I haven't yet been able to shake the civic funk I always find myself in around election time. The election roller coaster — an undulating set of peaks and valleys marked by anxiety, excitement, frustration, apathy, and euphoria (all that democracy!) — never fails to leave my stomach weak, a gnawing sort of ache that lasts days, sometimes weeks.
This year, I found myself thinking repeatedly of a document I first encountered in 2004 — a 32-page, 50-image photo essay called "Democracy," commissioned from Richard Avedon by the New Yorker for its election issue. At the time I recall feeling it was the best election reporting I'd ever seen. Avedon — fittingly? — died of a cerebral hemorrhage while working on the piece.
I went back to see if the images struck me as much in 2012 as they had in 2004, if they provided some tonic for my ailing gut. I was surprised to find they did. But in different ways.
The image that originally captivated me is on the first spread. A ruddy-faced young woman with a strangely textured face and crossed eyes has a gaze that seems to look through the page. Her entire face is a cipher. She has cloudy, pale skin with flushed cheeks and long white hair, offset by a Liberty crown resembling a jester's cap — its floppy silver fabric appears both spirited and optimistic, and flaccid and cheap. She looks comfortable but not confident, androgynous, with a young face but wrinkles around her eyes. Her smile is a puzzle: expressionless, but somehow also hopeful, and grim. Her face seems composed of composite parts, Miss Potato Head with an air of awkward wisdom. She seems transparent and not entirely animal. The photograph is mesmerizing — the longer you look at it, the deeper the well of her face becomes.
What does Avedon find in her that is about us? Her questionable ability to see straight, her two googly eyes competing for a line of vision, the lack of coherence in her face — the blankness that suggests she is everyone and that all of us are incomplete? She is Indecision, embodied not as the human failure to make choices about the world but as nature's failure to make choices about us. It's a sideways come-on to the question: What's up with our democracy these days?
Avedon gives us a portrait of the body politic as a body — a face and eyes and crown. The photograph tells us, through this woman, that America is unfinished, youthful, profoundly unique, and perhaps sufficiently weary. Her face, and our condition, is a collection of questions about our fundamental constitution as Americans and as America. He gives a hint of an answer with the final spread — a portrait of Jimmy Carter as the wizened angel of our better nature, abutting a determined-looking Barack Obama, fresh from his entrance to the national political stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. These two photographs have the tightest framing of any in the collection, bringing us closer to Avedon's vision of the future: the elder statesman, a spokesman for peace, giving way to a young man with deep parenthetical laugh lines around his mouth, and dignity and a bit of mischief in his eyes. His images present these men more as men than as avatars for ideas. There is no jester's cap, no costume in the frame.
It's this final spread that generates the most heat in 2012. For one thing: Obama looks so young — so much younger, impossibly, than he does now. The photograph was taken roughly at the moment when the idea of Obama as America's Great Hope (and for some, our Great Ruination) was born in the national consciousness. No current photograph can perform the feat of magic you experience looking at this image: it un-presidentifies him. All of the photographs released by the White House in the hours and days after his reelection last week tell a story about his role as a husband, a father, a running mate, an adversary, and — for four more years — an aged, embattled, triumphant president. Avedon's portrait predates most of the expectations, and the accompanying scorn, heaped on the shoulders of our first black president. And it circumvents the reality of American politics — great promises are made, and they are broken, even as others are kept. No party, no man, is immune.
Going back to this photograph, I found myself wishing that Avedon were still alive. If he were, I could imagine a new project: Democracy 2012. It would contain close-up images of all of our politicians, sans costumes: no makeup, no lapel pins, no suit jackets. They would look like grandparents and parents and brothers and sisters. They would have wrinkles. It would remind us: people, not caricatures, govern democracies. (Other subjects of Avedon's original project include Jon Stewart and Karl Rove, who are equally endearing subjects of his camera — a remarkable feat.)
At the national level, we have a class of political leaders who are not like the people they govern — in terms of wealth, celebrity, or daily experience. How deeply problematic that is. We have also created a myth, equally hazardous, that regular Americans are deeply divided. It sells newspapers and feeds the insatiable maw of the cable news machine. But mostly, Americans are paradoxical in their politics — human and inconsistent. Democracy is phenomenally messy, and most efforts to impose too much clarity on it have the odor of falsehood. But Avedon's photographs tell us something more nuanced. Peer through the window of his camera and you'll see people who appear more similar than they do different. More like neighbors, less like the villains in each other's fairy tales. That's not just a vision to aspire to — it's the way the world actually is. We need people like Avedon to remind us of the truth of this story more often, and to do it with his honesty and his generosity.