Photo Box is Nat. Brut’s recurring feature of found images; simultaneously a glimpse of media archeology and a celebration of archives. For the fourth edition, Daniel Garber curates a set of video stills drawn from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
High in the hills of Simi Valley, California, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum serves as a shrine to the president, commemorating his greatest achievements, his most fondly remembered lines, his humble origins as one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Like all presidential museums, it also engages in the broader effort to remind everyday citizens of the grandness of the institution of the presidency: the replica of the Oval Office; the airplane that was once called Air Force One; gifts from foreign dignitaries—all these are visual trappings of the nation’s highest office, imbued with its purported dignity. Reagan took this symbolism seriously. Feeling that Carter’s diagnosis of a national “malaise” had weakened the nation’s highest office, he shored it up as only an actor could, restoring pageantry and ceremony where other presidents had neglected it, regularly addressing the American people in televised speeches delivered from behind the Oval Office’s imposing desk. Nancy, too, took part in this project of national renewal, igniting the press’s ire by fretting over new china while the nation at large worried about skyrocketing unemployment. Reagan was fond of saying that “you don't become President of the United States. You are given temporary custody of an institution called the Presidency.” To the public, he framed his obsession with symbolism as an investment in the prestige of an office he would eventually vacate.
Burrow into that golden hillside beneath the floor of Reagan’s museum, and you’ll find a much messier representation of the 1980s: the vast archives of Reagan’s administration, an uncurated and sprawling historical record that belongs to the American people. Among those records are rows and rows of videotapes, which amount to thousands of hours of footage documenting Reagan’s daily activities, from public appearances to revealing glimpses behind the scenes. This collection, created by a Navy unit called the White House Television Office, forms the core of Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s all-archival documentary The Reagan Show (CNN Films & Gravitas Ventures). As one of the film’s editors, I sifted through that footage, enduring cringe-worthy photo ops, glamorous state dinners, verbal sparring matches with reporters, and off-color jokes told behind closed doors to explore how Reagan shaped the presidency and the media.
Accustomed to modern HD cameras in all their sharpness, I found those outmoded videotapes intoxicating, almost painterly in their low-fi fuzziness. I became particularly fascinated with glitches: early video technologies produced unique and often beautiful aberrations—bursts of light, pixels dripping down the frame—which are scattered throughout the archive. These artifacts might have been produced by the cameras themselves, but many probably arose through degradation. Magnetic interference, the steady deterioration of unstable tape stock, and each transfer—from master tape to reference tape to DVD—could have transformed the images. Ironically, the act of preserving all of these images may inadvertently corrupt them over time. I began saving these errant frames and, over those years working on the film, accumulated a collection of these images.
We finally finished the film on Inauguration Day, 2017. I tried to convince myself that, yes, political films were more important than ever, and questions about the relationship between politicians and the media were more urgent than ever before. All the same, the film felt hopelessly irrelevant: despite Reagan’s many flaws, he understood well the magnitude of his responsibilities and the duty to act as the face of the nation. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seemed not to have read the rulebook. Whereas Reagan was barely a man, almost entirely an image, Trump was all id, capable of provocations that made Reagan’s gaffes seem cute in comparison. The film suddenly felt quaint.
In this new context, my pet project of collecting glitches felt less like a purely aesthetic undertaking: at a time when the resiliency of our democratic institutions is in doubt, they point to the historical record’s fragility. In these images, leaders are decapitated, words obscured, entire frames obliterated. What was happening there? What was meant by...? Reagan’s museum, his library, and the White House Television Office tapes were meant to reinforce the vitality and sanctity of the office he presided over for eight years; the past eight months suggest, though, that the office retains its stature only with constant investment.
The Reagan Library preserves not just a record of one presidency, but a proposed blueprint for others. What if a president lets all existing blueprints collect dust? Does it matter? Reagan’s telegenic charm was a double-edged sword, at one moment empowering him to unite a grieving nation after the Challenger disaster; at others, to promote regressive economic policies with a smile. The office’s prestige can elevate a president's most noble impulses, but it can just as easily provide a veil of respectability for injustices.
Daniel Garber is a filmmaker and ice cream enthusiast based in Brooklyn, NY. He has edited films that have played at film festivals such as Tribeca, Rotterdam, Locarno, AFI Fest, and BAMcinemafest, and has watched nearly 1,000 hours of footage of Ronald Reagan.