THE PRESIDENT’S PHOTOGRAPHER: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office
Feb. 3 – May 24, 2014
As a companion to the very popular National Geographic book and documentary, this new traveling exhibition features both iconic and rarely seen images of our Presidents through the eyes of their official photographers.
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.
This exhibition offers a fresh and candid viewpoint on life and work behind the famous façade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. These engaging photos capture moments of high drama and turmoil and moments of family fun and intimacy.
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.
John Bredar, author of the book and producer of the National Geographic documentary, 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.
The exhibition features 50 framed images and a text panel with brief biographical information on each photographer. Public program opportunities include film screenings, book signings, or programs featuring some of the photographers to discuss their work and their recollections.
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,” premiered on PBS on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010.
About the Author
Three-time Emmy Award winner and Peabody Award winner John Bredar is 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.
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.
President Kennedy and daughter Caroline. Aboard the “Honey Fitz” off Hyannisport, Massachusetts.
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 the reporters in the room.
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 aboard Air Force One.
George W. Bush’s chief photographer, Eric Draper, caught Barbara Bush photographing the Presidents Bush on January 28, 2001. ”One thing I learned right off the bat,” Draper said, ” is that when you say ‘Mr. President’ they both turn around.”
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wear 3-D glasses while watching a TV commercial during Super Bowl 43, Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, in the family theater of the White House on February 1, 2009. Guests included family, friends, Cabinet members, staff members, and bipartisan members of Congress. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)