Of the various legacies of the Barack Obama presidency, the one which seized the cultural imagination first and may last the longest is the enormously popular poster image created by artist Shepard Fairey. The high-contrast, vertically split image has gone viral on the internet and assumed a place in the visual lexicon of American pop art alongside Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe triptych (from which Fairey kind of stole the design idea) and the Eugene McCarthy dove poster.
Fairey got into a certain amount of trouble for infringing the copyright of an AP photograph he used as a source, but his payback is that everyone on the internet has since pirated his design concept for icons of themselves, their girlfriend or their dog to use on the web as a subtle dig at Obama or a statement of support and conformity.
Making your own Obama poster icon has been made much easier by the folks at Paste Magazine who have provided a handy little Flash tool which will let you take any photo, turn it into an icon in the style of the Fairey poster, tweak it and customize it and add a new slogan to the bottom and make it your own. You can use the tool to parody Obama, iconify anyone or anything else, or convey some more obscure message.
One of my personal favorites is the icon of “TOTUS,” Obama’s teleprompter, but I have to admit to doing a few of my own, including an image of Aleister Crowley titled “Beast” and a couple of myself. It’s kind of seductive in a narcissistic way.
Getting good results from the tool requires a certain amount of practice and it helps a lot to have the right photograph to work from. Some faces just don’t work well at all. My face and to an even greater extent Aleister Crowley’s face have the problem that there are too many light and dark areas and too many variations in shade and angle. Other faces have too little differentiation and just come out kind of one color. It helps to have a high contrast photo and to reduce it to black and white before working with it. Plus you need a knack for pithy one-word tags for your icons.
The idea is kind of fun to play with, but in the 6 months since the election it has really already been done to death. You’re not about to see the icon to the left on my Facebook page. It may be the mark of truly successful pop art that in such a short period it has gone beyond a fad and evolved into a cliche. The fact that Fairey’s design concept can be emulated so effectively by a simple Flash tool raises the question which has plagued pop art since the era of Warhol; it’s trendy and it’s popular, but is it really art?