Politics as you’ve never seen them before
Images have always been important in American politics, dating back to at least 1860, when Mathew Brady made a daguerreotype of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, clamping Lincoln’s neck to keep him motionless for the long minutes needed to make the exposure. (Brady spoke later of how difficult it had been to make Lincoln look “natural”; Lincoln, for his part, believed the widely published photograph contributed to his victory.) In the last century, our understanding of politics was increasingly shaped by such key images, whether in magazines or televised debates. FDR’s authority had not a little to do with his contrivance never to be photographed in his wheelchair, Camelot couldn’t have existed without photographs, and Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster was central to his message. Today the sea of images is so vast that it’s hard to be grabbed by anything. One begins to wonder what Americans might have felt when they saw Lincoln’s portrait in Harper’s Bazaar, or Abraham Zapruder’s stills of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in LIFE.
In the films above, we have the unusual experience of seeing politics freshly. With their eerie, slowed-down time and wealth of visual information, they make the stale gestures and rhetorical tropes of campaigning feel startling, poetic, disturbing. Shot by Christopher Morris, a TIME photographer who developed a distinctive approach to capturing the staged hothouse of U.S. politics in his coverage of the George W. Bush White House—heads floating in a frame, images of feet, unusual shadows—the films seem to expose all that is at once venal and spiritual about American politics, precisely by not trying to look natural.
Here, Morris, assisted by Phantom camera technician Edward Richardson, extends that style using the Phantom Miro, a camera never before used in political photography, filming at a speed of 720 frames per second (it records far more visual information than other cameras). Because film typically runs at 24 frames per second, when Morris’ footage is run back to us at normal speed, it appears spookily slowed down, with moving objects and passing surfaces in a kind of suspended animation. For a moment, our brains take in more than they normally do. This is the way the world must look during a near-death experience, Morris has mused. The world we thought to be familiar becomes strange and unfamiliar: reminiscent, almost, of a David Lynch film. Contributing to this is the sound, which is slowed down to the exact same rate as the visuals. The result resembles wind on an alien planet, or a preverbal Gregorian chant.
Athletes in slow motion look graceful—think of the stunningly perfect arc of a gymnast’s dismount—but politics under the Phantom’s gaze look, well, unnerving. The films reveal a complex interplay of cynical political staging and authentic civic hope, where tropes of American innocence and political culpability exist side by side. A sandy-haired tween boy at a Donald Trump speech bounces slowly up and down in excitement; a fresh-faced, auburn-haired girl, ecstatic to see Hillary Clinton, bares her white teeth. The candidates, too, seem newly exposed: Ted Cruz and Clinton are strangely equalized, their stylized gestures, like their ubiquitous finger pointing, appearing aggressive and almost violent, and certainly calculated. The camera exposes the grammar of physical communication onstage: all the candidates share a desire to persuade us, by any means necessary.
In a strange way, watching these films drives home the import of politics—something that is easy to forget amid all the flag waving and the horse-race coverage. Time is altered; the camera insists that the eye slow down and really see the man selling Trump sweatshirts, or the grizzled middle-aged Cruz supporter, unsmiling in the crowd. We take in each person as a member of the body politic whose life will be shaped by the election results. The hopes, expectations and everyday practicalities of politics are written on the faces in the crowds, in the light falling across a barn, even in the props and frivolities of the rallies—the buttons, the crowd-control fences, the bunting. Here, all becomes newly charged. The strangeness jolts us to attention. Funny that it took a camera to make us see with our own eyes again.
Meghan O’Rourke is an award-winning essayist and poet.
Watch photographer Christopher Morris and Phantom technician Edward Richardson on the making of this series here.