In todays New York Times comes yet another story about Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster. In this account, the reference photo that was the starting point for Fairey’s poster is now, itself, elevated to fine art status. Hanging next to the now infamous Hope poster in the Chelsea Gallery is Mannie Garcia’s photo that started it all. And for $1200, a print could be yours.
As a graphic designer, the Hope poster phenom is fascinating. We human beings are unique organisms able to abstract complex ideas into visual symbols that can be imbued with great value. Sometimes it’s social value, sometimes political, sometimes religious, ad nauseum. When that symbol connects with its audience, its power can be titanic.
In the mid-80’s, instead of heading off to Wall Street, Obama began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago rallying students against President Reagan’s then attempt to reduce government aid to disadvantaged college students. It was hard work based in the streets. An experience that clearly shaped our new president’s political values.
Fairey began his career in much the same way. Instead of heading off to a prestigious international design firm, for which he could have done based on his raw talent, Fairey headed for the streets. He created a character based on Andre the giant, called it “Obey’ and proceeded to tag the earth with variations on the “Obey” theme. Each of his executions imbued with the spirit and symbolism that makes quality grass roots movements so exciting.
Fast forward to the election of 2008. You know the story. Obama did not commission the original poster. In an almost mystical and, I think, coincidental way, his people saw it and re-commissioned another version of the same poster. Ultimately, Obama makes the phone call personally to Fairey thanking him for his work and expressing how accurately it portrayed the arc of his campaign. From one community organizer to another.
Image created. Enduring symbol established. Artist, subject and audience connected. Case closed.
All graphic design should work so well.