in Clinton, for example, also served to liberate him. Dignity, when innate, isn’t aloofness. It’s a version of grace, one that can be spiritual as well as physical. What one consistently sees in these photographs is someone with an overriding sense of duty: to his family, to his office, to his nation. It’s a kind of vocational decency, that vocation being moral even more than it is political.
Knowing who he was, Obama could allow himself to display a human dimension as someone whose insecurities restrict him to playing a role never can. That human dimension is evident in every single one of these photographs: the formal, eye-of-history ones no less than when he’s getting swamped by a big kahuna of a wave, in Hawaii, or dancing with his wife to Earth, Wind & Fire. True, he’s wearing a tuxedo. The look on his face sure isn’t.
Just as every bully is a coward trying to mask his cowardice, so any person uncertain of his own humanity won’t — or can’t — display humanity toward others. The man seen consoling a grievously wounded soldier and his family at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the family of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook is the president of the United States. He’s also a man.
There are many criticisms to be made of Obama’s politics. Some of the harshest (and dumbest) come from the left. What Souza’s photographs remind us is how little that criticism can in any justifiable way extend beyond the political to the personal. Let exhibitions by other White House photographers show how well that might be said of other presidents.
A nearby alcove has a smaller exhibit with a title nearly as long that of the Souza show, “Artifacts of Recent History: Local Objects from a Historical Presidency Collected by the New Bedford Historical Society.” There are posters, books, flags, invitations, photographs. Many come courtesy of a man named Carl J. Cruz. The standout item is a truly nifty commemorative jacket. Quilted with fabric flags and stars and photos and even a few sequins, it’s the size and cut of a varsity jacket. Instead of being from your high school, though, it’s from your country — our country. How much you want to bet it would look great on Obama, even better than that tux does?
OBAMA: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT. A South Coast Look into the White House – Photographs by Pete Souza
At New Bedford Art Museum, 508 Pleasant St., New Bedford, through June 16. 508-961-3072, www.newbedfordart.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.