Can you actually like your own photo-portrait? Why do some men and women of State escape the standard aversion syndrome? The actors and fashion models that fill the celebrity press defy the rule, having made a profession out of displaying their appearance above all. By contrast the politician primarily displays his thinking, and this seems not to leave much scope to the art of photography.
Nonetheless the spread of photography, and then of television, has compelled a “direct” capturing of his image. Polititians dread the exercise, which on the whole they handle very badly.
Even so, there are three situations in which the candidate cannot get off the hook: the campaign poster that is supposed to convey a global message; the public appearances, with the media hunting for a significant gesture; and, in the case of the president, the official photograph.
In France the photograph of the president is omnipresent: in every school, city hall, police station – and elsewhere. What’s more, it’s around for five years – and longer in the case of re-election. This is the custom of the country, despite its overtones of the cult of personality and even though there is no law requiring it.
The outcome is an insipid collection starting with Louis Napoléon Bonaparte – when photography was being invented – and continuing on to Nicolas Sarkozy; one that gives the impression that for 170 years the same photographer has been turning out the same photo, in black and white or colour. The sole exceptions are the portraits of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac by, respectively, Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Bettina Rheims.
Who was it that decided the Library was the seat of supreme power? What are the books almost all the presidents lean on – except for François Mitterrand, who opens them? What are these starchy poses, supposedly indicative of a steadfastness that rarely appeals? And the stances that are pretty much those of dictators who, while not driven by the same fears, pose with their dark glasses on? Who was it who let these republicans trick themselves out with as many medals and strips of silk as the monarchs they replaced?
With the French presidential election looming in 2007, we took a look at the history of this portrait and decided on an exercise on a totally new scale: a commission for a fictive portrait from over forty photographers.
We asked the photographers to work from the hypothesis that after an endless succession of men, the new president might be a woman. To the sheer daring of this idea, we asked them to add their own touch of poetry or zaniness. They also stated their personal convictions and the result makes it abundantly clear that the commission came not from the Palais de l’Elysée, but from the Rencontres d’Arles: here we find life, tenderness, gravity, individual temperament, diversity and humour – everything we would like to find in our leaders.
They might not be strapped into “academic” poses, but none of these women lack character.
There’s another one, too, who doesn’t like photography, but perhaps her crown gives her another kind of confidence. The Queen of England is the exact opposite of the French presidency. The best portraitists in the realm have kept turning up to Buckingham Palace to take Her Majesty Elizabeth II’s portrait since her birth, so that now, after eighty years, the royal countenance has become the longest-lived – and doubtless one of the most strategically effective – examples of communication in the history of the medium.
This magisterial collection has been brought together for the first time to mark the 60th birthday of Camera Press, the agency that was founded at the time of the Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and has since been the main interface with Buckingham Palace.