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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Vogue is featuring Vice President Kamala Harris on its February covers. Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times describes the photo on the digital cover as a “more formal portrait of Ms. Harris in a powder blue Michael Kors Collection suit with an American flag pin on her lapel, her arms crossed in a sort of executive power pose against a gold curtain.”

But it’s the photo on the print cover that received criticism as soon as the magazine released a preview in early January. Friedman writes: “Ms. Harris chose and wore her own clothes. The selected photo is determinedly unfancy. Kind of messy. The lighting is unflattering. The effect is pretty un-Vogue. ‘Disrespectful’ was the word used most often on social media.”

Apparently, Vogue unexpectedly swapped covers, placing the less formal version on the more prominent print edition, without telling Harris in advance: “The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President-elect Harris’s authentic, approachable nature — which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration.”

Friedman responds: “Ms. Harris may be authentic and approachable, but she is also about to become the second most powerful person in the country… She is, no matter what happens during the Biden administration, a game-changing participant, one that belongs on a pedestal.”

Prior to seeing the Vogue covers, I was digitally adapting photos of Vice President-elect Harris, as part of my ongoing experiments in abstraction using the aggressively antique technology of MS Paint. While the images are all certainly “un-Vogue,” some are also “messy,” and perhaps “unflattering”–though the intent isn’t the exaggerated distortions of visual critique. They’re not political cartoons in that sense. The distortions aren’t meant to communicate disrespect, but I doubt any belong on an art gallery pedestal either.

Representation usually requires resemblance: an image of a person is an image of that person because the image looks like that person. But representation also involves distortion: a two-dimensional photograph can never be a replica of a three-dimensional subject, even before factoring in elements of framing and perspective and lighting and the fleeting fragment of time it impossibly freezes. My images distort a lot further by literally abstracting (removing) pixels and then rearranging and duplicating them in evolving patterns, creating images further and further removed from their photographic source material.

When does an image of the Vice President stop representing the Vice President because the image no longer sufficiently resembles her? I’m searching for that answer.

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