The Internet long ago stole a candidate’s ability to control his or her image. If you need proof, google “Trump hair wind” or “Clinton balloon GIF.” Official campaign photos and polished magazine photo spreads are all but lost amid the millions of images snapped by people with cameraphones and social media accounts.

Winning the White House: From Press Prints to Selfies, presented by the International Center of Photography, explores this profound cultural shift with 97 photos ranging from debate stills to selfie cut outs. “We used to communicate one-to-millions, now it’s millions-to-millions,” says Mark Lubell, executive director of the center. “We’re living through a time of change like the Gutenberg printing press.”

Photos of candidates remained scarce well into the 1900s, largely because photography was an arduous process. Instead, illustrated portraits, typically showing candidates as serious and distinguished, and campaign posters dominated. Even after photographs became common, the press respected a politician’s autonomy. Newspapers, in a “gentleman’s agreement” with the White House, did not publish photographs of Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair.

That attitude faded as cameras became increasingly common and television became the dominant medium. In 1960, Richard Nixon faced John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate. Those who listened to the radio broadcast felt Nixon had better rhetoric. On camera, though, Nixon—with his 5 o’clock shadow, gray pallor, and frequent glances off-camera—was no match for the youthful, tanned, and affable Kennedy. To the 70 million Americans who watched on television, Kennedy won the debate.

Democrat presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding a new M1-A-1 battle tank in Sterling Heights, Michigan, 1988Democrat presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding a new M1-A-1 battle tank in Sterling Heights, Michigan, 1988Michael E. Samojeden/AP

Candidates subsequently learned to use media to their advantage. Ronald Reagan, an actor-turned-politician comfortable in front of a camera, evoked the American myth of the everyman by rolling up sleeves while giving at speak at Liberty Sate Park. Others were brought down by a miscalculated public image, like Michael Dukakis, appearing in a tank wearing an oversized helmet, looked diminutive, not tough.

But social media completely upended things. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign occurred online as much as off. He played to memes, tweeted jokes about pirates, and snapped selfies snapped selfies with the likes of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Obama realized how important it was to understand data, to [use photos and the social media to] communicate on a micro level with individuals,” says Lubell. “Today’s candidates realize when they stop at different stump speeches, how important it is to take a selfie instead of shaking a hand. The distribution of that will go out to so many people.”

Today, millions of people document politicians eating corndogs or grimacing off-camera, assuring every public moment is shared with the world. And the Internet does whatever it wants with those photos. Ideally, this is a good thing: Candidates have less control, so voters (hopefully) get a better idea of the who their voting for. But millions of Instagrams, GIFs, and memes don’t always make things any clearer. Sometimes, more dirt just muddies the water.

Winning the White House: From Press Prints to Selfies appears at the Southampton Arts Center until September 11.


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