Inauguration photo makes it to White House

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 05:35 PM

It’s not clear whether President Barack Obama has seen Durham photographer Jean-Christian Rostagni’s photo of the 2009 Inauguration, but Rostagni is certain his gift made it to the White House.

Rostagni received a letter signed by Natalie R. Jones, acting chief of protocol for the Department of State, thanking Francois Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United States, for the photo. “Mr. Rostagni’s photograph and the manner in which it was framed were absolutely stunning, capturing such an important moment in U.S. history,” Rostagni wrote. “We will ensure that the White House receives the gift.” The letter is dated Oct. 16.

“I am very happy and very proud of our ambassador,” Rostagni said. “Not everyone in that position would have done that.” Efforts to contact officials in Washington seeking information about whether Obama has seen the photo were not successful.

The delivery is the latest chapter in a story that began in December last year, when Rostagni began raising funds to give President Obama a framed copy of his black and white photo titled “Of, By, For.” Rostagni contributed $2,500 and raised about $1,800 from donors in his native France and the United States. The next step was finding a way to make sure the photo did not “fall into the unknown” given the number of gifts the White House receives in a year, Rostagni said.

He had met Ambassador Delattre several years before, and asked him to help deliver the photo. Rostagni took the photo to the French embassy in July. “When I asked him, it took him remarkably little time” to get the photograph delivered, Rostagni said.

“Of, By, For” was taken on The Mall on Inauguration Day. The Capitol sits in the background, with the heads of the audience in the foreground. About midway, a member of the audience is holding a placard with Abraham Lincoln’s portrait. Rostagni took the photo, after which the Lincoln portrait disappeared from the scene. When he looked at the images he had shot, Rostagni decided the crowd shot with the Lincoln portrait was the most meaningful he had taken, with the symbolism of the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation handing his legacy to the first African-American president.

Rostagni took inspiration from a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the crowd on The Mall in 1963. “What was striking me there… it was above all the human mass that were expanding on that Mall,” Rostagni said. He went to the Inauguration not to photograph the ceremony but the people experiencing a moment in history, he said.

Rostagni has an interest in politics, and has a body of work related to last summer’s Moral Monday protests at the General Assembly. He also has a portfolio of the Durham Bulls’ last season in Durham Athletic Park titled “Hit Bull Win Steak,” along with photographs of cars and other subjects.

“Of, By, For” is still available for sale. Rostagni will hold a sale and exhibit at his home, 918 Carolina Ave., Dec. 8 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, visit