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Feb 08, 2008

Your Turn: Floats Like A Butterfly...


Two things spurred me to post this image from the Obama website, a shot I've been looking at for some time now.  One was Maureen Dowd's terrible last column, in which she continues to perpetuate the passive "Obambi" tag.  The second was the possibility that Obama might actually nudge into the recognized front runner position over HRC by Monday, or Wednesday.

I'm interested in your take on this image, including Obama's pose, the composition, the analogy to Ali, and the significance of Ali lording it over Sonny Liston in their heavyweight rematch in Maine --  the sight of Sunday's caucus, by the way.

(If you go here, then click on the thumbnail of the fight scene, you'll get as large a look at the popular fight poster as you need.)

Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston (Wikipedia)
Muhammad Ali (Wikipedia)
Darkness and Light (Dowd)
from: The Vanity Fair Bono Cover Series (
Obama and Ali)
wingnut interpretation of the photo above (Bob McCarty)
Other pics from Obama's Senate office:
1, 2

(image: unattributed)


He looks defeated. Or waiting at the IRS to get audited. Not my favorite pix.

I saw Obama last weekend in the reddest state in America with 14,000 other people. It was a joy to hear him speak and I truly hope he gets the nomination. This is an interesting picture. I look at it as a moment of reflection. With the changing of the guard in the background. Ali swept away Sonny Liston and stepped into American history. Barack Obama is in a sense trying to do the same thing. Sweep out the old tired way of doing things and try something new. Perhaps he is contemplating the enormity of the task. I just read the wingnut link. Maybe that is what Senator Obama is thinking of, how in the world to bring two side with such fundamental differences together for the betterment of the country.

The use of negative space in the photograph is could read it either as a marginalization of Obama (thus reinforcing the defeated feel mentioned previously). If you attend to the whiteness of the wall, it could bring to mind the purity and idealism of Obama's vision which would contrast markedly with Hillary's dirty politics as usual. All of the white space almost reminds me of Malevich.

A stark and striking image, Kodachrome™ monochrome, quiet and contemplative in one corner, exuberant and triumphant in another — I am the Greatest!! (that comment, oddly, perhaps understates Ali's case).

As Corey says, the negative space drives the image. I see two different men from different eras, connected perhaps at parallel moments in the arc of their life stories, perhaps following parallel tracks. Reading left to right the future is unclear, open. Ahead for Ali lie great tests; felony indictment for failure to conform to the draft, divorce, defeat in the ring, and finally, a near-total breakdown of the connection between the mind and spirit of the athlete and his body. Tests the champion met with dignity.

We don't know how the younger man's line plays out. He's a politician, for which there's some parallel to boxing competition. His win in Iowa and the follow-up Super Tuesday showing track with young Cassius Clay meeting and defeating the formidable Sonny Liston. Is the younger man aware of the trials that can follow triumph? Looks like it in this photo.

(BTW. The documentary When We Were Kings captures what I mean by young Clay's boast being understatement. Incredible dialogue, courage, and triumph; completely unscripted. Real life larger than real life.)

right. without the whitespace & artyficial drama of its extreme composition, the photo would approach cliché. with it we are directed to respect the objects depicted as if the ordinary has been elevated to the extraordinary by virtue of their isolation in some "art gallery" like context: "Hey, YOU! Look at this, and SEE something HERE." in that regard the image is presumptuous. our mind's eye struggles to fill in the uncertainty of all that nothingness in the image with somethingness from our imagination. the first thing we do is presume that the black MAN object is connected to the black HERO-in-FRAME object, (though this photo is the only "evidence" that they are so related to one another), that the HERO-in-FRAME has meaning for the MAN in this image; and for some reason their connectedness should reveal something to us about the MAN. so then we look at the HERO-in-FRAME image and imagine what the MAN may see in it, character that is an extension of him. what those attributes may be, "reality" itself, is entirely up to the viewer, (not the photographer), for WE fill in this void with our own illusions; that was this photographer's intent, and that is this photographer's conceit implicit FRAME.

ironically, (as image analysts) to understand "what this image means" we must stop looking at it, and start listening to those meanings that naïve viewers are transferring from within themselves to that which is unknowable in the image self, save by the imagination of others : to some, the HERO-in-FRAME may be an alter-Ego of the MAN; to others, the HERO-in-FRAME is that terrifying spectre of the black Slave, once empowered, vanquishing his Master; etc. So, what does this image mean to me? fwiw, I imagine the MAN imagines himself as THE HERO-in-FRAME by black brains in that as yet unrealized white space along side THE HERO-in-FRAME by black brawn. . . courage, by any other name, still the same, a new age; hands and head, wrought by heart.

