British author Ben Arogundade has curated a photography book that captures nearly a decades’ worth of Barack Obama’s presidency, specifically focussing on the visual storytelling of worldwide newspaper and magazine covers. After witnessing Obama’s victory on 4 November 2008, Ben started to collect the following day’s titles featuring the new leader. “I began fanatically collecting examples from all over the world, buying them on eBay and from international newsstands, then wrapping them in plastic jackets and placing them carefully into storage like ancient artefacts,” Ben tells It’s Nice That. Obama: 101 Best Covers is conceived as a “legacy publication” and a “commemorative keepsake”, presenting 9 years’ worth of monumental images alongside text that discusses the design, typography, photography and political context of each cover.
How the dialogue and visual representation of Obama changes between each cover is imperative. “Over the course of his presidency Obama has been portrayed as a feminist, a communist, a fashion model, a Jew, the Messiah, Superman, George Washington, President Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, a Muslim terrorist and the Hindu deity Lord Shiva,” Ben explains. “This diverse array of characterisations reflected both a sense of confusion about what Obama actually stood for, and the impossibility of the scope of expectations heaped upon him.”
We asked Ben to talk us through some of the most iconic covers. Below, he gives us an insight into how the language has changed alongside his leadership and the patterns that have formed overtime.
Uptown Magazine, February/March 2009
African American lifestyle title Uptown presented three different graphic covers for their special collector’s issue of 2009. This example was created by Mexican-born illustrator and artist Rafael López. The cover story, The Art Of Obama, discussed the popularity of art and artists inspired by the senator and his historic campaign. “Obama’s image has become the presidential product everyone wants to possess and create,” said article author Michael A. Gonzales at the time. “He is like Bono, Jay-Z and Che Guevara wrapped into one perfect package.”
CS Magazine, January 2009
This cover presents a distinctive counterpoint to the photographic executions used by many of the publications that covered Obama’s rise. Chicago-based luxury lifestyle magazine CS presents an illustration of the president in which his image, viewed from below, is shot through with energetic swathes of the colours of the Stars and Stripes.
The New Statesman, 12 October 2009
This cover and The New Republic below are two of the best examples of Obama “face-melds”. The New Statesman offers a fusion of the faces of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. The image — alongside the cover line, "Barack W Bush” — was conceived to illustrate the lead article contending that Obama’s policies as president mirrored those of his Republican predecessor. The artistry of the composition commands the attention. The ears are those of Bush, but the eyes are Obama’s — although the finished face resembles someone of Middle-Eastern origin. This fictional persona could either be Obama’s cousin or Bush’s long-lost brother.
The New Republic, March 2008
The March 2008 edition of The New Republic was created by artist Nancy Burson — one of the pioneers of digital morphing technology and the brains behind the famous face-blending sequence in Michael Jackson’s Black Or White video. The artwork features a fifty-fifty blend of the faces of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his opponent for the Democratic nomination for the 2008 election. The image forms a striking blend of man and woman, of black and white, of Democrat and Democrat. The synthesis is serene, youthful and androgynous. The eyes look almost East Asian in appearance, while the mouth appears to be smiling slightly, like a modern-day Mona Lisa, almost as if this imaginary person knows something we don’t.
Rolling Stone (Italy), October 2012
“You’re so handsome that I can’t speak properly,” said actress Gwyneth Paltrow to Barack Obama at a Democratic Party fundraiser held at her Los Angeles home in October 2014. This cover and the one below best illustrate what sent Paltrow into a spin. Both images were shot for The New York Times by Nadav Kander. The cover of Rolling Stone (Italy) was taken in 2009, as part of a special edition of 52 portraits of members of his newly-appointed administration, and shows Obama glancing off camera, seemingly in the midst of a conversation, looking alert and youthful.
The New York Times Magazine, 3 May 2009
The portrait for The New York Times Magazine was taken just months later, during an interview with the newspaper that took place at the Oval Office on April 14, 2009. The image was captured as Obama listened to questions from interviewer David Leonhardt. The intense focus of his gaze, the shape of his hand pressed against his face and the angled profile of his head, all combine to show the president at his most charismatic, and handsome.
The Spectator, 2012
This cover and the one below take their cues from Hollywood and religion, forming part of the hyped up narrative that surrounded Obama before and after his election. The October 2012 edition of The Spectator, like the denouement of a disaster movie, shows Obama’s inevitable fall from grace. The scene depicts a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy via a cartoon of the president as a caped Superman figure, only this time caught in the midst of a fatal “kryptonite” moment, tumbling helplessly out of the sky, his powers sapped, his body suddenly mortal, his face contorted with the shame of a failed Messiah.
The New Republic, 2008
The cover of The New Republic’s January 30, 2008 edition, by painter and performance artist Cynthia von Buhler, depicts Obama as a Christ-like figure within a stained glass window, complete with the American flag washing through him and a Virgin Mary-style halo around his head to enhance the air of sainthood. The red curtain that frames the edges gives the impression that the artwork has just been unveiled in church.
Obama: 101 Best Covers will be released on 7 September from White Labels Books.
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.