Presidential Candidates Inspire Wave Of Pop Art No other presidential election cycle has matched this year in terms of visual propaganda and paraphernalia. The use of political images can shape not only elections but an entire cultural sensibility. For analysis, Farai Chideya speaks with two experts on the subject.
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Presidential Candidates Inspire Wave Of Pop Art

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Presidential Candidates Inspire Wave Of Pop Art

Presidential Candidates Inspire Wave Of Pop Art

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Of course, how political images get used, reshapes not only elections, it can shape entire cultural sensibilities. Here to talk about that, we've got Deborah Willis, co-editor of the book, "Obama; The Historic Campaign In Photographs," and Steven Seidman, the author of "Posters, Propaganda, And Persuasion." and "Election Campaigns Around The World and Through History." Welcome to both of you.

Ms. DEBORAH WILLIS (Co-editor, "Obama: The Historic Campaign In Photographs"): Hello.

Mr. STEVEN SEIDMAN (Author, "Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around The World and Through History"): Happy to be here, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thank you. So I'm going to start with you, Deborah, because Shepard Fairey, with whom we just spoke, his poster is on the back page of your book.

Ms. WILLIS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: And in order to produce this book - and you are someone who is, you know, a world-acclaimed cultural curator. In order to have produced this book, produced with Kevin Merida of the Washington Post, you had to do this really fast.

Ms. WILLIS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: So how did you even come up with the idea, and decide to put it into action?

Ms. WILLIS: Well, as you know, I've looked at photographs for a long time, and I'm a close friend of someone who is interested in talking about images. Have a number of friends, rather, who are interested in talking about images, and one was my editor for the book, Harper Collins, and on the side Harper Collins, Dawn Davis. She asked if I'd - If I would be interested in putting together a book of photographs, and at the time she said we - it has to be a quick turnaround, and it was a six-week turnaround.

We worked closely with Kevin. I spent every day for eight hours a day for about six weeks, looking at images online, meeting with photographers, and just - and also, families who had visited and attended some of the rallies. So what I was looking for in that search was the range of audience response, portraits that told a story about the momentum of the campaign.

CHIDEYA: What's your favorite image in the whole book?

Ms. WILLIS: My favorite image is the fist bump, which is on the first leading page. There it's kind of the contact sheet from the photographer's series of images where it leads into that. And it's a favorite because it shows the closeness of their relationship. The respect that they had, and just the love that she gave when she said you did, you know, you're doing fine, it went well, and they just kind of touched each other. And that moment, to me, says a lot about respect for each other, and respect for his words.

CHIDEYA: Steven, let me go to you. Your book is about posters, propaganda, and persuasion. The word propaganda has come to have a completely negative meaning. Was it always negative?

Mr. SEIDMAN: No. In fact, originally the word propaganda was synonymous with advertising. You could go back to the early 1900s and the New York Times, and they would routinely talk about ads as propaganda with no negative connotation whatsoever. It was only in World War I, when people felt mislead by allied propaganda that got us into the war, that people began to feel negatively about the word propaganda.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that a lot of what has been put out during the 2008 election would fall under the rubric of propaganda, and if so, why?

Mr. SEIDMAN: Well, by my definition, all advertising and all political material is propaganda. It's always exaggerated, and distorted, and slanted to favor the candidate or the political party. So, I would have to say it's all propaganda. Now, there is blatant propaganda, one might say, and there's propaganda that isn't so blatant.

CHIDEYA: When you took a look, Deborah, at this book as someone who is constructing it, the book has images of Obama, but it has more images of people processing Obama. Either by wearing him in image form on a t-shirt, carrying a book that has him on it, lifting pieces of paper up to try to get an autograph from him, watching him at a forum. In some ways your book is very much about how people deal with everyday icons, and what did you see when you saw these people and their reverence, and their need for some kind of a hero?

