Before photography, heads of state were painted or sculpted, often driven by a combination of artistic interpretation and the wishes of the subject to be portrayed in a certain manner. The gaze of a leader from ages gone by could convey a message of strength, status, religion, unity, or power.
It’s easy to forget that heads of state, such as Presidents, are made of flesh and bone like the rest of us; especially, when referring to revered figures such as the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and any one else immortalized in oil and/or marble. The introduction of official White House photographers, a modern appointment that, arguably, began during the FDR era, aimed to humanize the office and figure of President. Candid shots from looking stern and serious in critical meetings to playing with their children in the oval office are critical not only for historical and archival purposes; but, these shots are key in forging a relationship between a President and the public.
Here are a few, either in their own words or as reported from the time, are reflections by former official White House photographers.
Abbie Rowe (1905-1967)
As reported by Atlas Obscura, “when Rowe saw the First Lady [Eleanor Roosevelt], he took her picture, and she was charmed enough that they began a relationship. Soon, Rowe was working as photographer for the National Park Service, and in 1941, he was given a new assignment. His job would be to photograph the president.”
Cecil Stoughton (1920-2008)
“I felt I had lost a brother. He was only three years older than me, and I felt close to him, being that I was in the office with him, within about ten feet, everyday. I think I probably missed him more than most,” Stoughton told National Geographic about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yoichi Okamoto (1915-1985)
“He liked my pictures and from then on I went on every foreign trip with him,” Okamoto said in an interview with Life magazine. “A week after the assassination of President John Kennedy, the new President called me in and asked me to take some good portraits of him. I said, ‘Rather than just take portraits, I’d like to hang around and photograph history being made.’”
Ollie Atkins (1917-1977)
“I opened the door, and it was obvious I had walked into an awkward situation. The President and the men were not in tears, but Julie and Tricia were. And it was obvious that Rose Mary Woods had been crying. But by coming in, I broke the spell,” Atkins told People Magazinr about the Night before Nixon resigned. “I suggested we make a few family pictures and the President came to my support. Mrs. Nixon gave in to everyone else, and I took four or five shots. The whole thing took about five minutes.”
Sharon Farmer (1951-)
As reported by The American Prospect, “Fiercely loyal, Farmer has nothing but good things to say about Bill and Hillary Clinton, though. In fact, when she tried to leave the White House one year before the president’s second term was up, they convinced her to stay. ‘It was a vote of confidence,’ Farmer says proudly.”
“It was the hardest job I ever loved. The hours were long and the responsibility of running the photo office was a 24/7 job. Every hour of the President schedule had to be documented including the schedule of the First Lady and Vice President,” Draper told PetaPixel.
“There was no typical day, which made the job very exciting for the entire 8 years. There was plenty of routine but every day felt like an adventure. Capturing the surprise story telling moments is what I enjoyed the most. My goal was to cover the presidency like a long-term photo story.”
Pete Souza (1954-)
“One of the things I’m trying to do is show him as a human being, not just a president,” Souza told CBS in 2016.