WASHINGTON (Sept. 16, 2010)—THE PRESIDENT’S PHOTOGRAPHER: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0676-4; Nov. 2, 2010; $35; hardcover) offers readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the world of a presidential photographer and life at the side of the nation’s chief executive.
The book, by John Bredar, executive producer of National Geographic Television and three-time Emmy Award winner, is the companion volume to a new National Geographic Television Special, “The President’s Photographer: 50 Years Inside the Oval Office,” airing on PBS on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 (check local listings for times).
Through both iconic and rarely seen pictures of White House residents and the photographers who chronicled them, readers will be transported through presidential history, 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, to today’s unprecedented coverage of Barack Obama.
Since the 1960s, photographic images have become an increasingly critical tool in how we understand our presidents. John F. Kennedy was the first president to have an official photographer — Cecil Stoughton — and nearly every president since then has had one. The current chief official White House photographer is Pete Souza. He 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: one, taking photographs of the president greeting dignitaries, visitors and guests; and two, perhaps more challenging and gratifying: documenting for history every possible aspect of the presidency, both official events, backstage happenings and “off-duty” private moments. “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.
The book offers a fresh and candid viewpoint on life and work behind the famous façade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In rare 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. Their personal anecdotes divulge the many pleasures and pressures of their job.
The book’s 175 engaging photos capture moments of high drama and turmoil — such as the swearing-in on Air Force One of President Johnson and the attempted assassination of President Reagan — and moments of family fun and intimacy. We see the young Kennedy children cavorting in the Oval Office; President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush in bed surrounded by six young grandchildren; Sasha Obama playing a game of hide-and-seek with her dad; and Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table. The book also follows Souza as he covers several weeks in the life of President Obama, including a number of trips on Air Force One and the bruising battle to pass health care legislation.
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, for example, had unprecedented, unfettered access to President Johnson. His pictures are considered by his peers to be among the best. 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.
THE PRESIDENT’S PHOTOGRAPHER, available wherever books are sold or at www.nationalgeographic.com/books, offers a fascinating and intriguing perspective on the lives of our presidents and their photographers, who serve as both visual historians and key links between the American public and the chief executive.
About the Author
Three-time Emmy Award winner and Peabody Award winner John Bredaris a documentary filmmaker and senior executive producer of National Geographic Specials. He wrote and produced his first film for National Geographic in 1989. Since then he has written, produced and directed 25 more. In 1996 he produced and directed “Inside the White House,” a rare look at the people and history of the White House. In 2003 he was executive producer and co-writer of “Inside the Secret Service.” “The President’s Photographer” is his first book.