Transformation of Trump: The Primaries Project of 2016

  • Post category:Art / Politics

I can’t remember another presidential election in my lifetime where so much has changed, so much transformed in only four years.

Four years ago to this day I was working on my Primaries project. My original conception was to make portraits of each of the candidates running for president, photographing them off of the television screen. I used an old Sony 27-inch Trinitron that I had purchased just after high school—it ran fine all these years and only stopped working yesterday—and decided to shoot each of the presidential debates of both parties, mounting the camera on a tripod in front of the television and setting the camera to shoot one image every three seconds for the duration of each debate.

The lens I used was a Nikkor 10.5mm fish-eye lens intended for Nikon’s DX line of camera bodies. I was using a Nikon D800E camera body which was not a DX body—the DX’s had smaller sensors and that means that the lenses on those cameras didn’t have to project as big of a light circle behind the lens onto the sensor as the lenses for the bigger sensors needed to do. The physical mount was the same—the DX lenses would fit the bigger sensor bodies but the image would darken in the corners, the smaller circle of light being projected on that lager rectangular sensor.

The 10.5mm fish-eye from Nikon was intended to be a “full-frame fisheye.” Some fish-eye lenses result in a round image, some are just amazingly wide, being able to see both left and right of the viewer at the same time. But, as we just saw, lenses don’t project rectangular-shaped light behind them onto the sensor. They project round areas of light behind them onto rectangular sensors. Some of that round light doesn’t fall onto the rectangular sensor and is therefore not recorded.

If, however, you put the 10.5mm DX fisheye on a bigger-sensor body something interesting happens. Since the bigger D800E body has the same mount as a DX body the rear of the lens is the same distance from the sensor and so the size of the circular project behind the lens remains the same. But the “screen” the lens is projecting onto—the sensor—is larger and so now the parts of the circle of light that used to miss the sensor now hit the sensor—you can see the circle of light that the lens projects more clearly, and in the case of the 10.5mm the entire circle of light now fits neatly onto the sensor. You get a circular image, the “full-frame” fisheye now transformed into a circular fisheye with a round image and a black background.

Only there’s a problem. From a lens designer’s point of view all that extra light going into the lens which was destined to fall onto an area not part of the sensor (and thus not part of the image) is just causing problems. That light is bouncing around inside the lens, the sun is hitting the front element of the lens even though the sun isn’t in the image area, all bad. So they built a sunshade permanently attached to the lens to minimize all of this extra light and to maximize image quality. But when you mount the lens on that bigger sensor body and you see more of that projected circle on the bigger sensor, you also see the lens shade. It’s blocking areas of the image, preventing the perfect image circle from forming. Now you are wishing that the lens shade was removable, like almost all other lens shades but it is not.

How do you get the lens, which deep in its heart wants to be a circular fisheye, to be a circular fisheye if it wasn’t for that lens shade? Simple, you take a hacksaw and cut through the body of the lens, and tear the shade off. Viola, Nikon doesn’t offer a circular fish-eye. Now it does.

Why was I planning on using a fisheye for portraits of presidential candidates taken from a television set? Years ago I worked at a camera store in Akron, Ohio. A local photographer (whom I eventually hired to shoot my wedding some years later) came in one day and showed us photos he had made of a map of Akron, using a fisheye lens.

A fisheye lens has three interesting properties that he was making use of. First, it can focus crazy close—you can put the lens almost touching the subject and it will focus.

The second interesting property is that everything seems in focus. The depth-of-field in super-wide angles is very large—some photographers don’t really worry about setting the focus on these if they are in a hurry. There’s little penalty if you fail to set the focus correctly.

The third interesting property is that small differences in how far way things are result in very large differences in how far away things look. When you see a face shot with a super-wide-angle lens where the nose is huge and the face is small, that’s the effect. The difference in distance between the nose and face is small (only an inch or so) but, since the lens is pressed up close to the face the distance will look very large—the eyes might be twice as far from the lens as the nose and thus the eyes look much further away (and smaller) in the image.

