Minneapolis photographer captures Obama as a young man
Lisa Jack squints in the sun outside a Caribou Coffee in Little Canada, cocks her head to the side, and remembers. It was 1980, and Jack was at the Cooler, a cafe on West Los Angeles's Occidental College, with a friend of a friend. "You have to meet this guy. His name is Barry," Jack's acquaintance said. "He's really handsome and fun and charismatic."
Just then, freshman Barack "Barry" Obama walked in.
Jack's acquaintance introduced them. "Hey, Barry, you've got to get your picture taken by Lisa," she said. "Lisa, you've got to take Barry's picture."
"Sure," he agreed, and they arranged a time.
A few days later, Obama arrived at her apartment in high-waisted Jordache jeans and a collared shirt, bearing props: cigarettes, a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, and a wide-brimmed straw Panama hat. The jackets were all the rage, but the hat wasn't, and Jack concluded that this freshman wanted to come off as sophisticated and savvy.
She set him up on her living-room loveseat—a hideous plaid nylon thing that she and her roommate had found by the side of the road. She'd draped a cream-colored blanket over it to hide the pattern. Obama's feet rested on the dirty lime-green shag carpeting, which Jack suspected had never been cleaned.
As Jack worked, they made small talk. They were both outsiders—he hailed from Hawaii, she from tony Rye in Westchester County, New York. They'd both attended prep schools: he Punahou in Honolulu, she Rye Country Day School. They shared a loose circle of friends—creative, intellectual kids who'd come from outside California.
The conversation died down as Jack focused on clicking through her 36-shot roll of black-and-white.
First, Jack posed Obama on the couch, smoking a cigarette in his bomber jacket. She captured him looking serious with a furrowed brow, a twist of gray smoke dancing in the foreground before his afro. She snapped him blowing smoke out his nostrils, and flicking his cigarette into a glass ashtray beside him on the couch.
Obama removed his jacket, put on the Panama hat, and moved to Jack's hallway. He leaned against the white wall, his hip cocked, his hand cupped under his chin. He squatted near the heating grate, tipped his head back, and flashed a wide smile. He reached his arm toward the camera, palm open. Then he leaned his head forward so that his face disappeared and only the top of his Panama hat showed.
The shoot took about an hour and a half. A few days later, in the campus darkroom, Jack was shocked at how perfectly the pictures came out. Most models produced only a handful of decent shots—but virtually every one of Obama was good.
Still, Jack didn't consider the Obama photos her best. She'd shot other students on her couch. Obama didn't make the cut for her student shows.
She crossed paths with him several times after the photo session. One summer during college, when she was vacationing in Hawaii and he was home for the summer, Jack came across Obama in a club. He was smiling and flirting with two gorgeous women on his lap, his arms around them both. He looked up and noticed Jack.
"Hey, I know you," he said, striding over to her table, with a cigarette and a drink. She was impressed with his cordiality. "He was a babe magnet," she says. "I'm not a babe."
Their lives took different paths. Obama transferred to Columbia University, then worked in New York and Chicago before going to Harvard Law School. Jack finished her degree in psychology at Occidental and went to Africa. She lived with a Masawi tribe, photographing the tribesmen and their children. She sent her best shots to National Geographic. She seemed to be a burgeoning talent; the magazine's photo editor encouraged her to send more pictures, and Jack gained entrance to the prestigious Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. She wanted to be an artist.
But she didn't have the money for graduate school, so she took a safe job in banking. Eventually, she earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Southern California and became a college professor. She came to Minnesota to teach at Augsburg College in 1994. She kept the letter from National Geographic tucked in a basement file along with her passport and birth certificate, near the fading photos of African tribesmen.
Jack had nearly forgotten about the photos of Obama when he burst onto the national scene with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. She was watching television in her bedroom with her spouse when Obama stepped onto the stage.
"I know him!" she said, astonished. "I went to college with him!"
The next year, Jack went to Washington, D.C., to request money for an Augsburg program that helps students who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. On a whim, she stopped by Obama's office to say hello. He was out, so she leaned over a railing of the Senate building, hoping to spot him. When she looked up, he was coming around the corner, surrounded by a crowd of people.
"Hey, Barry!" Jack yelled out. "Senator!"
Obama left his entourage, came over, and gave Jack a big hug. They spoke for about five minutes, reminiscing about college and old acquaintances.
In February 2008, as the Democratic primary was heating up, Jack had a few friends over one evening. They asked who she was planning to vote for.
"I have to be for Barack," she said. "I went to college with him."
She told them about the photo shoot, but the friends didn't believe her.
"I have pictures," she said, and one of the friends dared her to dig them up.
Jack went down to the basement and found a single print—then the whole roll.
Last August, when Obama learned he'd won the Democratic nomination, Jack went to meet him at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where he was giving a national address.
Obama smiled broadly when he saw her.
"Hey, you guys, look—it's an old classmate," he said.
Jack asked him how she could get in touch with him in the future.
"You can't," he said, pointing at the dignitaries surrounding him. "This is my life now."
His words made Jack sad, as she realized that their random hellos would now come to an end.
Jack kept the photos to herself until after the election, not wanting her work to be used for political purposes. After Obama won, she called Time magazine. The photo editor told her that if she wanted money, a tabloid would pay more. But what Jack wanted was for the photos to be handled with dignity. Time published the spread in January 2008.
Jack's phone began ringing off the hook. In March, M+B Gallery in Beverly Hills offered to show the photos. They picked 21, which are selling for $1,000 to $4,500 for each image, in limited editions of 230. The exhibit opened in late May, and Jack spent a whirlwind week in California, fielding calls from reporters and appearing on television shows.
"I haven't seen a cent from it so far," Jack says.
But the attention has revived a dream. She's closed her St. Paul private counseling practice, hoping to fit more photography into her life. "At some point, somebody's going to see the other photographs and it will happen," she says. "I know it. It will just happen as it's supposed to happen."
She says she'd like to take photos of Tim Pawlenty—to use her lens to capture the personality behind the politician, as she did for Obama. With speculation swirling that Pawlenty will vie for the Republican presidential nomination, Jack could catch lightning in a bottle and photograph a second presidential contender.
"Governor Pawlenty is a gorgeous man. Unbelievably good-looking," she says. "Let's put him in a tux!"
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