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Turning the Camera on the President’s Photographer

What’s it like to focus on the person whose job it is to focus on the President of the United States?

Tonight on television in the United States, the National Geographic Special “The President’s Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office” gives us a chance to see what it’s like to have what must be one of the most fascinating jobs in the world, the White House chief photographer.


President Obama has said this is one of his favorite photos. White House staffer Carlton Philadelphia brought his family in to meet the President, and at one point, his son declared that he’d been told that he and the President had the same haircut. President Obama bent over so the child could get a better look. (Pete Souza, The White House, p. 24 of the National Geographic companion book The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office.)


Considered by many to be one of his iconic images–so far–Pete Souza captured a private moment between President Obama and the First Lady on a freight elevator in Washington’s convention center, Inaugural night 2009. (Pete Souza, The White House, p. 6)

“I think creating a good photographic archive for history is the most important part of my job…creating this archive that will live on,” says Pete Souza, the 44th president’s chief photographer, who is is never far behind President Obama, in tonight’s premiere of  “The President’s Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office.”


George W. Bush chief photographer Eric Draper’s images from 9/11 tell a riveting story. He described it as one of his hardest days as a photographer. Desperate for information that morning, President Bush takes notes while TV news coverage of the burning towers plays in the background. (Eric Draper/ George W. Bush Presidential Library, p. 172)


A few weeks after inauguration, President Obama, the First Lady, friends and members of Congress donned 3-D glasses while watching a commercial during Super Bowl XLIII in the family theater of the White House. (Pete Souza, The White House, p. 7)

“For 50 years, presidential photographers have covered it all: upheaval, tragedy, joy — often developing friendships with the presidents they serve,” says a National Geographic news release about the television show, which airs on PBS. “Acting as both visual historians and key links between the public and the presidents, for these photographers no day is the same — whether they are aboard Air Force One, backstage at the State of the Union or in the heart of the West Wing.”


President-elect Barack Obama just prior to taking the oath of office. “Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror,” Pete Souza said, then walked into history. (Pete Souza, The White House, p. 18)

Viewers of tonight’s television documentary get to follow Souza, and those who came before him, for a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday grit of the American presidency. “It’s a chance to see what it’s like to cover the most powerful man in the world, for history,” National Geographic says.


Scenes from the National Geographic Special “The President’s Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office” copyright National Geographic Television. 

So far, eight professionals have served as official White House photographers. The idea of shooting for history took hold almost 50 years ago when President Johnson hired the first official presidential photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, known as Okie. He set the gold standard for presidential photography, and he did it on the strength of his unique access, the National Geographic Special explains.


George W. Bush’s chief photographer, Eric Draper, caught Barbara Bush photographing the Presidents Bush on Jan. 28, 2001. “One thing I learned right off the bat,” Draper said, “is that when you say, ‘Mr. President,’ they both turn around.” (Eric Draper/George W. Bush Presidential Library, p. 11)

“To a documentary photographer, every presidency has defining stories, and those images are often how we remember a president. For Johnson, it was civil rights and Vietnam. President Reagan is forever tied to the end of the Cold War. President Clinton pursued peace in the Middle East. History has yet to define the Obama administration, but Souza is there to document it, every step of the way.”

“The President’s Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office” is produced by National Geographic Television (NGT) for public television.

Premieres in the U.S. Wednesday, November 24th at 8:00 p.m. on PBS – Pete Souza is never far behind President Obama. In fact, sometimes he’s ahead of him. As the President’s chief White House photographer, Souza is the President’s shadow. National Geographic follows Souza inside the Obama White House, aboard Air Force One, backstage at the State of the Union, and into the heart of the West Wing.

Video by National Geographic Television


Scenes from the National Geographic Special “The President’s Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office” copyright National Geographic Television. 

The official companion book, The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office, is written by John Bredar, executive producer of the television documentary.

The book features both iconic and rarely seen pictures of White House residents and the photographers who chronicled them, from the earliest image of a sitting president (James Polk in 1846) and a battlefield photograph of Abraham Lincoln, to the wealth of photos made since 1963 when the first official presidential photographer was hired.


David Hume Kennerly made this picture the day before the Carters moved into the White House. Taking a last tour of the West Wing, Betty Ford told him she’d always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table. A former Martha Graham dancer, she slipped off her shoes, hopped on the table and struck a pose. (David Hume Kennerly/Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library p. 133)


Cecil Stoughton’s images of the trip to Texas by John F. Kennedy provide key beats in the story on the fateful day of the assassination. Later, Stoughton made perhaps the most famous–and most important–image ever taken by a presidential photographer as LBJ is sworn in on Air Force One. (Cecil Stoughton, White House/JFK Library,
Boston p. 57)

Kennedy was the first president to have an official photographer — Cecil Stoughton — and nearly every president since then has had one, the book explains.

The current chief official White House photographer, Pete Souza, also had a stint in the Reagan White House from 1983 to 1989 (but not as chief photographer), making him the first photographer to have officially served two presidents for extended periods.

The presidential photographer’s job is two-fold: taking photographs of the president greeting dignitaries, visitors and guests; and documenting for history every possible aspect of the presidency, both official events, backstage happenings and “off-duty” private moments.


A number of Bob McNeely’s images show President Clinton and the First Lady fully engaged on issues together, as in this moment when they are listening to a briefing on board Air Force One. (Robert McNeely/William J. Clinton Presidential Library, p. 209) 

Creating a good photographic archive for history is the most important part of my job, creating this archive that will live on,” says Souza. “This is not so much photojournalism as photo-history.”

Souza and his staff produce up to 20,000 pictures a week.

In interviews, Souza (who also writes the foreword to the book) and four veteran presidential photographers — David Hume Kennerly (Gerald Ford); David Valdez (George H.W. Bush); Bob McNeely (Bill Clinton); and Eric Draper (George W. Bush) — tell insider stories about photographs that reveal what presidential speeches, press conferences and posed images often cannot, the book explains. “Their personal anecdotes divulge the many pleasures and pressures of their job.”


To take the best possible images, the photographer has to develop a kind of invisibility. “For a presidential photographer, there’s no higher praise than being utterly ignored, so that the subjects pay you no attention and you get the most natural shots,” says Souza.

Bredar writes that what presidential photographers try to capture is not just the cumulative experiences of a presidency, but what the president was like as the events happened, “the big arcs of the presidency — legislative challenges, managing wars and crises, and other major events — colored by coverage that evokes the character of the man in the crucible.”

“The job of presidential photographer is all about access and trust, and if you have both of those you’re going to make interesting, historic pictures,” Souza says.

Yoichi Okamoto had unprecedented, unfettered access to President Johnson. His pictures are considered by his peers to be among the best, Bredar notes. President Nixon’s photographer, Ollie Atkins, on the other hand, had no personal or direct access to the president. All picture opportunities had to be cleared with the press secretary. His photographs of the Nixon White House “appear bland, perfunctory and completely shorn of the verve that comes with even the most mundane moment in the West Wing,” writes Bredar.


Lyndon B. Johnson’s photographer Yoichi Okamoto disappeared behind the President to make this image. Okamoto would have been below the eye line of almost all of the reporters in the room. (LBJ Library/Yoichi Okamoto, p. 118)


Cecil Stoughton’s photographic coverage evolved from making the typical ceremonial images of previous administrations to documentary-style pictures like this one of John F. Kennedy and his daughter, Caroline, aboard a yacht in Hyannis Port, Mass., in August 1963. (Cecil Stoughton, White House/JFK Library, Boston, p. 8)



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