Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen

The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside The Oval Office
By John Bredar (Foreword by Pete Souza)
Hardcover.  256 pp.
November 2, 2010.  National Geographic Society

The President of the United States has become much more than the head of government and head of state in the most powerful nation in the world.  The President, and the office he holds, is a symbol for power and freedom, and symbols are fueled by imagery.  This is why the position of Official White House Photographer has become so important.  Over the past few decades the White House photographer has become historian, documentarian, image consultant, and promoter as their images have become political and historical tools for a President, his Administration, and his legacy.

The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside The Oval Office is a companion book to the National Geographic documentary of the same name, which aired on PBS in November 2010.  The book and the television program feature a behind-the-scenes look at what the current Chief White House Photographer, Pete Souza, does on a daily basis while also exploring the history of photography in relation to the Presidents.

The first President to be photographed while in office was James K. Polk, who had his image captured – along with his Cabinet – in a daguerreotype in the 1840’s.  Throughout Presidential history, only five Presidents have not been captured on film – all of whom were Founding Fathers: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.  Since then, Presidential photography has become an integral aspect of the historical record as well as a significant and effective tool for showing a President at work, in action, responding to crises, and connecting with Americans in any conceivable manner or situation.  The advent of photography in the 19th Century made it possible for Americans to see and feel closer to their President.  Now, Presidential photography is a daily showcase for an Administration’s achievements — particularly with the ability to use social networking and Internet platforms to share images quickly to a large, varied audience.  The White House Photo Office has become an extension of the Presidency itself and a useful and efficient political weapon when wielded cautiously and correctly.

In The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside The Oval Office, John Bredar chronicles the introduction and evolution of Presidential photography from the time when subjects had to sit for up to ten minutes during the photograph’s exposure time up until today where photographers follow the President around everywhere he goes and snap thousands of photographs each week.  While telling the story of White House photography through the years, Bredar also tells the story of a day in the life of the incumbent Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza, who runs the White House Photo Office and captures the famous images of President Obama that we see every day.

The President’s Photographer also tells the story of Souza’s predecessors and their unique relationships with their subjects — the Presidents — and the amazing ability it takes for a White House Photographer to record important moments in history and shadow the President almost 24/7 while somehow remaining inconspicuous.  The first true Official White House Photographer was, unsurprisingly, appointed by the image-conscious President John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy understood the power of symbolism and imagery and was well aware of the political advantages that he was gifted with thanks to his young, photogenic family.  Since JFK, every President except for Jimmy Carter has had an Official White House Photographer.  Some of these photographers had better access than others and this is reflected in their work.  For Presidents such as LBJ, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, we not only see Presidents at work, but also behind-the-scenes, candid shots of the Presidents with their families, with their pets, with their ties loosened and feet on their desks. 

Presidential photographers with unfettered access illuminate a human aspect of men who we nearly always see as symbols of power behind a fancy seal and expensive suit.  Whether it is an anguished Lyndon Johnson listening to tragic reports from Vietnam, Jerry Ford meeting with aides while wearing pajamas and smoking a pipe, or Barack Obama sneaking away to squeeze in a pickup basketball game or to spend a few minutes with his daughters, the candid photos captured by Presidential photographers are often more powerful than those images which show Presidents literally using their power.

If The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside The Oval Office was only a book which examined the history of the White House Photographers and gave us a close look at a day in the life and career of current White House Photographer Pete Souza, this would be a great read.  However, the book is replete with beautiful photos featuring amazing images from Presidential Photographers begininng with Cecil Stoughton (John F. Kennedy) through Souza (Obama).  These fantastic photos bring the Presidency about as intimately close to us as it can ever get and the sheer variety and beauty of the photos featured in The President’s Photographer are worth the price of the book alone.

The President’s Photographer by John Bredar is a wonderful book for serious readers of history as well as those who are casually interested in the subject.  With loads of photos to illustrate the importance and impact of Presidential photography, The President’s Photographer works just as well as a stand-alone volume as it does as a companion piece to the PBS/National Geographic documentary which it was intended to supplement.

The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office by John Bredar (with a foreword by Pete Souza) is available now at your local independent bookstore, online at your favorite retailer, and through National Geographic.  Thanks to the greatness of PBS, you can view the National Geographic documentary, The President’s Photographer, in full right here, right now.  The photos included in this review are among those featured in The President’s Photographer and are all available through the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the respective Presidential libraries of the subjects in the photos.  Many of the photos by Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza and his assistants are available to peruse on Flickr through the White House Photostream.

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    Love behind the scenes stuff like this.
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