The end of August marked the last days of the enchanting, revealing, endearing, and unprecedented exhibition, Barack Obama: The Freshman, at M+B gallery in West Hollywood. Now a psychology professor and therapist, in 1980 Lisa jack was an aspiring photographer at Occidental College in Los Angeles and was in desperate need of a model. It was recommended that she take photographs of a young freshman, who later transferred to Columbia University in New York, by the name of Barry. He posed willingly, his legendary future as the first multiracial African-American President of the United States unbeknownst to all. After a brief afternoon photography session, these images remained hidden from the public for twenty-eight years, until Jack decided to search for them as a result of a dare. This exhibition made it possible for these images to be printed and displayed for the first time.
Beginning in May, twenty black and white photographs and an enlargement of the original contact sheet lined the walls of the small square gallery space. Each photo depicted young Barry in various poses, including a partly unbuttoned Oxford shirt, a banded Panama hat, flared jeans, an occasionally smoking cigarette, and a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar as props. Jack chose her subject based on her own personal agenda, the honest fact that she found him to be attractive. The photos were taken in a small apartment in Los Angeles, many of them with a 20 year old Obama sitting on a couch with a blank wall behind him. The near vacant setting draws the viewer towards the subject. The photos suggest a sense of precarious self-consciousness and a charismatic attempt to be the personification of cool. He maintains an obvious awareness of the camera lens throughout this simple study of portraiture.
The photos are evocative of youth and uncertainty. Simple, uncomplicated, and unpretentious, they convey the innocence of the photographer and her subject. The photos are suggestive of that familiar sense of magnetism and humanity that helped him to become the 44th President. Walking into the gallery space gave one a sudden feeling of a rare closeness to the subject. The photos, making him even more relatable than his speeches and ideas, could instantly transport you back to your freshman year, bringing to light a nostalgic feeling towards college. These images managed to capture the purity of youth and the feeling of not knowing what life may have in store. Each image is the epitome of voyeurism, allowing one’s gaze to peer into a world before campaigns, media frenzies, scrutiny, praise, and global recognition. Just a glimpse of the Barry we could never know, before he became President Barack Obama of the United States of America. When I left the exhibit for the last time, after numerous previous visits, a woman approached me to make a very honest claim, “This is not him. Not as we know him.”