I can't get this photo out of my mind. It was published in The New Yorker the week before the Inauguration. I keep coming back to it, as if it holds the clues to the mystery of how this young "Couple in Chicago" eventually wound up in the White House and in the hearts of so many people.
Some photos move us because there's something special about the subject or the image itself. Others move us because they have been transformed by time and history in a way that we see the photograph in a new, more complex way than when it was made. All three seem to apply to this picture, which The New Yorker notes was taken in 1996 by photographer Mariana Cook.
On May 26, 1996, Mariana Cook visited Barack and Michelle Obama in Hyde Park as part of a photography project on couples in America. What follows is excerpted from her interviews with them.The project produced a book, Couples: From the Heart, and, as far as I can tell, the Obamas did not make the cut at the time.
I like Cook's work. She is a solid photographer, a skilled portraitist with several books to her credit and is represented by Lee Marks Fine Art, which sells prints of her photograph of the Obamas, among others. Her photograph of one of my favorite writers, Marguerite Yourcenar, is amazing.
But this photo is something else altogether. It really has been transformed by history. It is a touching portrait of a bright, thoughtful young couple, optimistic, ambitious but a bit hesitant at the outset of their journey through life together -- like many young couples. But unlike many young couples, they would, little more than a dozen years after the photo was taken, become president and first lady of the United States. So there's a natural tendency to scrutinize the photograph for clues. What was different about them? Looking back, you feel you can read some of that in their pose and their facial expressions. That may be an illusion.
But they also left a verbal record in the tape the photographer made. The excerpts in The New Yorker are as remarkable in some ways as the photo. Here's Michelle on Barack at a time he is just starting to consider getting involved in politics:
There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism.And then there's Barack on their relationship:
I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.Sounds a lot like the writer whose memoir Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison called "quite extraordinary" in an NPR interview:
His ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does, and to set up scenes in narrative structure, dialogue, conversation--all of these things that you don't often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography... It's unique. It's his. There are no other ones like that.The writer who wrote Dreams from My Father. Himself.