SOUTHAMPTON, NY — It’s an unusual election year, one in which the two front-running presidential candidates have both been in the public eye for more than three decades. It seems fitting, then, that this summer, the International Center of Photography organized an exhibit that takes the long view, relating the current campaign season to past ones and highlighting the rise of such controversial figures as Richard Nixon and beloved presidents like John F. Kennedy. Winning the White House: From Press Prints to Selfies, on view at the Southampton Arts Center, seeks to remind us, however simply, that Trump is not the first lightning-rod candidate to run for president and that American politics has always been something of a spectacle sport.
The exhibit is divided chronologically and thematically into four categories: the prominence of television (1960–76), the role of entertainment and show business (1980–88), the rise of cable news (1992–2004), and the emergence of internet campaigns (2000s–present). There are video stills of televised debates and flattering, studio-lit portraits alongside archival photographs of rollicking campaign rallies and quiet, behind-the-scenes shots of candidates interacting with their staff.
Under a glass display case, an issue of Esquire from May 1968 shows Nixon on the cover, posed in profile. In the next room, a copy of Variety from April 2016 foregrounds Donald Trump’s puffy, Cheeto-colored visage, also showing him from the side. In both illustrations, hands carrying loads of lipstick, hairspray, and shine-reduction brushes approach the candidates’ faces. While the 2016 election is unique in many ways, these drawings remind us that much of the visual vernacular is recycled and in fact echoes the campaigns of years past.
In one room, life-size cutouts of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, as well as former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, are arranged in front of a collage of thumbnail-size selfies culled from social media. To the left of them, a pile of reprints of the collage — posters for the taking — shows what co-curator Susan Carlson calls a “sea of humanity, of similar croppings and similar poses and similar facial expressions.” In the images, Kim Kardashian mugs for a selfie with Clinton; Trump poses with a young fan, looking like his usual belligerent self; and Chris Christie grimaces while hugging an elderly couple. The photos are unremarkable — a coalescence of uncomfortableness — and the takeaway is too obvious to be profound: that voters and candidates alike articulate their politics in formulaic ways.
Promotional ads from Rick Santorum’s and Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful campaigns play on a video projector in another room. In one exceptionally absurd clip, Santorum shows a Romney lookalike running around an empty parking lot, pointing a gun at cutout figures, looking like some sort of wannabe James Bond or Second Amendment–defending maniac. While gun violence was certainly a hot-button issue in 2012, the thought of a candidate acting out a skit this tone-deaf and triggering in 2016 is almost unfathomable. And yet, just last month, Trump insinuated that guns-rights supporters could take action in this election by assassinating Clinton. I found myself watching the ads, mouth agape, thinking about the kind of toxic culture that produces episodes of mass violence and fosters the proliferation of guns — a climate in which no presidential candidate has publicly condemned the NRA.
When I encountered a photograph of Trump on stage at the Republican National Convention—eyebrows furrowed, pointer finger wagging at the camera—I was reminded why extreme displays of patriotism make me so uneasy. The enlarged video projection of his face is underscored by a spectacular lineup of flags, positioned so as to legitimize his unmoored, hate-filled acceptance speech. In the exhibit, Trump is treated like any other divisive Republican candidate, just another Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin. But his campaign has upended the Republican party’s base, perhaps irreparably, and brought hateful rhetoric into the mainstream. I’m not convinced that Trump is just another cog in the American political machine.
The ICP’s curatorial team faced a share of challenges in organizing the show, chief among them securing access and rights to archived images. Unfortunately, the result is a fragmentary exhibition that presents an uncomplicated narrative about the ebb and flow of American politics — it falls short of recognizing the bizarreness of the current moment or putting forth any fresh, compelling ideas about the proliferation of new forms of media. Winning the White House is a sweeping overview of American politics in the last 60 years, but it doesn’t offer many answers for a polarized nation in the midst of a cultural crisis.
Winning the White House: From Press Prints to Selfies, organized by the International Center of Photography, continues at the Southampton Arts Center (25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, NY) through September 11.