If there is any takeaway from the images by photographer Annie Leibovitz, it is that Obama is offering up a version of herself to the public that is separate and distinct from the role she has filled for nearly eight years. The message is not brusque or without nostalgia and gratitude. But she is done. Finished. Free.
"Presumably, should Hillary prevail (this story went to press just prior to the election), Bill Clinton's portraits will eventually hang in the White House in two places: upstairs on the State Floor, as president, and a new one that will replace Mrs. Obama's, which will move down the line, further into history," Van Meter writes. "And who will Michelle Obama be then?"
What will she do? The first lady doesn't answer that question. (Valerie Jarrett assures him that Obama will not be running for political office.) "I will take the same approach leaving as I did coming in," Obama says. "I won't know until I'm there. I've never been the former first lady of the United States of America before.
"But I will always be engaged in some way in public service and public life," she adds.
Obama is photographed mostly in Atelier Versace, rather than American designers, which is more typical. And while she is standing or seated in various corners and porticoes of the White House, the background is more graphic than iconic. Her hair is tousled - a little messy, even. And in one portrait, she is wearing a black Atelier Versace dress and matching jacket with a belt cinched neatly around her waist. Her legs are bare and her black pumps are by Jimmy Choo. She's seated on a stone staircase with her hands resting against her hips, and her head is thrown back as she leans against the steps. It is a posed look of quiet meditation, one with which regular readers of glossy magazines are familiar. It is part of the canon of sexy.
It is impossible to imagine Obama sitting for a portrait and arching her back and looking toward the sky during the early years of the Obama administration. Indeed, one of the first images of her in Vogue had her styled in a manner that recalled Jackie Kennedy - curled alongside her husband and her children, a strand of pearls around her neck. The then-senator's wife had even nixed a mussed hairstyle, saying that it made her look as if she'd just gotten out of bed. Whether in Vogue or elsewhere, her early pictures were more formal, regal or homey. They seemed aimed at reassuring an audience that she could fit into their preconceived notions about how a first lady should look, even if she happened to be African American.
These photographs speak to an exit strategy. They serve as a bridge between the symbol Obama has been and the woman she will become.
Obama is a celebrity. Charismatic and influential. Other portraits have tended to put that fame in the context of politics, Washington or first ladies. These pictures remove all those modifiers.
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