Ms. WILLIS: Well what I initially found is that he was of the people, and they believed in a new voice. And as I turned - in terms of - and I turn the page today and kind of look back - and I looked at over a thousand, maybe 2,000 images - could have been 80,000 images, it feels like I've turned so many pages in looking at images. What I - what appealed to me was the response to him, and that's something that ranged from respect, awe.

There was something, you know, awe inspiring and biblical in one way, and then, you know, there was a sense of wanting to connect. And just the fact that the images that also included the cell phone cameras that were placed with every rally people were taking photographs. And it was a sense that people wanted to be a part of the moment. And I think that is something that I found engaging, and expressed the kind of beauty of the campaign is that everyone wanted to be a part of it, and that's the joy in what I found in the photographs.

CHIDEYA: Isn't there a danger in having, not so much the book per se, but having an entire cultural cannon of worship of a human being, you know, who is just that on some level, a human being. Whether or not he becomes president, no matter what else he does or doesn't do, he's a human being. And yet, some of these images are so reverential, as to almost have a religious undertone to them. Isn't there a danger in that?

Ms. WILLIS: It is a danger, yes. I totally agree with that. But I think what's unique about it, and that kind of saves it, I think, for me in the way that I edited the photographs, is that there is a sense of hope. People are looking for hope, and you know, we're - a lot of people have dealt with despair in their lives, and disappointment.

And what I believe that they are hoping for, that this is a kind of a moment where they can hold onto something. And you know, it's not negative, it's not positive, it's just something that creates a sense of complacency, but also excitement. So there - that's the - that's what I experience in terms of feeling it. It is a danger, but then there's still a sense of hope.

CHIDEYA: Steven, what about that danger of taking someone who is, you know, in the public eye, but pushing them into an almost messianic set of public images?

Mr. SEIDMAN: Well, I would worry that the expectations are being set so high for Barack Obama, that inevitably when and if he becomes president there might be disappointment for people who feel so fervent about him. You know, there's an image by Ray Nowland, another guerilla artist like Shepard Fairey, it's called "The Dream," and the iconography is both religious, showing Obama as a saint, and even revolutionary. Similar to posters of Mao Tse-tung in China, and in the background there - you know, there's a sun and rays coming up behind Obama. So, I would be worried that all this symbolism might lead to some disappointment, inevitably in the future.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of the future, looking ahead. Deborah Willis, do you see people who are wearing all these t-shirts, wearing them, perhaps over and over again until they fade away, and get used as rags? Or are these the kinds of things people are going to fold up and keep in their drawer and say this was the t-shirt I wore when blank?

Ms. WILLIS: Well, I think it's going to be worn when the year - because 1968, this is 40 years after 1968. I see that people are recycling their t-shirts of 1968 of all of the iconic figures, and the ones also that had the dreams and hope for a different future. And so I believe that they're not going to be worn as much, but I think they're going to be preserved for a long time.

CHIDEYA: What do you think, Steven? Is all this imagery, these posters, these bits of ephemera, are they going to stick around and make it onto peoples walls someday? Or maybe even to college campuses?

Mr. SEIDMAN: Oh, I think they will. You know, there's an interesting study that was done a few years ago in Belgium. And the winning party, the supporters of that party, kept the yard signs up for many, many, months. Of course, the losers took theirs down immediately, and the researcher called this the "basking in reflected glory effect." I think we may have something like that going on here in the United States in the future, too.

CHIDEYA: All right. Both of you, very much appreciated. Thank you.

Ms. WILLIS: Thank you.

Mr. SEIDMAN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Deborah Willis, chair and professor of photography and imaging at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She's also co-editor of the book, "Obama, The Historic Campaign in Photographs". She joined us from NPR's studios in New York. And Steven A. Seidman is chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Strategic Communications at Ithaca College in New York. His book is called "Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History". He joined us from the studios of Cornell University.

You can watch the video we shot of some of the amazing images served up at the two national conventions this year at our blog nprnewsandviews.org. That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us.

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