SLIM TALL & ERECT
Portraits of the Presidents
I sometimes, in my sprightly moments, consider myself...as the dictator at the head of a commonwealth. In this little state I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and revolutions of the great world in miniature. –John Adams
One day in summer, I ran across a small wooden box at a flea market. It was filled with 2-inch tall plastic figurines of the American Presidents, from Washington to Nixon. They had been collected individually, hand painted, and lovingly stored together by some unknown person (showing the simple craze of the collector). One thing that struck me about these souvenir objects—my “‘models’”—was how even in miniature, their gestures belied attitudes of entitlement; their poses, perfect public bearing. Intended to glorify the men, they symbolize the way that presidents lose their individuality as they become defined by an institution. James Madison was five foot two inches, our shortest president. Lincoln was six foot four, our tallest. But both men, here, are two-inches tall.
Restoring these miniatures to life-size, I explore multiple representations of our national leaders: they are portrayed variously as stately and vulnerable, humane and even otherworldly. In an uncanny way, they are a reflection on how the masculine image of the president is recorded and reproduced. There is a kind of cross between the pained humanity of the person and being stuck on these pedestals. This tension exists in the work. By looking at the imperfections of being in miniature it brings to bear the humanity of these figures. With my prints, I seek to re-humanize the figures. I have shot them in natural light, in abstracted, individual settings, using a view camera and Polaroid p/n film. I then scan the negatives, enlarge them, and make digital prints using carbon pigment on watercolor paper.
Through my research — I’ve drawn on biographies, letters, medical histories, and children’s books — I’ve sought to locate the men in their individual, personal drama. Some were outstanding statesmen. Some overcame weakness — from illiteracy to incestual love to chronic diarrhea. Others were terribly miscast. I am drawn to the details that reveal personal traits and character: two of our presidents were illiterate until their wives taught them how to read (A. Johnson and Fillmore); Hayes had an unnatural affection for his sister, Fanny; three of our presidents were considered homosexual (Lincoln, Arthur, Buchanan); most of our presidents have been distantly related; and just two were actually born in log cabins.
Surprisingly often we get a big man just when we need one. –Carl Sandburg
Looking at the detailed miniature, values become condensed and enriched. Moments of wonder also occur. Madison winks. Wilson doubles over in laughter. As I enlarge the images, the figures fill with life but also take on aspects of the grotesque. We distort these men by attributing greatness to them that is an exaggeration of their natural state. It is an unnerving reflection on our society and culture, the role of masculinity and of the presidency itself.
I have named this project Tall, Slim & Erect after a phrase that appears constantly in the descriptions of presidents: “tall, slim and of erect carriage.”