Time recently announced that it had named Donald Trump its Person of the Year. That's unsurprising when you remember that the title goes to the person who "for better or for worse... has done the most to influence the events of the year." However, the cover photo is peculiar in several ways — enough so to raise the question of if it is an intentional reference to one of history's most evil and infamous figures. The Internet seems to be split on if that's the case.
Note: Let me preempt this article by saying I am entirely setting aside my personal political leanings here; what you're about to read is an objective photographic analysis and a stark reminder of the power of photography.
The Donald Trump Cover
Let's start with the 2016 Time Person of the Year Cover, which features Donald Trump. This cover first generated controversy when some asserted that the "M" in "TIME" was deliberately placed to form devil's horns on Trump's head. Time was quick to point out that this was coincidental, particularly given that many past cover shots have resulted in a similar situation, including those for multiple popes, presidents, and celebrities, among others. However, a new theory emerged: Time was deliberately referencing Hitler. Let's first establish a baseline by evaluating the Trump cover and placing it in context with the most recent Person of the Year covers that came before it.
If you ask me, it's a bizarre portrait on its own. The office of president of the United States is arguably the most powerful position in the world, but to me, this portrait conveys little of that, at least not overtly. First, it's shot from a rather marked distance; Trump himself only occupies about a third of the frame horizontally. For a man whose personality and persona are nearly unavoidable, he rather disappears into the background a bit here almost as if this is a voyeuristic shot, a glance at something that should not be seen. His posture in hunched. His eyes are looking off-axis. The camera is about on level with him, as opposed to giving him the appearance of leering over it.
And then, there's the lighting. What's the most powerful part of a person? Their face. In it, we can read everything we could ever want to know about them. But half of his face is in shadow, and the other half is somewhat neutral, giving away neither personality nor motive, but suggesting a duality in identity, a light and a dark, a public and a hidden. As Zach Sutton notes in his analysis of the image, there's a shadow in an odd direction behind him. If anything, I would say the peculiar angle of the projected shadow figure is entirely intentional, as if it followed the direction of the key light, it would not appear in the frame. That shadow was placed there; it's arguably referential.
So, if we accept that it doesn't exactly convey power, what is it that this portrait is showing the viewer? The chair is turned away. Incidentally, it reveals the fleur de lis prominently embroidered on the Louis XV chair (if my limited knowledge of French antiques is correct), a rather bizarre choice for an American portrait and perhaps a subtle tip of the hat to a monarch who showed little interest in politics and led France to the doorstep of the French Revolution. It may seem like a stretch, but I ask you to consider the size of the fleur de lis and the rakish angle required to display it.
And what of Trump himself? If you gave me a photographic Rorschach test of sorts and asked me to free-associate adjectives for a man turned away but leaning toward the camera, hunched over, half-hidden in shadow, I would tell you: scheming, sinister. The turned away body indicates the presence of something in the shadows, of an interruption by the camera, of a certain voyeurism. Perhaps intentionally, that side is so in the shadows that it's almost black. The outward leaning indicates a leering of sorts, a displeasure coupled with a hidden power, as opposed to the overt power of a standing, head-on closeup.
Before we discuss the corresponding Hitler cover, however, let's place Trump's cover in context, as I think its relatively anomalous nature is relevant in discussing the intentions behind it.
If we look at the most recent Person of the Year covers, the difference becomes stark. President Obama's 2012 cover very much mimics the famous portrait of JFK; it's much closer and features him prominently in the frame without additional props. Because of his proximity, there is less of a hidden element, a characteristic further underscored by the fact that his far side is actually lighter. To me, this conveys a man both troubled by circumstances and profoundly deep in thought. The choice of a side profile conveys less of a power dynamic and underscores the uncertainty he faced entering his second term. Personally, I think that regardless of how you read his facial expression, this portrait is singular in identity, and in that sense, it stands distinct from the duality in the Trump portrait, the implication of a hidden side.
