President John F. Kennedy was always the most telegenic of US presidents; so perhaps it’s no coincidence that he was the first to appoint an ‘official’ photographer. In previous administrations, a random line of either military or park services photographers trailed the most powerful man in the world; but Cecil Staughton was the first to be plucked out from the press pool, and quickly began to record the glamorous iconography that was to establish the idea of a modern Camelot in the minds of US citizens.
There have been eight photographers since then, working with the nine presidents since JFK; except for Jimmy Carter who – perhaps unsurprisingly, given his well-known lack of airs – decided against one specific appointment. Some of the work of these photographers, tasked with recording fragments of events both intimate and literally world-changing, has been gathered in a fascinating photo book: “The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office.” , companion to the National Geographic Television Special: “The President’s Photographer“ ( Part 2 is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hNb-_YbYkc ).
As a whole, it forms a fascinating mosaic, stitching eras together; shifting from black-and-white to color, from film to digital. The bulk of the book is dedicated the White House’s current incumbent, President Barack Obama (and there is an extensive foreword by his photographer, Pete Souza), who has more photographs in this volume than the other presidents combined (depending on your politics, this may be either a plus or a minus).
Perhaps also unsurprisingly, Richard Nixon was one of the opaquer of presidents, and there seems to be little behind-the-scenes material. Most of the work that Ollie Atkins recorded seems pre-programmed, with Nixon’s smile a consistent fixture for specific photo opportunities. Like the man’s term itself, he seems full of secrets, and an unwillingness to allow more relaxed behind-the-scenes material to be shown to the public gaze.
The rest of the material is a real treasure trove. Ronald Reagan hugging and helping his wife off of a horse in a moment of affection (by Michael Evans); the Bushes, father and son (numbers 41 and 43, respectively) in an unguarded moment with Barbara Bush on the White House lawn (by Eric Draper); and a strangely lyrical image of LBJ, incongruously, laying down in a field of wildflowers (by Yoichi Yokamoto).
What is also engaging is how these images have changed in purpose over the decades. All of them are, of course, vetted to a major extent; and this accounts for a blurring between the lines of documentary and PR opportunity; neither one nor the other, but, rather, a strange mix of the two. A couple of years back, the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) took issue with the White House releasing an official photograph of President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama today, an event that was “closed” to the press.
The WHNPA issued a press release: “A government photographer is no substitute for an independent, experienced photojournalist. We are disappointed the White House has reverted to their old strategy of announcing a closed press event and then later releasing their own photo. The WHNPA also urges news organizations to refrain from publishing and circulating this handout photo, which is a visual press release of a news worthy event.”
As Pete Souza explains, in the Obama era, he became pretty much the first generation of White House photographers wherein the delay between record and dissemination became instantaneous; distributed via social media platforms such as Instagram and twitter. Just as the news cycle has changed vastly since the JFK era, so does the pressure on both photographer and president to manage a presidential narrative in a matter of seconds rather than weeks.
As of writing this, the latest election is finished; and we will have a new president installed this coming January; and it will be interesting to see if and how the dynamic will change between Donald J. Trump and his choice of photographer. A President-Elect who has made very public statements about his willingness to curtail press freedoms – especially those that may be critical of his administration – it is not hard to speculate that he might revert to a more secretive, Nixonian approach; with a focus on a very staged and self-serving narrative? Regardless, we will all still be interested in portraits of the most powerful individual in the world; and that fascinating interstice between public office and private life.