All Photos © Patrick Witty.
Patrick Witty, international picture editor at Time Magazine, first conceived his presidents project in 2007, just after Barack Obama announced his candidacy. At the time, Witty was working as a photo editor at The New York Times. He was also naming his son which led him to think about the importance of names.
Witty says, “This was the first conceptual portrait series I had undertaken and struggled to come up with a thread that would link the pictures. Ultimately I decided that the thread would be history—each photograph would make reference to a historic image of the president. Most of the references are made through body language or composition. Some are geographical or purely historical. I scoured the Internet researching photographs of presidents. For example, since George Washington was the first president, and the first in my series, I wanted to reference the very first portrait made of him, a painting from 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. The hand over the heart added another dimension to the picture, especially when considering where it was taken. Another Example is Calvin Coolidge, since he raised alpacas, I searched for a photograph of President Coolidge with animals. With baby Barack, it was easy, since there are very few pictures of President Obama as a child.” Witty shot the project using a Crown Graphic 4×5 camera from the 1950’s that he said helped him gain the sympathy of his subjects, because the equipment seemed so cumbersome to set up. With each subject he recorded an interview that became part of the short multimedia pieces that were featured on the Times’ Lens blog.
Above:George Washington is in prison, serving three years on a weapons conviction. His pose mirrors the earliest known image of Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1772.
Calvin Coolidge is an alpaca farmer in upstate New York. Coolidge, a distant relative of President Coolidge, is posing with an alpaca named Tracey Lynn and echoes a 1931 photograph of the President.
Abraham Lincoln is an MC in the Bronx. He is standing in the Great Hall, where Abraham Lincoln delivered a famous speech on February 27, 1860. The pose mirrors the body language in a portrait by Mathew Brady from 1864.
John Quincy Adams is a preacher in Brooklyn. The long exposure utilized in making this picture, as well as Adams’ pose, echoes a daguerreotype created by Philip Haas in 1843 – the first photograph of any president.
John F. Kennedy is in an accountant on Long Island. His pose echoes the body language of President Kennedy in an oil painting by Aaron Shikler that hangs in the entrance hall of the White House.
Richard Nixon is a retired Atlantic City firefighter. This portrait makes a subtle historical reference to a 1959 photograph by Elliott Erwitt of President Nixon during an encounter with Nikita Khrushchev that came to be known as the “kitchen debate.”
Thomas Jefferson is a veteran of the Gulf War. He was homeless for 12 years and struggled with substance abuse. “When I came home, I was messed up,” he said. Jefferson is posing in Independence Hall – where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.
Ulysees Grant is a retired postal worker in Ossining, NY. His pose mirrors the body language of the former President in a picture taken by Frederick Gutekunst in 1865, an homage to a painting by Jacques-Louis David.
George W. Bush is a retired firefighter in Rochester, NY. His nickname is “W” and is a devout fan of Rush Limbaugh. Bush’s pose makes subtle reference to a photograph taken by Doug Mills on September 11, 2001.
Barack Obama Ndiaye is a baby in Tennessee. Born two days before Barack Obama was elected president, his parents are originally from Senegal. The photograph references an image taken in 1963 of the President as a baby, posing with his mother Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro.