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What’s so strange about Trump’s White House portrait? Experts explain.

Trump’s inauguration crowd photo isn’t the only picture he should be worried about.

During his inauguration address on Friday, Donald Trump released an image that had nothing to do with crowd size or marchers: his official White House portrait.

The picture, which features prominently in the White House website’s biography of Trump, depicts the president in front of what appears to be a green-screen image of the White House. In his characteristic red tie, Trump leans forward, no smile, with an aggressive — arguably menacing — stare.

The image struck us as unusual, so we reached out to some professional photographers and presidential scholars to help us unpack why. The photo is odd, they agreed, especially when compared with past presidents’ photos.

The problems with Trump’s photo: unflattering lighting and threatening posing

Trump’s posture and slight lean forward portray the president as an aggressive figure, says Tamzin Smith, a professional photographer who specializes in portraiture. The catchlights in the lower part of Trump’s eyes — those bright white dots just beneath his pupils — indicate he’s being lit from below. For a portrait like this, that’s a “bizarre” lighting choice, she said.

According to Cara Finnegan, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who’s writing a book about presidential photography, White House portraits share a number of common elements that place them within a distinct photographic genre. There’s the representation of the American flag, a symbol present in nearly every official portrait since Nixon’s. And there’s the head-and-shoulders shot of the suit-clad man, meant to communicate a sense of authority and confidence.

While Trump’s photo clearly pulls from some of these tropes, she said, it also departs from them in a number of ways.

Trump’s positioning in front of a green-screened White House is unique. In other portraits, presidents almost always were photographed in front of more neutral backgrounds, like a wall or bookcase. Trump’s backdrop, however, gives the photo a kind of “‘Hey, I’m president’ emphasis,” said Finnegan.

Michael Martinez, a professor of photojournalism at the University of Tennessee Knoxville who once worked as a photo editor for the Associated Press, says he’s perplexed by the decision to stage the photo in that way. “I’ve not seen anything anywhere with any presidency that’s looked like this before,” he said.

Trump’s solemn facial expression is right on brand

Beyond the strange backdrop, Trump’s striking gaze stands in contrast to both of President Barack Obama’s past portraits. Yet it fits right in with the dark rhetoric Trump espoused throughout his campaign and in his inaugural address.

Obama’s portrait in 2013.
President Barack Obama’s White House portrait following his second inauguration in 2013.
Pete Souza/

“Trump has perfected this sort of serious-looking furrowed-brow scowl,” Finnegan said. “It would be a little weird, I think, if you know at the moment where he’s giving that inaugural address, the photo that launches is a big toothy grin.”

Martinez agrees that the portrait reinforces the image Trump worked to cultivate throughout the campaign. “That’s what he wants to project, that he’s gonna intimidate people,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that that’s the look that he’s trying to portray in this.”

Of course, anyone who views the image is likely to filter it through their own experience and social understanding of the president. So, according to Finnegan, Trump supporters and opponents are likely to judge the photo in very different ways.

“If you supported Donald Trump in the election, this might be an image of a very serious man for a serious time; he might look very committed and patriotic,” Finnegan said. But “if you opposed Donald Trump, you might find the opposite to be true.”

Regardless, the most glaring issue both scholars had with the photo was its lack of a photo credit. Trump has yet to name an official White House photographer, and while there’s some speculation about who that person might be, the omission is something both hope will be fixed promptly.

“Photographers deserve credit for their work,” Finnegan said. “It seems fair to me.”

Donald Trump’s White House portrait.
President Donald Trump’s official White House portrait.