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From Lincoln to Instagram: Photography and the presidential campaign

Mathew Brady / Library of Congress

Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln is photographed before delivering his Cooper Union address in New York City on Feb. 27, 1860.

Going back as far as Abraham Lincoln, photography has played a key role in political campaigns. The invention of photographic technology in the 19th century was quickly adopted as a tool by politicians. As the technology evolved, politicians used photographs to help refine their public persona, leading to the emergence of the photo op.

Lincoln was the first presidential candidate to embrace photography, recognizing its ability to help propel his image and message. As a presidential candidate, his photo was actively used as part of his campaign. “Lincoln was the first president in which they made prints of his photographs and during the convention, fluttered them down like confetti,” says Kiku Adatto, a scholar at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, who has researched the history of image use in culture and wrote the book “Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op.” However, the portrait used during his campaign in 1860 is missing his now iconic beard as it was not until after he was elected that he made the decision to grow facial hair, believing it would make him more appealing to his constituents.


New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential nominee, addresses a crowd with his plan for farm relief on Sept. 14, 1932 in Topeka, Kansas.

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, cameras had become increasingly portable. Photographers were no longer limited to doing formal sitting portraits at long exposures, allowing them to capture politicians “on the trail” of their campaign. FDR did not want the public to view him as disabled, leading him to go to great lengths to mask his paralysis while campaigning. Photographers helped him in this effort and would not take pictures of him in a wheelchair. The only indication of his disability are visible in images from public appearances, where he frequently appears clutching a podium, or another stable source, in order to hold himself upright.

CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

A view from the control room as Kennedy and Richard Nixon participate in the first televised presidential debate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960. Nixon looked tired and ill during the debate while Kennedy looked well-rested and healthy. Those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won; television viewers thought it was a victory for Kennedy. After the debate, polls showed Kennedy taking a slight lead over Nixon.

Television’s prominence by the 1960s helped John F. Kennedy in his quest for the White House. Keenly aware of his image, it famously played to his advantage during the first televised presidential debate between him and an uncomfortable-looking Richard Nixon. In addition, candid photographs of him with his young family made him feel approachable and familiar to the public. “To invite a photographer in for these so called ‘intimate moments’ is another form of a photo opportunity,” explains Adatto. “Brilliantly so by the politician because that is also staged intimacy. This is perfected by JFK. That’s why politicians on their websites don’t just have the classic photo op, but they incorporate the casual image: the snapshot that their supporters and staff take.”

Zeboski / AP

Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy go for a horseback ride on the grounds of the Reagan's retreat in Middleburg, Va. in on Sept. 1, 1980.

Having had a previous career in film, Ronald Reagan was well accustomed to staged, camera-friendly scenes. “With Reagan’s campaign in 1980 and ‘84, Reagan and his media team mastered the art of the photo opportunity,” says Adatto. “Never before until Reagan had the media team actually choreographed pictures, settings. So the photo op became not simply: how can I look good for the camera, but how can I construct the whole scene? As if you’re making a movie, and place the politicians - the candidate - in that scene.”

While at first successful, these elaborate staged events eventually led to the press feeling taken advantage of by the politicians. By the 1988 presidential election, between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, television reporters shifted their coverage to reveal the staged aspect of an event, according to Adatto.  At one of these events, Dukakis appeared riding in a military tank as effort to increase his credibility on defense issues. Those images were then used against him by the Bush team in a commercial, and Dukakis went on to lose the election. The phrase “Dukakis in the tank” is now synonymous with a failed photo op.

Michael E. Samojeden / AP

Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis gets a ride in one of General Dynamics' new M1-A-1 battle tanks at its land systems division in Sterling Heights, Mich on Sept. 13, 1988.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, try for a photograph of Obama during a rally on the College of Charleston campus in Charleston, S.C.,on Jan. 10, 2008.

The internet and social media now offer infinite outlets for user-submitted photos and video, changing the traditional role of the press. Both amateur and professional photographers now publish images on the web and through social media where they can be viewed by anyone. Associated Press photographers on the trail with the Romney campaign this election season have posted regularly to the photo-sharing app Instagram. Through Instagram, #aponthetrail offers glimpses of the sidelines of the campaign. “The spirit behind #aponthetrail is to show little vignettes of being ‘inside the bubble’ and also a different look at what it’s like to cover the campaign trail,” photographer Charles Dharapak said in an email. The process allows for more direct communication between the photographers and the public by sidestepping the role of the editor and publication. Previously, the public would only see images that had been selected by an editor and then published to a media outlet. Quirky images from the sidelines of a campaign would often go unseen.

Charles Dharapak / AP ; Evan Vucci / AP

Left: Romney rally Port St. Lucie, Fla. #aponthetrail; Right: Gov. Romney speaks with press aboard his campaign plane. #aponthetrail

We are now in a visually saturated culture, surrounded by cameras. With images everywhere, politicians are increasingly guarded and public events feel contrived. While the Obama administration is active in social media, and during the 2008 campaign used it to successfully gather supporters, press access has been restricted. Instead, the administration shares photos by its own photographer, Pete Souza, through Flickr. “All leaders practice the art of image-making, we just have these modern means to do it and in the world of the internet and smartphones, it has become far more democratized and widespread,” says Adatto. But she also says that while there is “less ability to deceive, there is also the potential to exacerbate the problem of the photo op culture: the attention to gaffes, the attention to failed images, the incessant surveillance, or the incessant attention to image-making itself, where we get so deep into the images that we begin to live in a house of mirrors, of images within images, within images and don’t try to seek the truth or the reality beyond those images.”

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