Trump or trait?

He’s the most photographed person on the planet, and whilst I’ve never shot him, I’m obsessed with creating portraits of him

For as long as I can remember, Princess Diana was always said to have been the world’s most photographed person. During her lifetime, at least from the day news broke of her relationship with Prince Charles, her face was never out of the papers. Cameras would follow her from that day forth, and of course, ultimately led to her death in Paris as her driver tried to outrun a group of paparazzi on motorbikes trying to get shots of her and Dodi Al-Fayed.

Since that fateful day, other contenders have emerged: notably Kate Middleton and Meghan Markel and of course the Queen herself has been photographed all her life. Indeed, her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, was the first ever Royal to be photographed (at Osborne House by Leonida Caldesi in 1857)

Of course, pop stars are always in front of the cameras: there are countless photos of Taylor Swift, Madonna and Harry Styles. Most of these however are either on the red carpet or on stage. Big celebrities today, like Royalty, tend to control their media exposure and spend much of their time evading being photographed at all.

But some people just can’t get enough of the spotlight and positively encourage getting their picture taken. None more so than Donald Trump. Never shy to adorn his buildings with his name, Trump’s face is one no can avoid. It’s everywhere.

All President’s have been extensively photographed of course, but no President courts publicity like Trump. During the three and a half years of his presidency, there have been more pictures taken of him than anyone else on the planet. His entire public life is played out in front of the cameras, both stills and video.

And this is a President who cares deeply about his appearance. For him, image is everything: the blue suit, white shirt and overlong red tie are his signature looks, as is his bouffant blonde hair, voluminously coiffed into position, crowning his permatan facade. But none of it can mask the man behind the carefully contrived image. Almost always, his facial expressions say more than his words and reveal his true thoughts.

As the legendary Yankees coach Yogi Berra liked to say, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

And I have to say, I’m slightly obsessed with watching Trump and especially observing his face. I watch every press briefing and all of his rallies. Whilst I loathe his politics, I am drawn to him as a ‘personality’. I notice every little change in his appearance and in his mannerisms. I even follow behavioural experts on Twitter who assess his daily demeanour and analyse his expressions. So, maybe, I’m more than just a little obsessed.

As a photographer with a penchant for fascinating faces, what draws me to Trump’s is the wide range of expressions he has, expressions that reveal so much about his inner thoughts, his mood and his vanity.

The first thing you notice is the sheer variety. The second is their dramatic, often over-stated character, such as his amplified lip movements. I find him a fascinating subject.

Of course, when you’re photographed as much as he is, the majority of the images you see are pretty similar and frankly most are pretty nondescript. But along with the mediocre, some emerge which really stand out. These are the ones that get my attention. They also get my creative juices flowing.

One result of living in lockdown is there are far fewer opportunities to shoot interesting things.

Like many photographers, I’ve been delving into my archive, seeking out the odd gem to re-imagine, to edit in a new way. It’s one of my creative outlets. Another is taking existing photos that appear online and giving them my own twist, remixing them in the same way one artist remixes another artist’s songs.

It’s not always possible to know or find out who took the original image, usually they’re uncredited. If I do know, I’ll recognise the original photographer by name, if not, I always state it’s a remix.

I particularly like to remix portraits of actors and actresses, especially those from shows I’ve enjoyed. I’ve also used stills from music videos or concert performances as a base for a remix. In almost all cases, they are of people who either I’m not in a position to shoot myself, or who are no longer alive.

My remixing started in 2016 with a Taylor Swift head-shot and a portrait of Ava Gardner by the legendary fashion photographer George Hoyningen Huene. I then moved on to Masterchef presenter Gregg Wallace, former Wham! singer Andrew Ridgeley and Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown and Harry Potter actress Emma Watson. Since then I’ve probably done thirty or so, as most of my time is taking editing my own images. Apart from a triptych of Bowie portraits, drawn from video stills, I rarely create multiple remixes of any one subject.

Which brings me to Trump. Over the past few months I’ve remixed a number of portraits of him. Although I’ve shared them on Twitter and Instagram, they’ve never appeared in one place before. And that’s what I’m doing now: grouping them together — at least the five I’m most pleased with. As I do more, I’ll add them to the collection.

