The power of political portraiture has made it an invaluable tool. Yet, in order to transpose these images, commonly used for propaganda, into the realm of art, one has to redefine its purpose. With her installation How They Changed Our Lives, opening at Mana Contemporary on October 7, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg manages to accomplish the nearly impossible: to make a socio-artistic statement using seemingly simple photographs of elected officials, the U.S. Senators of 109th and 110th Senate.
Lautenberg's installation gives an equal space to the portraits of the Senators and the text describing each lawmaker's legislative achievement. This creates a subversive statement that echoes the words of American essayist Susan Sontag in her seminal book On Photography: "Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph... only that which narrates makes us understand."
Lautenberg's choice to capture the Senators in a full-face photograph emphasizes the realistic dimension -- while avoiding the common three-quarters stance -- derives from her objection to the branding of politicians. The three-quarter-face photograph, wherein "the face is lifted towards a supernatural light which draws it up and elevates it to the realm of a higher humanity," as ironically defined by noted photography scholar Roland Barthes, creates a branded notion of the candidates. In his essay, "Photography and Electoral Appeal," Barthes describes photography as "an anti-intellectual weapon that tends to spirit away 'politics' (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a 'manner of being.'" With modesty worth noting, Lautenberg does not enforce upon the Senators her own point of view, but rather offers them a platform to showcase themselves as they are. The practical, matter-of-fact manner, in which every Senator is captured with a warm smile directed at the viewers, is meant to bring them closer to us. None of them is elevated to a heroic place within these images.
How different are these photographs from the famous portrait of John F. Kennedy, raising his gaze toward a hopeful future. In fact, they are quite different from the contemporary picture of, then vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska, after a hunting trip as she veers over a lifeless deer. These two examples of political branding -- with the first representing a spiritual Olympus and the second a more corporal Olympus -- are a distance away from Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg's portraits, for which text also serves an important role.
Since the early 20th century, photography has served an important social purpose in America. The immediacy of the medium led to extensive use throughout social movements; from the shocking photographs of Lewis Hines that changed child labor laws, to the Farm Security Administration's images of sharecroppers, resulting in support from the Federal government. Women have garnered an extraordinary amount of success within this field. Lautenberg joins this distinguished tradition of the female voice in American culture. Furthermore, her creation receives special meaning in light of the 2012 election season.
Prof. Lily Rattok works at Tel Aviv University, Israel. She had been a visiting professor at Yale University, U.S.A. Her book "Double Exposure - Reading Photography" is forthcoming.