07/25/2014 05:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reading the Pictures: On the Brilliant Michelle Obama Brown vs Board of Education Site Visit Photo


If you aren't completely transfixed by photos from Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq or the border right now, you might have come across this. Simply put, it's the best visual to come out of the administration in months, maybe longer. (Full backstory on the photo and the visit to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site here.) One thing this image highlights by contrast is how visually tired this White House has grown. (That's as compared to the Vatican, say, which is brimming with creative energy and a savvy for capturing the moment.)

Our takes:

• What's brilliant about the photo is how it plays the "post-racial" ideal against the reality of continuing racism and discrimination. On the one hand, the first black First Lady transcends the "colored" label the same way we, as a culture, identify segregation and this specific set of terms as well behind us. On the other hand, Michelle Obama has been the object of racial slurs, especially visually ones, from the first campaign onward. (You can Google it.) On that level, what the photo communicates, in no uncertain terms, is that this label is continuously hung over her head.

• An extension of the last point, Michelle Obama has come a long way in her ability to establish her identity on her own terms. You recall the firestorm this caused because the Obamas weren't known well enough to make it obvious parody? The parallels to the photo above, are also interesting. Just add "militant."

• From a purely personal standpoint, it's impressive how much power and presence Obama brings to the photo. The fact she's so much taller than the education director at the center; that she's dressed in all black; that she remains so receptive, listening that attentively as she also stands with her arms crossed, all conveys a deep assurance and personal authority. It requires that kind of presence to counterweigh those signs.

• Certainly, this picture has plenty of power on its own. As a historical statement and a personal portrait, however, this photo makes a perfect bookend to the First Lady's very clever official portrait. Remember?


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(photo: Chuck Kennedy/White House. caption: Michelle Obama tours the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, May 16, 2014.)