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Trump perfectly illustrates the problem with the “heroic angle” in portrait photography

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Heroically standing in front of a door.
By Johnny Simon
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

US president-elect Donald Trump, a frequent taunter of the media and a critic of the photographs it uses of him, has found another target: his image on the cover of CNN’s election roundup book Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything.

Trump tweeted on Jan. 2 that the network had used “the worst cover photo of me.” This caused some initial confusion, since the picture, a studio portrait taken by political photography legend David Hume Kennerly, was rather slimming and had been given Trump’s informal seal of approval.

“The deal was, they had no picture approval on the portraits,” Kennerly, who has photographed every US president since Richard Nixon, told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “But after I’d taken two or three shots, Trump asked, can I see what you’re doing? I said, ‘Sure.’ I’d do that for anybody. I showed him the back of the camera, and he said, ‘Wow, I look better there than in real life!'”

But it turns out, these were the photos from which CNN selected the cover for the second edition of the book, the “2017 inaugural edition.”

What Trump apparently was hung up on was the image from the first edition.

Courtesy of CNN
First Edition.

That photo, according to CNN, came after Kennerly had attempted to gain special access to Trump on election night, as the results came in. His request was denied but he did photograph Trump on stage at his victory party. Kennerly noted: “It’s too bad… because I think it was a major historical opportunity lost.”

The photo that came from that evening was shot at a low angle, looking up from below the podium, with stage lighting that was far less exacting, and far less flattering, than could have been achieved with specifically positioned studio lights.

A picture taken from the below-stage-looking-up position can go two ways. In the right lighting and posture, it can make you look powerful or heroic. Or it can make you look fat, as a photo of Trump with a double chin did, prompting him to complain directly to NBC News president Deborah Turness at a post-election meeting with media executives last year.

Courtesy of CNN
Second edition

The image on the second edition’s cover has smoother lighting and is framed to be level with Trump’s eyes, deemphasizing his jowls.

The dustup around Unprecedented teaches a pretty obvious lesson for the president-elect: If Trump wants better pictures of himself, the first step would be to let photographers in.

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