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News The changes in US presidential photography

8 November 2016 Daniel Curtis

The USA are on the cusp of the climax of what seems to be one of the most decisive presidential electoral races the country has ever seen. All over the world, eyes will be on America and this year’s candidates – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The ways in which the public have experienced this election, and politics in general, via the media’s coverage has changed dramatically with every passing president. This blog maps out some of the most noticeable of these changes within the medium of photography in anticipation of these pivotal election results.



Reluctant beginnings

The oldest known photograph still in existence of a sitting US president dates back to 1843 and America’s sixth figurehead, John Quincy Adams. Shot using a daguerreotype – one of the first photographic processes – Adams reportedly wrote of how “utterly banal” he found the activity. (This could possibly account for the president’s rather stern facial expression in the photo!)

As Adams’ very detailed journals make clear, although he was living in an age of emerging image technologies, it was the trailblazing trips around the world that he was interested in and the memories that such journeys evoked – not the cameras that captured them.

Skip ahead more than a century and it would seem that this mind-set had shifted somewhat. The 1960s generated a hotbed for the accumulation of technological outlets for presidential campaign photography.



The importance of the moving image

The race between Democratic candidate, John F. Kennedy, and his Republican opposition, Richard Nixon in 1960, for instance, was greatly impacted by television, especially in terms of how it moulded the public perception.

The Kennedy v Nixon televised debates ushered in a new era in which television would dominate political campaigns. According to various reports, radio listeners and those viewing these debates on television differed greatly in terms of who they believed to have been the most impressive in the debating arena.

It would seem that the moving image on television gave Kennedy an edge that was not felt from radio listeners of the debate. When tracking the impact of television across several decades, it is clear to see that where we are today – in a culture of 24/7 news broadcasting, political celebrities, and web-savvy presidents – has been heavily influenced by the advent of the moving image.



Cinematic aesthetics

This changing media landscape has affected how we see politicians, particularly in terms of their relationship with the people. Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1980-88), in particular, brought about a new era that saw a presidential candidate really getting to grips with the visual language of cinema.

Although the relationship between politicians and Hollywood predated Reagan’s campaign, it was through his past experiences of acting and filmmaking that helped him to become one of America’s most popular presidents. His all-American looks, physique and boyish charm were also likened to Hollywood movie material, which worked in his favour in terms of stirring up publicity for his presidency (some of which was perhaps not so welcome!)



Technology holding the key to connection

The key to public notoriety is visibility – a fact that presidents from the 20th century onwards are all too familiar with.

Cable networked television meant vast changes in the ways in which the public consumed news, accelerated even further by the Internet. This opened up more and more avenues for presidents to pursue engagements with the voting public.

The Obama campaign, in particular, saw the president taking on a role similar to a popular cultural icon. New media, and the ways in which Obama was able to use it, has transformed him into a celebrity figure.

Social media platforms enable presidents and presidential candidates to exert more control over their mediated persona giving them more of a personable, attainable edge via behind-the-scenes content. Increasing legislations placed on traditional media has now restricted photojournalists’ access to presidential candidates meaning that it may be easier for politicians to maintain a sanitised image.

The current electoral cycle especially has seen both candidates, for better or for worse, heavily utilise sites such as Twitter and Instagram to vitalise their campaign efforts and stage their personas in ways that could encourage the public vote. Selfie photography has also played a massive part in the election race with Clinton, in particular, often seen posing with singers, actors, and other supporters.

Of course, the internet has also meant an acceleration in the dissemination of amateur commentary and images, including those that have been seamlessly manipulated, resulting in humorous but sometimes more harmful consequences.

This is chiefly relevant in relation to the increasingly popular imaging format – the GIF – presenting ample opportunities for laughs at the expense of both presidential candidates.


So whether America makes history and welcomes the first female president into the White House, or opts for a more business-like approach to the presidency with a man who knows all about being in front of the camera, one thing is for certain – the world will be watching and taking pictures.

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