The local photographer had made photographs of maps using a circular fisheye an inch from the paper’s surface and they look like globes, something usual at the time, with Akron at the center, and he was polling us, wondering if this sort of thing would sell.

I thought of that effect and thought I could use the old Sony. It has a visual characteristic, when you looked at it carefully, different from all other TVs then or now in that its image was made up up bands of three colored lines—red, green, and blue, the primary colors—running vertically up and down the screen. This was tube-TV technology and it produced the best quality image available until the advent of computer monitors (more accurately, until high quality monitors became available many years later—Sony Trinitrons lasted until right about the time the iPhone came out, they were that good).

It was the look I was after and so I made images, thousands and thousands of them. In my mind I was thinking of some sort of weird portrait gallery, an image of each candidate hanging stately in some museum, upon the walls of the Rotunda in the Capitol Building.

There were lots of debates. It used to be that people not into politics barely watched the final debates between presidential candidates and only the hard-core folks watched the primary debates. This time around people were excited, Bernie on the Democratic side and, on the Republican side, a clown show.

Taking Trump’s portrait.

All the smart Republicans saw the future and that future was Hillary or Jeb. They knew they couldn’t win, so they didn’t run. This was not their year. Which, for the second cycle in a row meant that the people who did run knew their odds of winning were low but by running—even if running and losing—their brand would be polished, their stature improved. If you could get in the race and make a credible run you could only win. Bottom-feeders, yes, but ambitious ones.

The final edit from the first Republican debate. The eventual nominee is in the lower left.

One of those ambitious ones was Donald Trump. He had no chance to win but my god he was entertaining. Ratings went up for the debates—they were events now, with relentless pre-game analysis dominating the news shows, countdown clocks raising the tension level as zero-hour approached, and news anchors…Secure in the knowledge they could give Trump so much free airtime since Hillary would be the Chosen One—they could make boatloads of money, become ever bigger media stars, and get their person in the White House all at the same time. Win-win-win.

The hyped Jeb Bush, when he finally spoke at the debate, elicited a universal “huh?” from the TV audience. This guy is the shoo-in for the Republican nomination? And he was the strongest of the establishment candidates.

Jeb’s future was bright.

Trump didn’t win out over his rivals for the party nomination, he crushed them. The bottom-feeders looking for a quick boost to their career by running found themselves ridiculed, chewed up and cast to the side by Trump, their brand, for all but one or two, their reputation greatly diminished by the contest, for most of them if they had a future it was as boot-licker to the Great One. Look them over again, all sixteen of them.

Hillary, too. The Clinton brand battered, the foundations shaken, even hints of her running again after the 2016 debacle taken up gleefully by Fox News as Democratic Party dream-disaster headlines.

The Republicans? Well, when the state results came in and Hillary conceded, they thought they had won but they too found they had been fatally wounded, the party ideals immediately cast aside, the metastasis of the Tea Party cancer now fully revealed. The party—if that is still the right word for it—with a new ideology of nothing, nothing except winning.

With his victory my project transformed from something about politics into, like everything else, something about Trump. Instead of a Rouge’s Gallery of candidates from each party, with Trump one of their number, I changed the project to images of Trump, one from each debate, with Trump the one, the only.

The still images didn’t embody what I was now after so I changed the nature of the project, changing it into a looping video, taking the still image and dividing into its primary colors, then rotating each layer at different speeds, allowing all sorts of interesting interference patterns to swirl across the screen. When you see the video on a large screen in a dimly lit room the effect is hypnotic, like you’ve encountered some glowing orb, some alien god, communicating to you in a kaleidoscopic language you cannot quite comprehend.

Later I remade the project into a computer program, which takes as its input a single image, divides it up into color layers, rotates the layers, and runs forever.

Four videos from Primaries, 2016