Low-angle shots, looking up at someone, have traditionally been used to make people appear more powerful, more authoritative, more dynamic, etc. One of the best places to find examples of low angles is in advertising posters for superhero and action movies. Crucial point: In these posters, low angles are used for both good guys and bad guys, BUT: there is is a small but very significant detail that can often make a very big difference in the meaning of a low-angle shot. In low angle shots of bad guys, the person in the image often looks straight down at the viewer. In low angle shots of good guys, the person in the image is more likely to look off into the distance. The logic behind this difference is very simple: Most of us don’t like being looked down on; therefore, the combination of a low camera angle and a downward look is usually negative.
How does vertical angle apply in the area of political campaigns? Politics and power are often spoken of in the same breath, so you might expect that the world of political images would be brimming with low angles. However, it turns out that things in the political arena are a little more complicated. To begin with, it is relatively easy to find low camera angles if you look at portrayals of authoritarian rulers, such as Joseph Stalin. Perhaps the most informative example of such an image is a poster in which Stalin is shown as the helmsman of a ship, peering into the distance as he steers his vessel ahead. On the steering wheel in his hands we see the acronym of the Soviet Union, “USSR,” inscribed in Cyrillic letters. By his side, the red Soviet flag billows in the wind.
The type of low angle that we see in this poster of Stalin has become a recurring feature in political imagery. When portrayals of politicians use low angles, they almost always use the kind of low angle that we see in this poster. The politician’s upturned face is shown from the side, looking out of the frame of the picture, into the distance. The nautical theme of Stalin’s poster is unusual, but it helps us to understand the meaning of this kind of low angle. What the upturned face and the faraway gaze say to the viewer is this: Your leader sees the future, and he has the power to take you there safely. Similar low angles (without the ship, of course) can be found in the portrayals of other absolute rulers, including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as well as Adolf Hitler.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, this kind of low angle is not confined to authoritarian regimes. As people who have been following the American political scene may have noticed, similar low angles can be found much closer to home. We will take a closer look at this phenomenon shortly. But first, one more comment about the low angles in portraits of dictators. It’s important to emphasize that in none of these portraits does the political ruler look at the viewer. As we already noted in the case of superhero posters, low angles of people looking down are reserved almost entirely for the bad guys.
Outside of the world of dictatorial rulers, political campaigns tend to avoid low angles of any kind. Across the globe, democratic elections are commonly accompanied by pictures of political candidates looking squarely at the viewer, from a position of equality. It may be worth stressing that such images do not always reflect the underlying reality of a politician’s conduct. Rather, the images tell us what a society expects or hopes for. They are vivid reminders of the fact that political values can be expressed just as eloquently through pictures as in words. Nowhere is this role of visual media clearer than in the case of Australia, a country that sees irreverence and anti-authoritarianism as basic ingredients of its culture. Australians have actually talked about including the concept of “mateship” in a preamble to their national constitution. If we wanted a single-word translation of the meaning of the democratic posters we have just looked at, “mateship” might be an appropriate term.
Now let’s take a look at political campaign images in the United States. For a very long period of time – more than a hundred years – US Presidential campaign posters have been highly predictable. They often contain both the presidential candidate and his or her running mate side by side, almost always on the same level as each other. One of them usually looks at the viewer. The other may echo that orientation, or may look sideways in the direction of his or her partner – perhaps as a way of tying the two images more closely together.
For an example of this configuration, we can go back at least as early as 1844, the election that brought James Polk to the Presidency. Polk is considered one of the most effective presidents in US history. He is famous for declaring a set of four major goals ahead of time, accomplishing all four goals in a single term in office, and declining the opportunity to run again for a second term. However, in Polk’s campaign poster, it is his running mate, George Dallas, who looks out at the viewer, while Polk turns to look at Dallas.
If we ask the question, “What does Polk’s poster tell us about the power relationship between the politician and the public,” two visual elements stand out: first, the level point of view from which Polk and his running mate have been depicted; second, the level direction of both men’s gazes. These two visual elements remain constant features of Presidential campaign imagery for more than a century.
One thing does change, though, quite noticeably, over that period. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Presidential candidates are often shown smiling in their campaign posters. Before that date, expressions are almost always serious.
Does this transition to smiling images mean that politicians became more approachable in the 1950s? Do smiles signify greater equality of social status between rulers and the ruled? If anything, the changes in the Presidency since the 1950s have taken us in the opposite direction. Harry Truman, the last of the “unsmiling” Presidents, was also the last President who was able to mingle freely with everyday people after he left office. When Truman retired to his home town in 1953, he had no secret service escort – and he also had no pension whatsoever from his years as a Senator and President. The contrast with the status of today’s ex-Presidents is dramatic. So, to go back to the fact that Presidential campaign posters began to feature smiles in the 1950s: A more likely explanation may be that television, which was a new medium in those days, created an illusion of greater intimacy between politicians and ordinary citizens. Political smiles may simply have served to encourage that illusion.
The advent of smiles did not change the level perspective and level eye-gaze of Presidential campaign portraits. For most of the twentieth century, there are almost no departures from those two visual formulas, and, even when an image does bend the rules, the violations tend to be slight. For example, a poster for Woodrow Wilson and one for Franklin Roosevelt both include upturned eye-gazes, but the effect is subtle, and neither image is portrayed from a low angle. Throughout most of the past two centuries, a period spanning more than thirty Presidential elections, the visual conventions we have been discussing remained remarkably stable.
And then, fairly abruptly, that stability began to erode. From the 1980s onward, low-angle views of the candidates began to appear in campaign images, and, during the past three Presidential elections, such views have become a staple component of candidates’ campaign media. The pleasant expressions in most of these low-angle views are a far cry from the grim, cheerless faces that we encountered in the posters of Stalin and other dictators. But the difference between these recent, heroic images of US politicians and the older, more egalitarian portrayals is striking.
What is the meaning of the increasing frequency of low-angle views in US Presidential campaign images? Are the citizens of the United States becoming more susceptible to authoritarian politics? In trying to make sense of any historical change, it’s always wise to be open to alternative explanations. At the same time that portrayals of US Presidents were changing, a big change was taking place in Hollywood movies. Superhero movies, which were quite rare until the 1970s, became a dominant genre in the 1980s, and are even more popular today. Could there be any link between these two trends? What we do know is that the advertising professionals who work on political campaigns often have parallel experiences in the world of entertainment. For example, a prominent member of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign had also been a successful Hollywood scriptwriter.
Does the popularity of superheroes in the movies have any causal connection to the desire for superheroes in the White House? We can only speculate about the nature of the relationship. Just as movie fads sometimes fade away without having too much of a social impact, it’s conceivable that the same could happen with the heroic pictures in Presidential campaign posters. But if there is a deeper meaning in those pictures – if they reflect a growing inclination toward authoritarian leadership – then anyone who respects the Constitution of the United States should be concerned. The Constitution’s meticulously crafted system of checks and balances is not very compatible with images of superhero Presidents.