I watched The President’s Photographer a few months ago, and decided to celebrate the inauguration by watching it again. This is a PBS documentary mostly about Pete Souza, President Obama’s official photographer, but with significant glances back over the history of presidential photography back through LBJ. (Of course there were photographs of presidents before Lyndon Johnson, but he was the first to have a full-time photographer on staff to record official as well as some unofficial occasions.) Photography has probably changed more than the presidency in the decades since Johnson took office in a crisis. Digital equipment has changed the nature of the beast, in particular the speed at which photos can be processed, distributed and displayed.
Yet in some ways digital is mainly about convenience. One of Souza’s notable predecessors, David Hume Kennerly, recorded the Ford presidency with much of the same infrastructure available to him: a staff of seven, a darkroom, and the ability to display recent images in the White House. Having been a war correspondent a few years earlier, Kennerly got Ford to allow him to take some time “off” to visit Vietnam and Cambodia in the frantic, frightening days of March 1975. Documenting the advance of the Khmer Rouge, and the refugee crisis in both countries, Kennerly was able to give Ford a graphic view of the collapse of South Vietnam within a day of his return to the United States, thanks to the speed of the White House lab. Kennerly then shared the photos with the rest of the White House staff and visitors. “My stark, black-and-white photographs of refugees and civilian casualties soon replaced the color prints of dancers, state visits, and similar events that hung in the corridors of the West Wing. My pictures were everywhere you turned, even in the hallway leading to the staff dining room, and many people reportedly couldn’t eat after seeing them.” (In a rare politically inflected comment, Kennerly continues, “I only wish my pictures had been hung in the White House when the war began, rather than as it ended” [David Hume Kennerly, Shooter (New York: Newsweek Books, 1979), 174].) Kennerly had won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1972, when he was UPI bureau chief in Saigon.
Kennerly became unusually close to the Fords — closer even than Souza is to the Obamas. His memoir, written within a few years of leaving the White House with Ford, is fairly honest about the flattened landscape of a post-celebrity life. Likewise he clearly relishes the time spent at the heart of power, privy to private moments as well as world-changing policy meetings. Once he was unable to resist adding his two cents to a high-level discussion of what to do about the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez crew . It’s good that Ford liked him.
Both Kennerly and Souza had been following their subjects before the White House, and both thus got the White House job as known, and trusted, quantities. The Fords, and the Obamas later, graciously accepted the historical burden of being on stage virtually all the time, stalked by a silent camera. Though the pictures do not record sound and thus in themselves do not threaten security breaches, the photographers have to achieve the highest clearances in order to do their jobs. The President’s Photographer includes a moving interview with Eric Draper, George W. Bush’s photographer, who recalls feeling “invisible” on Air Force One on 9-11, as the Secret Service shuttled POTUS away from Washington, D.C. for fear — reasonably — that he was a target. As Bush and his advisers consulted through the horror, Draper shot pictures. “I could stand just inches from the President and make pictures and he would look right through me.”
The President’s Photographer is a lush, beautifully produced documentary, with the cinematography matching the elegance of Souza’s photographic style. (The video was produced, directed, and written by Jody Lenkoski Schiliro for National Geographic.) Confronted with the challenge of crafting a narrative out of recording the presidency without making it all about f-stops, Lenkoski Schiliro chose to focus loosely on the White House campaign for the health care bill, with numerous excursions into other large and small presidential matters, from visiting three-year-olds to Obama’s first reckoning with the coffins of American military casualties. In that case, Souza reflects briefly on his decision not to shoot inside the plane where the president was clearly distressed at the American dead; instead he captured a shot of Obama adding his salute to those of a line of servicemen.
It is fascinating to compare Souza’s photographic style to Kennerly’s, for example, or that of Yoichi Okamoto, President Johnson’s photographer. Both of the latter shot with film cameras (of course), and in black and white. Both had been combat photographers in previous phases of their careers, but so had Souza, who was in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and documented some of the barbaric tortures of the Taliban as well as the beauties of the Afghan people and landscape. Souza’s war images, at least in his Afghanistan portfolio, are in color, with the same smooth, luxurious look as his White House photos. (See http://www.petesouza.com/gallery.html?gallery=The%20Road%20to%20Kabul&folio=Image%20Galleries for the Afghanistan photos.) Souza has also, of course, shot in black and white. (See his extraordinary Plebe Summer portfolio on the same web site.) And Kennerly has shot in color; his web site displays images from the late 1970s and early 1980s in glorious (truly) color.
Kennerly has commented that he shot in black and white in the White House partly to eliminate flash, because he could use Tri-X at EI 800, making indoor shooting possible. In photographic history, that makes perfect sense. What is interesting is the contrast between the rough and ready (and brilliant) images that Kennerly left of the Ford presidency, and the National Geographic-style images that Souza is making of the Obama White House. Not sure what it all means, but I put it out there for reflection, debate and disagreement in any case.
One very, very important thing that this richness of still photographs does is erase the often vast political differences between one White House and another. The presidents share so much: the demands of ceremony, the need to blow off steam, the imperative of good PR (or not, which was an issue Kennerly had with Ford’s handlers), the still center of the storm. I’m not certain if it is good or bad to have politics erased in this manner —
or elevated so high that practical and crucial distinctions between parties and presidents fade away.
Would you like to be White House photographer? I’m afraid I really, really would. Snooping and playing fly on the wall suit me just fine. What I would not like, besides (to be honest) the relentless schedule, which is what it’s all about, is routinely giving up my images for editing by someone else. You know, it’s not even political or deeply philosophical — it’s just that I like to edit.
And it could well be that Souza’s shots don’t need much editing. It could also well be that I won’t get the call from the next president for my services. One can always dream.