My intention isn’t passing off someone else’s work as my own. As you’ll see, these are typically extremely artistic renditions of the original image, often involving numerous processes to get to the end result.

I look at it like this: there’s much more creativity involved in producing these images than was ever required to shoot the original. I’m not saying they’re better, but I do think they have far more visual impact. And, after all, to me it’s all about creating iconic images that are out of the ordinary.

I’ve chosen not to include the original photographs here. Why? Because I think they would only distract from my images, and it’s those I’m showcasing.

It’s the same with music. When an artist puts out a remix, they don’t include the original version for comparison. That being said, mine are usually not just a very different look to the original, but often are a tight crop or a different aspect ratio.

I have a number of signature looks, but generally treat every edit individually with no pre-determined boundaries to how it may end up. All the ones featured here were created with various apps including Lightroom, Snapseed and Prisma. And for those unfamiliar with my work, typography is always an integral part of my images.

Finding images of Trump to remix of course means looking at hundreds of photos. When I see something that catches my eye, I usually know immediately it’s one I want to work on.

Two things often preclude me going forward: if the image has a fussy background, I usually avoid it and second, if the resolution is low I tend not to bother.

The one’s below appear in the order in which they were remixed.

This was taken in the White House briefing room and is a typically dismissive facial expression you often see with Trump. It’s a very graphic look which to me looks visually interesting. Originally this was in full colour, but I thought it would work well with this blue/green monotone.

Another image from the briefing room and a similar expression to the blue shot. This time, though, the dead eye/side eye and scowl are more prominent, giving him a truly evil appearance — as evil as I’ve ever seen him look. The grey/yellow tones are a favourite look of mine at the moment.

Another from the briefing room. This one reminds me a little of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama Change posters. It’s very graphic (with an almost circuit board look) and of course it’s in the US colours of red, white and blue. I chose a very tight square crop because I wanted the focus to be on the eyes. It shows a man losing touch with reality.

Also from the briefing room, this captures the full madness of the President like I’ve not seen in any other portrait of him. To further emphasise those crazy eyes, I did something I’ve only done a few times before — a double exposure.

This portrait is about as graphic as it gets. Not sure if it shows a strong man or a frightened man, it’s a little ambiguous. What’s clear to see however are the pale areas around Trump’s eyes where he never applies bronzer.

Trump caught in reflective mood, something you rarely see. I especially like the finger, it’s almost like he’s pointing a gun to his head. And then there’s that strange thing going on with the lines on his face matching the angle of those whispy strands of hair he combs across the top of his ears.

I think this is one of my favourite treatments — reminds me a little of the look one sees on a banknote. In terms of the portrait, it has to be that scowl, the bushy eyebrows and of course, the fly away hair.

A very minimal look for this portrait — almost like a modern art painting. Despite its simplicity and lack of detail, Trump is instantly recognisable. The bowed head and expression convey a feeling of abnegation.

This is a similar, but not the same shot as the one above. The treatment I’ve given it is very different, but the message it conveys is the same.

Here’s an eye catching portrait of Trump. The original was taken on. 5 May 2020 when he toured Honeywell’s mask facility in Arizona and bizarrely chose to wear goggles, but no mask. His goofy, bemused expression caught my eye, and I had to add this one to the collection.

And here’s another of him taken at the Honeywell facility. It’s a completely different look, one that could have come straight out of a comic book. Trump is in full red, white and blue uniform, complete with yellow hair, but it’s the goggles he’s wearing that grab your eye and make this portrait so memorable.

This portrait shows Trump as he walked out of his own Press Conference on 10 May 202o in a tantrum following an incident with three female reporters. I’ve tightly cropped the original to focus on Trump’s expression. Head bowed, stony-faced, he looks a beaten man. The treatment makes me think of Mt Rushmore, a place I know Trump aspires to end up on. This would perfectly encapsulate his presidency.

If you’ve been observing Trump lately, you’ll have noticed that whenever he’s seated he habitually tightly crosses his arms.

