Can we agree that, apart from other factors, the first photo of the President of the United States is very visually arresting? The temporarily enigmatic artist — like Banksy, but less annoying — has made some mesmerizing choices: an off-center configuration; cinematic lighting that turns half of Trump’s face into a Cast in shadow; a high angle vying for dominance with its subject. Compositionally, this is a striking photo of an arrest. This is a picture that wants to express something. The background is rendered in monochrome, reminiscent of Amy Sherald. Given how baroque the subject matter is, it’s a bit of a visual joke for how shabby it is. There are even homages to classical forms. The triangular shape of Trump’s shirt collar echoes the wrinkles on his face. They both draw the viewer’s gaze directly to the center of the image – the bloodshot eye. We just need to note that da Vinci used a similar technique in The Last Supper.
The most famous mugshots — the Bieber, OJ, Nolte, Lohan series — stand out simply because of their subject matter. They’re front-facing, neatly centered, and there’s nothing funny about them. Trump has upended the format. Structurally, it is most similar to Pablo Escobar’s. It must be said that there is precedent for such glares in the arrest photos of Reichstag Chancellor Hermann Göring. (Göring, like Trump, knew the power of the image: he looted Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh.) Traditionally, mugshots feature both frontal and profile photos—the diptych. Valerie H. Campbell, former director of photographic services for the New York City Police Department and one-time assistant to fine art photographer Jill Krementz, said side angles are critical for identifying very important. “Ears are like fingerprints, they are all unique,” she told me. Oddly enough, the picture of Trump is just a panel. Perhaps the photographer felt there was a better way to identify the person already; Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the modern mugshot in the 1780s, viewed it as a series of biometric data (including hand size).
If a photo of Trump’s mugshot does not conform to policing tradition, how does it conform to artistic tradition? A panel of experts was consulted. Artist Sam McGinnis saw the mug shot shortly after it was released last Thursday night. His first reaction was: “Unfortunately, he succeeded.” It was reminiscent of nineteenth-century French realism, he said, “of Henri Fontaine-Latour in the National Gallery. ” Painted in 1861, it is a self-portrait. It does bear a striking resemblance – the downcast face, menacing gaze, odd hairstyle. “It’s like Trump’s self-portrait,” McInnis said. “The experience of being a spectator is dominated by his total control over the police camera equipment.”
McGinnis continued, “A repeating triangle is a pretty safe arrangement.” The sharp edges give Trump an oddly aquiline nose. “I thought he looked like a vulture,” McInnis said. “I never thought about it before this photo. It’s the perfect publicity.” A colleague wrote in new yorker, Sarah Larsonthinking of a Muppet: “It’s like Sam the Eagle was sent to his room.”
Pete Souza, chief White House photographer in the Obama administration, considered all 19 Georgia mugshots Rico Part of a case series. He raises the possibility of a disputed authorship—a modern-day Rembrandt and The Polish Knight. “Are all the pictures taken by the same person? Or are there different transformations?” Souza wondered. “Because of the lack of consistency.” For example, some of the alleged co-conspirators were so overexposed that they disappeared into the background. “The lighting situation was terrible,” Souza said. “It looks like Trump is getting closer to the camera. The others look more like the back of their head against the wall. You see a shadow.” Trump’s head is so large that the Sheriff’s Department appears to have shrunk its sign to make room for it. space. “He looks more important. His — I guess his ‘strawberry blond’ — hair, and those bushy brows, obviously dyed, dominate the frame.”
Painter and sculptor Eric Fischl was so moved that he created a mugshot portrait of himself. “I’m trying to make clear what I’m seeing because at first glance, he’s acting like he wants to be – it’s defiant and harsh, but with his lower lip pouted, I don’t think he is. Like that.” Realize,” says Fischer. In Fischer’s work, the thinning of the hair becomes apparent, and Trump’s orange glow and red eyes become something resembling drag.
Fischer points to other obvious influences, including Gerhard Richter, whose photo-paintings of the left-wing terrorist group Baader Meinhof have a similar sense of mysterious ambiguity. “It’s another way of elevating and undermining a subject,” Fischer said. Another: Warhol. “It has a weird knack that’s part of the actual experience of it,” he noted.
As it happened, Warhol was interested in mugshots. The State of New York commissioned him to create a mural for the 1964 World’s Fair. It was supposed to celebrate America. Warhol decided to make large screenprints of the mugshots of the NYPD’s thirteen most wanted men. The mural was mysteriously painted over days before the fair opened, possibly at the behest of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who feared it would cost him votes. (Warhol tried again, painting twenty-five portraits of Robert Moses. But also unsuccessful.)
Fischer recalled visiting the National Portrait Gallery and seeing the official portraits of presidents in the Smithsonian’s collection. “They’re so boring,” he said. “These guys have a will to power, but they act like they’re standing in a DMV line.” Trump’s photo would be best placed in a few rooms of the home, where there are portraits of robber barons, he said. “They’re all characters,” Fischer said. “They have a great self-image. They’re not afraid to lean on a mantel full of expensive stuff, wear a hood, wear a fur coat. Like, well, at least they know who they are.”
Just last year, the National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibit of Watergate art that included a Warhol-esque mockup of a “Wanted” poster featuring Gordon Liddy, John Ehrlichman and Richard Conspirators such as Chad Nixon. A spokesman for the museum said there was no discussion of purchasing any version of Trump’s photo, but Fischer said, “It’s likely to hold up very well.” ❖