Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Obama v BP: the Anatomy of a Magazine Cover

Original Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters

On July 5th, in the wee hours of the morning, the New York Times blog Media Decoder ran a post on the editorial retouching of a cover of the June 19 issue of The Economist in which a figure was retouched out of an image to isolate Obama in the frame. By early afternoon, Emma Duncan, the Economist's deputy editor in charge of that specific issue, wrote a response by email that was published to the post. Thanks to the Times and to Duncan for giving us a greater chance to examine the editorial effect of the decisions that led up to the cover. It's an illuminating process.

In her response to the Times, Duncan says, "We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers." Let's examine that closely.

In the original photograph, Obama is framed against the offshore oil rigs with two figures, Charlotte Randolph and Admiral Allen. Obama stands a full foot taller than Randolph, and appears actively engaged in conversation with her. His hands are on his hips, his head is turned downward to catch her words. Her body language indicates that she is making a point or argument. She is looking up, leaning slightly to the right and forward, towards his line of sight, actively engaging him while he listens and looks at something brightly colored on the beach. The image as a whole details an interaction between two people, within the context of the beach and the oil rig.

In the version run by the Economist, Admiral Allen is cropped out. This has little net effect on either Obama or the overall picture. But the removal of Randolph and the beach changes the context of the image entirely. It removes the purpose for Obama's downward gaze, replacing Randolph and the objects on the beach with the oil rig as the reason for his posture. Rather than actively engaging in a conversation, listening and looking, Obama is framed in isolation, surrounded by water and the image of the oil rig. His gaze is downward, defeated, or at least worn out and alone. Above the image runs the headline "Obama v BP." Next to him runs the text, "The Damage Beyond the Spill." There is nothing to indicate that the damage referred to belongs to anything or anyone else.

The removal of Randolph from the image thoroughly changes the context in which we can interpret Obama's posture and association with the oil rig. In the original, the two are actors on a stage with the subject of their interaction, the oil spill, looming in the background. The exchange in the image occurs in a triangle--Obama and Randolph interacting in the foreground with the oil rig receding to the top of the frame. Their exchange creates a foreground drama that establishes the distance between them and the offshore rig on the horizon. With Randolph removed, Obama is cast into a direct one to one relationship with the rig, his posture directly motivated by its now looming presence. Perhaps most significant is that his fellow actor in this diorama has been erased, leaving his body language to be attributed directly to the rig. It is a complete restructuring of the meaning of the image.

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