In a short space of time, it’s become his default pose.

It’s a classic sign of weakness.

Body language experts will tell you the arms-crossed gesture reveals someone who’s feeling extremely defensive and insecure.

It’s an unconscious attempt at a ’self-hug’ so that they can relieve themselves of their insecurity.

It’s also a terribly bad optic for any leader.

This is a 2020 remix of a photo by Joshua Roberts that I originally edited last year. It was taken in June 2019 at the McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia after Trump had played golf at his club in Sterling, Virginia. What makes this so interesting is Trump’s hair — it’s slicked back in a style I’ve never seen him wear before.

I’ve titled this image, The Trump Slump.

If you’ve been observing Trump lately, you’ll have noticed his posture is visibly worsening. Here he is at the White House on 26 May 2020 with a very pronounced stoop.

As a result, his jowls are accentuated even more.

You don’t need to be a body language expert to know it’s also a terribly bad optic for any leader.

The original, much larger photo from which this has been remixed was taken by Evan Vucci.

I really like the look I’ve given it, which lends it an almost painterly feel. I’m experimenting with splitting the image into panels, something that I’m a little obsessed with right now. This one works well because of the vertical lines of the columns. What I especially like, is that although there are just two panels, there is almost an optical illusion that the image is split in four.

By the way, this is the third or fourth portrait that shows Trump in a similar pose.

As soon as I saw the original of this photo, I knew what to do with it. The pointing finger gesture reminded me of those war recruitment posters and the words ”Your country needs you…to go” immediately came into my head. On a more observational level, I was drawn to Trump’s eyes having noticed recently that he seems to have trouble keeping them open. Look at him, and you’ll notice he is heavily squinting much of the time, especially his right eye. Also observe how big the bags under his eyes have become.

This is my remix of a photo taken on the White House South Lawn as Trump departed for Dallas on 11 June 2020.

The President is of course well-known for his troublesome relationship with umbrellas – most notably, the time when he struggled to close one as he boarded Airforce One and simply abandoned it on the stairs.

The original of this shot was much wider and a lot darker. I wanted to focus more on Trump’s stony-faced expression and the raindrops. There’s something metaphorical about this image – a scared figure, seeking shelter from the deluge.

The colours and the composition also reminded me a little of the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, especially his famous painting ’A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jette’ (1884–6)

By the way, I just learnt that pointillism was originally known as divisionism – which makes it even more apt in connection with Trump!

I think the original of this portrait was taken at one of Trump’s roundtables at the White House, almost certainly when the press have a couple of minutes to shout questions at him before they are herded out.

What drew me to the shot was both his expression and how he was using his hands – palms out, as if he’s pushing something away.

For the edit, I went with something a little different, a kind of double exposure effect. I think it helps convey Trump’s predication for confusing – he often will say one thing, then immediately qualify it by saying the opposite. It’s a very schizoid trait.

Trump had just returned from an embarrassing rally in Tulsa where he was met with a two-thirds empty arena and where he spent a full 9 minutes trying to explain away his West Point ramp descent as well as why he had trouble drinking water.

Usually so obsessed with his optics, this is one of the rare occasions when Trump is caught dishevelled. His suit is creased and his signature red tie hangs like a scarf. His short, stumbling walk from the helicopter reveals a broken man, furious he’d been humiliated yet again.

As the original was taken from some distance, it’s far from a sharp image. That being said, I wanted to memorialise the moment in my own way so I had to contend with way more grain. My first thought was to emphasise what a nightmarish week it had been for Trump, which is why my remix ended up looking like this. To my eyes it captures that emotion.

A day after editing the previous photo, a much sharper one emerged. It showed the President in a way he works so hard to avoid being seen: sweating profusely, his hair slick and the inside of his collar stained orange from his bronzer. It was not a good look.

But perhaps more than anything what caught my attention was his expression – aside from being a hot mess, he looked a broken man.

I’m particularly pleased with the way this one came out and much prefer it to the previous shot – although I’ll leave that one up because it’s still an interesting image.

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people