Every day now unfolds to the rhythms of the internet news cycle. The specific items we follow have been diverging, but the following itself is more and more synchronized. Everyone fixes on the new things coming over the media horizon: you watch a story, or a controversy, emerge, grow, and peak. You almost never watch it shrink and disappear. How would you even begin to do that? The thought never crosses your mind. Until you become fixated on something everyone else is content to leave behind, which is what happened to me.
I kept looking at the recently infamous—now half-forgotten—picture of the Bidens visiting the Carters. The photo was taken and passed around feverishly almost two months ago, when I saw it repeatedly on my scroll and dragged the file onto my desktop, and I haven’t been able to forget it since. Everyone else moved on to Joyce Carol Oates negging Mad Men, Elon Musk going on SNL, Bennifer 2.0, and a bunch of other things I’m forgetting, but here I am, late at night, still staring at little Rosalynn, little Jimmy, big Jill, and big Joe. Also the armchairs, the blue-green walls, the blue-blue carpeting, the “unfinished” cameo-style paintings of the Carters, the blank canvas keyed to the off-white upholstery of their chairs. I’ve reviewed the institutional sheen on those cabinets, zoomed in on the trio of mask-like ceramics facing up to the ceiling on the side table, pondered the bulbous bronze bookends holding a three-volume set of something important on that same table. But mostly I’ve been staring at the little Carters and the big Bidens, trying to understand what is so transfixing to me there. And I think I finally have an answer. So at the risk of disrespecting the immutable orientation of our media universe, I want to return to the topic that was on everyone’s minds on May 3, 2021. I want to turn and watch the sunset.
But let’s start with the rising arc of this photo. Presumably it was intended to signal stability and continuity in the choppiest of times. After the decades-long nightmare of the Reagan era, which intensified in the Trump years, this in-person meeting was the Democrats’ way of closing the circle. A simple group photo was the best way to mark such a momentous reunion.
Except this didn’t end up being a simple group photo. The Carters’ apparently small seating area literally pressed the photographer into using a fish-eye lens. The resulting optical warp was extreme, but it produced distortions that were uncannily convincing. Sinking into their comfy chairs at the center of the room, the Carters got sunk into the picture’s vortex, too, and shrank dramatically in the process; the kneeling Bidens, for their part, grew huge and loomed over their presidential predecessors. It didn’t look like a badly staged photo, exactly—it looked more like sorcery.
Every major news outlet quickly ran something about how this magic trick happened. It’s actually pretty simple: the fish-eye lens enlarges objects near the edges. We encounter prosaic, non-presidential examples of this effect all the time: the button on a phone-camera that squeezes everyone into the family photo, or the real-estate listings where a tiny second bedroom looks like a gymnasium. But of course, even if you know these things, the Carter picture still induces a kind of vertigo. To relieve this sensation, to break the spell, the explainers told readers to look at Jimmy Carter’s shoes, which were near the bottom edge of the picture and therefore huge. This visual fact proved that Carter himself had not in fact shrunk. It is a ridiculous thing to say, but the power of this photo is that it invites this kind of proof. It is truly disorienting to behold.
One way to think about the viral explainers of the viral photo is that their function was almost pharmacological. A rapidly disseminated image that leads to spinning heads requires a dose of fast-acting cultural Dramamine. Speed is key. With the internet producing the weird stories, and grabbing all the ads that go with them, traditional media has been forced to move to the higher ground of analysis, but that was never journalism’s forte. So, somewhere between newsfeed dazzle and the insight that comes later (if at all), explanation became a familiar part of the information age news cycle. Sometimes, it’s enough.
But for me, this photo induced a vertigo that didn’t abate. And so it was that after weeks of having the picture on my desktop and opening it in idle moments, I came to the serene conclusion that the explainers weren’t really explaining this picture at all. They were explaining the lens. If you look long enough at the picture itself, it becomes clear that the strangeness of this photo isn’t merely optical. I don’t think it’s merely funny, or merely viral, either. The illusory size gap is key, for sure, and it is undeniably funny, but the truly weird thing is how the distortion resonates with the nation’s feelings. The expressionism is totally accidental—in fact, it runs directly counter to the stated purpose of the photo-op—but maybe that’s what makes this such an oddly compelling document.
Because this was a such a viral photo, in the pre-pandemic sense of that now-difficult-to-use word, it took me a while to see, to admit, that it was also viral in the other sense. Because it doesn’t feature any of the standard Covid visuals—mass graves, masks, hospital workers, people working from home—it wasn’t really discussed as a pandemic photo, but to me the fun-house image eerily captures our emotional and political state as we began to emerge from lockdown.
Take the central sight gag, the shrunken Carters. We know—we know—that the Carters cannot have shrunk to half their size since we saw them last. But in early May there were reasonable people all over the internet arguing that in fact old people just shrink, which was why everyone needed to calm down and accept that the Carters had suddenly become garden gnomes. There are two problems here. The first is that this placid thought obscures how utterly disconcerting it is that old people shrink, not least for old people themselves. More crucially, it misses—represses?—the unspeakable fear that was inadvertently embedded in this photo: progeny who have been seeing their elders exclusively on screens for two years were deeply afraid that they might have been terribly, perhaps even literally, reduced by the pandemic.
