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Aug 30, 2008

Our Man On The Floor: Obama's Night ... And Some Notes On Reality

I can't say exactly how yet, but I'm sure covering the Dem Convention is going to have a powerful effect going forward on how I read and understand political visuals.

Alan Chin has been leaning on me for years to cover something like this "on the ground."  (Short of another major disaster in the Gulf, he's planning on covering the Republican Convention as well, and wanted me to see that first hand, too.  ... Even putting aside my day job, however, I don't think the RNC would have been that forthcoming with a credential.)

It's true, though, that an instinctual appreciation of visual staging and photo ops is nothing compared to seeing it executed, first hand, on this kind of grand scale.  I can't tell you how disorienting it as, however, going from reading the pictures to being part of the audience.  Divorced from the media's frame, you suddenly have no way to predict what "they" are going for in terms of the angles, depth, scale, lighting -- not to mention tone and mood.  In a complete reality flip, your orientation is thrown off by the problem -- being engulfed by a movie set -- of being confined to experiencing it live.  (As a funny commentary on how surreal this reality is, check out this link Hanan Levin of the remarkable website, grow-a-brain, sent me this morning, with only the sentence: "Notice the Disney-like shadows in this picture....")

An instructive lesson had to do with our assumptions regarding the design of the set at Invesco.  I thought Al wrote a very good preview post concerned about how the columns (amplified by a mini-wave of right wing blogospheric hysteria about them) seemed to evoke a Roman ampitheater.  With the relentless framing over the past few weeks of Obama as (merely) a celebrity, what we visualized (given the last minute photos of the set design) was how the wingnuts might use this background to frame Obama as some kind of Caesar.  (Surely we thought, nobody would appreciate the subtly of the reference for the structure -- which, we first believed was inspired by the Lincoln Memorial and the anniversary of MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, and then discovered, in an interview with the designer himself, was more tied to JFK, and his 1960 acceptance speech in the Los Angeles Coliseum.)

And that concern was all well and good, except that it was completely unfounded. 

In the end (from a critical perspective, anyway), it was probably better I failed to secure a third media credential for the stadium.  As a result, I was able to get continuous impressions of the show from Al in the press box, while back in the blogger's Big Tent, I able to witness it "the real way," which was on television.

(Of course, I wasn't exactly watching with my feet up, given the triage surrounding the meltdown of our slideshow platform and the imperative to get the previous night's Biden slideshow done and posted before it was eclipsed by the events of that night.  But for the last hour, anyway, I put the computer away.) 

And in watching the TV show, just like the other 38 million or so, it was suddenly easy to realize the two visual qualities the Obama people wanted to impart, which was 1.) a peace loving, good feeling, no watching-your-watch or channel flipping rock concert, the look and feel shifting soothingly from day into night.  And 2.) with the warm orange glow coming from those windows inset in the column structure (and mindful how the Obama campaign takes every opportunity to association their man with the Oval Office) the background -- far from Rome or Los Angeles, with some reasonable pull for the Lincoln Monument -- was far and away reminiscent of The West Wing. 

Just like: 1 -2 -3.

I hope you enjoyed our coverage of the convention (and recall it fondly when we get our fundraising act together in the coming few months).  Of course, I'm sure you've already appreciated Alan's wonderful images in our final show of the show.

(linked images:, Al Shaw, Getty,

(Images © Alan Chin.  Denver. 2008)


Happily stumbled onto your site while eavesdropping on the Huffpost Twitter feeds covering the DNC. The images and your commentary are truly expanding my consciousness. Thank you. Alan is just fabulous. I wanted to be a photographer when I was young but never pursued it.

Watching Obama's speech from home, I was expecting it to look very shiny, happy and red, white and blue with balloons and such. For some reason that I cannot put my finger on, it looked to me more substantial, more serious and more earthy than that. Less stereoptypicaly American and more worldy, the casual outdoor concert transformed into a momentous occasion.

Thanks for the kind words. The overall feeling wasn't excited or anxious. There was, however, a very deep and uniting sense of a common mission. Regarding twitter, I hardly knew what it was a week ago, but Al Shaw insisted I figure it out and add it to our DNC '08 coverage. I love the form, and think there is almost nothing more satisfying that crafting thoughts within a 140 character limit. I seem to also have a knack for creating a twoosh


Hey, Michael - I'm catching up on the (and your) convention coverage, since this was the week we decided to move to a small lakeshore cabin with no net access and beautiful weather. I did see Obama's speech live on C-Span, though. But that was all.

And I guess now I have to learn more about Twitter. I was avoiding it...

As a designer watching the events on CNN, the immediate take-away I had about the staging of the night was "invitation" and "public access". The stage, the "White House" was set out in the middle of the crowd - not at a distance with a protruding stage that brought the candidate even farther out into the milieu. In both the physical and TV reality, a huge crowd of ordinary, multi-ethnic, flag-waving Americans both surrounded and filled the "White House", as though it had been peeled back and everyone suddenly had a seat around the "Oval Office" of the stage. The warm light in the background of the shots that you mention spilled out into the ground, putting the "house" back into "White House". And, as a very pleasant extra bit of context, I heard that the circular seating immediately in front of Obama was reserved for his small ordinary donors, people who had won their seat with their small contributions.

All of this, combined with the extraordinary amount of national airtime devoted to the ordinary people that spoke (Barney Smith, etc.) before the presentations, point to Obama's intention to visualize for the viewers his commitment to organize ways for citizens to make their voice heard in the political process. Everything about the event said, "gone are the days of buying the Lincoln Bedroom to get access -- all of you have my ear". I found it hard to imagine a Hillary Clinton event staged this way.

From a design point of view, his branding to his stagecraft to his steady and sure handling of all of the drama around the convention, it all speaks to a man, an organization, that knows what it's purpose and mission is. Coaxing that kind of personal, emotional connection out of a massive stadium appearance isn't accidental and requires a breathtaking amount of emotional understanding and organizational surefootedness. After the last 8 years, it almost feels like Fantasyland to expect we'd have that kind of leadership and skill back in the real White House, but Obama brought it right into my living room. I thought it was really extraordinary.

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