The 2013 portrait of Pope Francis is perhaps the most easily read. It's inviting and accessible, unencumbered by an overly engineered pose, which contributes to its ability to portray a man seen as "the people's pope." Though a very technically apt digital painting, it intentionally reads less as a manufactured product of the studio and more as a frozen moment in time, a man of service in his element. I personally think his slight lean and the choice to crop out half his left hand are strokes of artistic and editing genius, respectively. They contribute to the "found" nature of the portrait.
The 2014 Person(s) of the Year were those fighting Ebola. Their portraits are somewhere between those of President Obama and Pope Francis — posed, but found — the "Humans of New York" modus operandi, if you will. They show a range of sternness coupled with compassion, each shot at approximately chest level, highlighting the power of the individual against a deadly epidemic. Even without the Ebola label attached to them, they have the air of serious environmental portraits — less inviting than the pope, but unquestionably honest in representation.
The 2015 portrait of Angela Merkel returns to the subtle but singular nature of the Obama portrait. It prominently features the Chancellor in the frame, her straight-on posing underscoring the power inherent in being "chancellor of the free world," but her off-camera gaze softening said power and lending it a less individualistic feel; contrast it with the 2007 portrait of Putin starting directly at the viewer.
Note that Time characterized Merkel as someone "standing firm against tyranny... [with] steadfast moral leadership" and Putin as having "performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it," but "at significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize." Putin's portrait exudes absolute power of the individual; Merkel's exudes a distillation of power of the people. Returning to the Trump comparison, however, again note that despite the differences between the Merkel and Putin portraits, both have a singular and readily apparent identity; there is no implication of duality in them. Even the text that accompanies the three portraits underscores this idea. Merkel is "Chancellor of the free world" — singular. Putin is "Tsar of the new Russia" — singular. Trump is "president of the Divided States of America" — duality.
One thing to note: this is not Hitler's 1938 Person of the Year cover, but rather a 1941 cover. His 1938 cover showed him playing an organ with bodies hanging above with the cover line "from the unholy organist, a hymn of hate." If we accept that Time is in fact referencing Hitler with this year's cover, the more abstracted symbolism of the 1938 cover might not translate in today's environment of consumption as well. Furthermore, I can't imagine that a direct reference to that cover would ever be allowed by Trump's PR team; so rather, if we think political strategy for a moment, referencing a more obscure (relatively speaking) and less abstracted cover avoids both of the aforementioned issues.
Now, look at the photographic properties of the portraits: their posing, their aesthetics, their symbolism. Like the Trump portrait, Hitler has receded into the frame. This lends it the same slightly voyeuristic look — less a pose than a secret look. That identity is underscored again by the sideways glance off camera — the thoughts and scheming that the camera was not privy to before this moment. The chair is a similar style. There's the same diffuse, sinister shadow on the wall (and if indeed Time was replicating this shot, it explains why they went to the lengths they did to place a shadow in a position that didn't really match the lighting of the shot). The same idea of duality is here as well, not so much in the face as in the sudden interruption of an otherwise continuous background (on the right) by a distinct blackness along with the shadow cast by Hitler himself.
Of course, the key difference here is that Hitler is facing forward and Trump backward. This can be read several ways. Time is an American magazine; thus, a portrait of a German leader would show him facing outward with his atrocities behind him (duality) in his homeland, whereas Trump is an American leader, thereby leading the country into whatever abyss awaits it from the driver's seat. It could be read that we do not yet know the full extent of the consequences of a Trump presidency. It could be read that a deception has taken place, that the face presented to the American masses is not that that will hold the office. Returning to the fleur de lis, it's worth noting that Hitler conquered France in 1940, a year before this cover appeared. Read from that what you will.
The Internet is very split over whether this is the case or not. I spoke to several industry associates, and surprisingly, no one was lukewarm; they either saw the resemblance in the extreme or saw nothing at all. Whether it is there or not, it's a startling reminder that photography can hold incredible expressive power and can provide commentary in a succinct and tangible way when words have long since become dulled by overusage.