Building a Better Photo-Op
What has Condoleezza Rice accomplished in the past week? The answer is always the same: nothing! What has she been doing, where has she been going? Well, that's a more complicated question. Each week, veteran Condiwatcher Peter Huestis (also known as Princess Sparkle Pony) provides a summary of the searing wit and infinite wisdom of America's Favorite Princess Diplomat™! Last week was a holiday, so there wasn't a lot of hot Condi action, so let's take a look at her legacy, OK? Skeptics may wish to point out Dr. Ferragamo's many failures, but there's one area in which our beloved heroine has absolutely triumphed: Condoleezza Rice has perfected the MAPO, the matching armchairs photo-op. Join me for an in-depth look at this impressive diplomatic capability after the jump!
How did this once-obscure photographic setup become Ms. Rice's area of specialty? She was guided down this historic path by her former aide Jim Wilkinson, the man charged with making the novice Secretary of State appear convincingly lifelike and even likable. From Glenn Kessler's The Confidante:
To counter the notion that Rice was cold, Wilkinson decreed that almost no pictures should be allowed of Rice alone after she moved to the State Department; instead she should always be photographed with other people in an effort to warm her up.
[...] To show Rice cared about diplomacy, he wanted Americans to see that their secretary of state was at work overseas. He arranged a series of cultural expeditions, such as the trip to the Paris conservatory, each scrupulously chosen to suggest Rice's appreciation for the local culture. Of course, he loved the photographs that then would be printed in the newspapers back home.
[...] In Washington, Wilkinson decided to move Rice's news conferences with foreign officials upstairs to the ornate rooms of the seventh and eighth floors of the State Department. Rice would be photographed sitting in front of a fireplace or walking fifty feet to a microphone, evoking the spirit of presidential sessions in the White House.
Wilkinson's efforts to make it seem like Condi was "human" and "cared" about other cultures led to some peculiar scenes, such as when she was greeted at the Kyrgzystan airport by a Smurf with a dangerous bird (see photo). The two-shot before the State Department Reception Room fireplace, however, quickly became a classic. All that was required of Condi was for her to sit, pretend to be friendly, and not flash her chonch. This is what Condoleezza Rice does:
The psychology behind the matching armchairs photo-op is simple: the two protagonists appear as equals, as affable colleagues in casual discussion. Despite the faux-casualness, however, the symmetry of the setup is also heraldic, which emphasizes the authority of the figures but also connotes stability, an illusion the State Department is keen to maintain. And Condi gets to display her ever enchanting collection of Italian pumps and designer suitlets in a carefully controlled environment. Yay!
The scientists and mathematicians at the State Department have boiled down the matching armchairs photo-op to crystalline perfection, and their efforts have been imitated (but rarely equaled) worldwide. The well-formed MAPO is a place where every man is a king, and every woman is... well, every woman is Condoleezza Rice. I've made a chart to show the major elements and their ideal placement. Let's review them together:
Let's look at a photo from May, 2006 in which the pristine State Department setup is shown from a rare angle, one which shows the usually unseen low barrier and how it helps create a magical bubble in which the photo-op blossoms:
It should be noted that it's possible to have a good MAPO with one of the above elements missing or fudged, but a truly great photo-op requires all of them in delicate balance. The abuse of any of the core elements, even the seemingly insignificant ones, can sink the opportunity. Let's look at some MAPOs gone wrong:
The above was taken in Iraq in February. The armchairs are fine, and it's OK to shift the floral/Kleenex™ arrangement to the foreground. What dooms this photo-op is the lopsided flag arrangement and the drab, unadorned backdrop, which makes the picture appear bottom-heavy. Tsk. In the photo below, taken in Jordan in October, 2006, note how the chairs are angled inward too much, driving Condi 'n' Pal's heads too far apart and creating an awkward composition:
Also in October, 2006, in Beijing, the floral arrangement and the floor covering conspire to overwhelm Condi 'n' Pal:
It doesn't have to be that bad! And when Team Condi is in charge, it never is. So here's a note to foreign hosts: let Condi's advance team handle the press availabilities; you'll thank them for it later. They know what Condi wants, and they'll wrangle the armchairs and flower arrangements. There's really no excuse for not getting the matching armchairs photo-op right, as the ingredients are few, easily obtainable and, like I said, there is wiggle room! Seen below in Turkey last April, for instance, the flags are delightfully incorporated into the flowers, and Dr. Ferragamo herself seems amused at the non-doctrinaire yet effective innovation:
So if the Turkeys can do it, so can you! Let's build a MAPO together, shall we? You can play along at home with Google Image Search and Photoshop! It's always best to start with the most salient ingredient, the armchairs. They should be fancy enough to be regal, yet casual enough to feign friendly conversation. I've chosen pink, natch:
The middle table is more important than you might think. It creates a strong central axis and fills what would otherwise be an empty area in the middle of the composition. I chose a Vernor Panton Cone Table (I'm a design queen that way) and a cute little flower arrangement with more pink:
For the rug, I'm playing it straight and throwing in a typical Persian. I just like the metaphorical idea of Condi's Italian pumps leaving heel marks all over the Middle East:
For the background, some nice mahogany paneling and a Rococo marble fireplace:
Just add flags (note: the flag on the left should represent the visiting diplohuman) and you're ready to go:
Just add Condi! Picture perfect! And it's so easy! Follow the guidelines, foreign hosts, and you'll keep Condi happy. Build it and she will come, to be sure, but build it right and she'll come repeatedly. And won't that make the world a better place?
Next: Back to work with Dr. Secretary! What madcap antics will befall Our Heroine this week? Stay tuned!
All large photos: Associated Press. Photo illustrations: Peter Huestis
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