In January 2009, Catherine Opie traveled to Washington D.C. where spent three days photographing the inauguration of President Barak Obama. From this came the 100 picture photo series and companion book called both entitled Inauguration. These photos reveal the nation’s excitement surrounding the event. The book itself is lovely, cloth bound, with photo printed boards and debossed title.
Much of the book consists of pictures of the ecstatic Americans who came to the White House to witness the inauguration. Opie captures all kinds of people, from all over the country. The crowds were dense. A Jumbotron conveyed a live feed of the inauguration to the mass of people outside the formal event. Close-up ups of individuals amid the crowd. Some of the most interesting photos, though, were of the people visiting the sights of D.C. There are two photos, one of a middle-aged woman, one of a young woman, both African American. These women are clearly pleased to be at this historic event and mug for the camera, a camera that does not appear to be Opie’s. At first these seems to optimistic photos, after all the women are here to attend the inauguration of the first African American president. Still, both women were posing in front of the National Council of Negro Women, and these photos remind us that in America, some people are still more equal than others.
The first photograph in the book is perhaps my favorite. In what looks like the terminal of Virgin America stands a cardboard cutout of Barak Obama. He’s friendly and welcoming and the Virgin banner emblazoned with the word America hangs behind him. Despite the warm tones of the red carpet, and the smiling face of our soon-to-be president, the picture feels hollow. Our cardboard president in the foreground and rows of empty chairs with people waiting in the background, the photograph conveys not a feeling of pride or optimism, but instead speaks to futility.
With this being election season it is impossible not to draw parallels. I’m not sure what Opie’s intention was with this project. Clearly she couldn’t know what the following four years would bring. But looking at this book now, it’s unreliably depressing. The people in the photographs, so hopeful, were so excited about that watershed moment in American history. Although it was only three years ago, it feels like a lifetime. It’s not that anyone believed Obama was magic, but just for a moment many Americans thought this inauguration signaled a beginning, a new start. A poem by Eileen Myles concludes the book. Myles write, “I’d like to have that day again.” After reading Inauguration, I have to admit I agree.
Inauguration by Catherine Opie
Gregory R. Miller & Co., September 2011
Cloth, 124 pages, $50