Okay, reasonable people can differ, but the analysis at the "wingnut" link requires an out of the ordinary amount of selective interpretative to reproduce the author's apparent conclusions.

After introducing the photo to his readers and discussing why the Obama campaign web site might want to show this image to its viewers, he reaches for the But —

On the flip side, however, the photo is troubling in that it brings attention to a man who, in 1964, cited his Muslim faith as a reason to claim “conscientious objector” status and refuse to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War.

If I’m reading this obviously-staged photo correctly, Obama wants to be associated with a four-times-married Muslim draft dodger who made millions by beating people up inside a boxing ring.

Puzzling to say the least.

Arguments built on allusions to 'Nam era suffer because it was an especially illusory time, things then were confused and the tale has not since been untangled. In 1964 Ali failed to qualify for the draft because of inadequate reading and writing skills, a poor man's II-S (education) deferment. That decision was changed in 1966 and in 1967 Ali refused to step forward for induction citing his religion, was convicted and sentenced to the maximum 5 years in prison / $10,000 fine. That conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.

Draft dodger? Millions of draft-age Americans found legal ways to avoid humping a rifle in Vietnam. Ali was one.

"Beating people up inside a boxing ring" is good example of how an innocent truth can mislead. Sonny Liston (pictured above lying flat on his back), Joe Frazier, and George Foreman are, in fact, elements of the set of all people, and they were in a boxing ring with Ali. There was plenty of physical punishment involved, pain meted and received, so the statement is true. They are also members of an extremely small set of the most feared and punishing boxers of their era. Their abilities were widely admired, they were accomplished pugilists, they were *not* *beating* each other.

But if this writer is really puzzled as to whether Sen Obama would want to be associated with Ali let me offer this assessment of Ali's contributions to America.

Across the world, billions of people know Muhammad Ali as a brave, compassionate and charming man, and the American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own. (Applause.)

— President George W Bush, award ceremony for Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2005

Puzzling? To say the least?

black dog (regarding your last point about Ali's contributions):

When I wrote the post, I admit I was thinking more about the boxing analogy, but I found many instances where Ali is mentioned as having been a "role model" for Obama. (For his tactical brilliance, even beyond his style and skill? For standing up to the war? As a humanitarian? As a hero, especially to black male youth? For his faith?) Unfortunately, I couldn't find much elaboration.  One snippet I found, though, was the following first two sentences from an Obama speech on the Senate floor -- as part of a serial chorus of them from fellow Senators -- citing the passing of one of their own.  It began:

Madam President, I rise today to pay tribute to a dear colleague and a tireless advocate for the people of Wyoming, Senator Craig Thomas.

Muhammad Ali once said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth." Senator Thomas paid his rent in full.

I read the empty space as a canvas to sketch in your dreams, the empty yet soon to be filled-in landscape of the future; a shadow breaks halfway down the image, but opens to the right, indicating hope and and one's entering into the light.

By the way, I visited the "wingnut's" blog. He provides a screenshot of what is (presumably) his own computer screen displaying the Obama website. What is remarkable to me are the icons running across the bottom of his browser, looking for all the world like the symbols that behaviorist scientists use in experiments devoted to getting chimpanzees to push a button in return for favors.

"Draft dodger? Millions of draft-age Americans found legal ways to avoid humping a rifle in Vietnam. Ali was one."

It's been argued (IMHO pretty convincingly) that Ali could easily have gone into the army and received preferential treatment (duty performing exhibition bouts like Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Robinson) due to his celebrity status. Considering the route Ali took - directly confronting the draft in court - it would be more accurate to call him a draft fighter or draft refuser.

Ali is a really a figure from before my time, but he's got a history of fighting for himself, and good causes. In a particularly pithy segment in 'When we Were Kings' there is footage of him discussing the difference in culture vis-a-vis education in Africa and the American South. In light of that it's interesting to see Obama - who is really more connected to Africa than the African American culture in the frame with Ali.

Dowd is insane. QED.

Don't forget what Clay/Ali is shouting to Liston in this iconic photo: Get up and fight!

If I remember correctly back in that era, Sonny Liston was the older established fighter (McCain)
and Ali was the brash young, anti-establishment fighter (Obama). This fight marked the end of a generations of boxers and the begininng of a new bread of fighters.

The photo of the calm Obama unconsciously echoing the downward-looking "Get UP sucka!" attitude of the soon-to-be Ali shows that despite the surface polish -- what Dowd calls "Obambi" -- the junior Senator from Illinois is ready, willing and able to rumble.

Remember, Obama's got over two decades of organizing experience under his belt. Chicago organizing experience. Think Saul Alinsky.

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