A public that wants to know everything about Barack Obama can thank Lisa Jack for a glimpse of what the future president was like when he was just another college freshman trying to cut a figure in this world -- with a partly unbuttoned Oxford shirt, a big Panama hat and puffs of cigarette smoke as his props of choice for projecting that coveted aura of post-adolescent confidence and cool.
Obama can thank Jack for keeping the roll of photographs she took of him in 1980 out of circulation until he was elected. Nine were first published in Time magazine’s December “Person of the Year” spread on Obama; now 21 of the 36 photos, plus a blow-up of her original contact sheet, make up “Barack Obama: The Freshman,” an exhibition opening Thursday at M+B Gallery in West Hollywood.
Jack rummaged for the long-ignored negatives in her Minneapolis basement early in 2008, after it became clear Obama was a serious contender for the presidency. The callow kid kicking back on a couch in a living room near L.A.'s Occidental College, where he and Jack were students, may not have been the image the Obama campaign wanted to project.
“I’m sure Hillary would have paid a fortune for them: ‘Is this who you want picking up the phone at 3 a.m.?’ ” Jack said from Minneapolis, her discourse earthy, humorous and freewheeling, sometimes salty. “I could have made a boatload of money, probably, but I wanted to do it right.”
Jack, now a psychology professor and therapist, can thank Obama for putting her back on her road not taken. She says a lack of money forced her to pass up graduate studies in photography; instead she went into banking, then branched into psychology. While earning a doctorate from USC, Jack did an internship in Minneapolis and stayed on there, launching a private practice and teaching at Augsburg College. After her unexpected debut show opens, she’s eager to test her eye again with other photo projects.
“I’m the 49-year-old woman who wanted to be a photographer but didn’t follow through. I’m the Susan Boyle of the photography world.”
Her life and Obama’s intersected at the Cooler, a campus snack shop.
The young woman from Rye, N.Y., loved her psychology courses but cared enough about photography to find mentors on the faculty who tutored her in independent study courses. With a blanket thrown over the couch she recalls as “a plaid horrible thing,” the living room of the apartment she shared in a nondescript quadruplex near the campus in Eagle Rock became Jack’s makeshift photo studio. Students from her circle of friends and acquaintances would pose for portraits that she would hand in as her weekly assignments.
That day a friend was telling her about a student named Barry she ought to photograph “because he’s so cute.” Moments later, the man himself walked in. He agreed to the shoot.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the session, Jack says, although it impressed her that Obama had taken the initiative to bring the big, banded hat, a leather, bomber-style jacket with a fur collar and cigarettes as grist for her lens. “He obviously thought about how he wanted to have his picture taken.” Obama shared at least one characteristic with the other students who sat for her portraits: “I think the thing that everybody was trying to portray the most was how cool they were.”
Jack appreciated Obama when she ran into him that summer in a Honolulu nightclub -- he a local, she a visiting summer student. “He was sitting there with a woman on each lap. They were babes, and I’m not a babe.” But the president-to-be extricated himself, came over to Jack’s table and chatted. That he’d show such courtesy while otherwise engaged “told me Obama was a cool dude,” Jack says.
As his bandwagon rolled toward the White House last year, Jack knew her pictures would have both historical interest and cash value. At Time magazine, chief photo editor Alice Gabriner viewed the contact sheet Jack had sent on spec before the election and was impressed. “She’d captured something we hadn’t seen before.” When the discussion turned to payment, Gabriner said, “She was really a novice. I told her, ‘You have to think what’s the right home for these. I’m sure a tabloid would pay you a lot of money.’ She said, ‘No, no tabloids.’ ”
Gabriner, who left Time in March to become deputy director of the White House photo staff, says she’s never heard what Obama thought of Jack’s pictures. The White House media office declined a request for comment from the president, who spent two years at Occidental then graduated from Columbia University. At the magazine, Gabriner said, “We got tons of calls from all over the world, overwhelmingly positive. I think younger people were impressed that he was so cool.”
Jack says paying lawyers to guide her into the world of big-time freelance photography pretty much erased her earnings from Time. But a payday may await. Shannon Richardson, the gallery director who e-mailed Jack in January with a proposal to bring it all back home to L.A., says prices will start at $1,000 to $4,500 for the photographic prints, available in limited editions of 230 for each image.
Richardson says that she and Jack will pick one to give to the first family. As it happens, the president is scheduled to be in L.A. today for a fundraising event. Richardson said she’s put out an invitation in case Obama cares to visit his younger, more carefree self.
Meanwhile, Jack has some campaigning of her own to do: She wants the Obama “Hope” poster-maker, Shepard Fairey, to do his artfully iconic thing with her “Freshman” images.
Already underway is a project for Occidental’s campus magazine, revisiting students whose portraits she took when they were undergrads and shooting them for a then-and-now photo essay.
“It’s my gift to Occidental, and maybe something will come of it” by freshening her portfolio with shots she can parlay into other assignments, Jack says.
And at some point, she adds, “I’m looking forward to my invitation to the White House, because he owes me.”