Much is said about how the presidential family represents the national family, but we are used to this role running out with the term of office. Here, however, the Carters reprise it and stand in—first comically, then poignantly—for the grandparents we’ve all been so worried about: the grandparents in the nursing home, the grandparents in the hospital getting a non-Covid procedure, the grandparents we’ve only glimpsed via choppy FaceTime videos, the grandparents who died horribly alone behind a plastic scrim.
I came to see this photo as a totally surreal—and therefore totally accurate—document of what it has felt like to contemplate our countless impending reunions, including thousands upon thousands of postponed funerals. I don’t know when, or how, or if we will process the pandemic emotionally, but this picture gave us a moment of release for all of that pain and weirdness—all the more so because we didn’t have to acknowledge it.
It’s as if they somehow took a picture of an anxiety dream, the unsettled collective unconscious of an entire nation. Your grandfather, played by Jimmy Carter, is smiling and cheerful, his eyes kindly and slightly vacant, but your grandmother, Rosalynn Carter, is staring straight at you, her laser eyes telling you she knows how fucked up everything is. You have to look away. The room feels very heavy and very light at the same time. You try to move your limbs, but you cannot. You try to wake up from the dream, but it is all over Twitter. People try to explain the dream to you, but that makes it worse.
So let’s talk about the other dream in this picture, the dream of strength and youth.
We know for certain, beyond certainty, that Joe Biden is a somewhat fragile old man. We’ve seen him falling down, we’ve seen him mistaking his sister for his wife, all of that. It’s normal: he’s 78 years old and he’s been through a lot. And yet here he is, suddenly The Credible Hulk, looming like a superhero over the former First Lady. We know the lens is what has bulked him up, but the resulting caricature makes a weird kind of sense, so it sticks. Compared with candidate Biden, President Biden had been seeming downright steroidal. The scope and speed of his legislative proposals in the first 100 days had been making Obama seem kind of small. Indeed, all the former presidents seem to be aging, fading, graying, book-touring, while the current one is jacked up and full of youth. Even his missteps and failures have been high-energy missteps and failures. Here, he really fills his suit. His face is also preternaturally smooth, in a way that goes beyond Botox—you almost want to run a drug test.
Maybe because Walter Mondale died, I had already been thinking about the long Eighties, which we were apparently still in until sometime in February. I remember, for example, being the only person in my second-grade class to “vote” Mondale/Ferraro in the mock election we had in 1984. Later that evening, I remember seeing that humiliating map with only Minnesota blue. I also remember my mother coming home from the polls four years later, in ’88, and telling me that she had voted for Bush, “just to feel what it was like to vote for a winner,” before exploding with sad, resigned laughter. I kept thinking about that moment of sad, resigned laughter as I looked at this picture.
At first I thought this was because the image literalized how the Carters, and the niceness they represent, had been in recession for so long. This viral photograph alerted us to the simple fact that they have a sitting room that is too small to back up in, which is itself remarkable, something we can’t imagine being true of the Bushes, Clintons, Obamas, or Trumps. A habitat for humanity, not a mansion. A lot of people see the Carters this way, as simple Christians, former farmers, kind Southerners, the nation’s soft-spoken grandparents. They made mistakes, sure, but we forgive our grandparents more easily, don’t we?
And this brings us closer to the generational logic—or illogic—of the picture: for it to make grandparental sense, the youthful kneeling couple would have to be Chasten and Pete, say, or Kamala and Doug. The Bidens’ presence throws the whole thing off-kilter. The simple generational reunion turns out to be a complicated generational contortion—a political knot. It’s not just a moment that’s been captured here, but decades. This picture reminds us that we’ve been stuck for decades. The stasis, the backslide has been so extreme that the Bidens, you realize, have ended up playing the frisky grandchildren, symbolizing the future. I wish I could tell you it was just a camera trick.
This happy reunion photo contains genuine happiness, but in the end it’s a record not just of corporeal fragility, but the fragility of political alliances and coalitions. It might even come to represent the brittleness, the painful obsolescence, of our entire system of government. (I am thinking of how the airbrushing away of “the Vanishing Commissar” Nikolai Yezhov as he walked along the Moscow-Volga Canal has come to stand in for all the erasures of Stalinism.) I don’t know if this picture will become capital-H historical in that way, but lifting it off the doomscroll did give me a way to notice the history it was already registering, and to watch it evolve with that history. It’s spooky enough that I’m probably going to keep monitoring it. At this point, the photo and I have established a certain kind of companionship, itself a habit from lockdown, and I’m curious how it will look in future weeks and months. Right now, it’s stabilizing as an odd memento from the late Covid era, which is already feeling like the early-Biden era, a brief moment before the next election loomed, when everyone started getting shots, when you could arrange to see your family again—when Joe and Jill looked lemon-fresh, victorious, invincible.