In this episode of the fine art photography podcast, we discuss the career of Pete Souza, subject of the new Hollywood movie “The Way I See It,” and official White House photographer under two administrations
Full transcript of the podcast:
In this episode — a major Hollywood movie about two-time White House photographer Pete Souza
Hey everybody, Keith Dotson here with the fine art photography podcast, and in this episode I want to discuss something that hasn’t happened lately — the release of a major Hollywood movie about a photographer!
This weekend, Focus Features released “The Way I See It,” a major theatrical release about Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. And before your head begins to explode, this will not be a political discussion — I think it’s really notable anytime a photographer gets this kind of mainstream attention. There are tons of good biographies and documentaries about photographers, but most of them never had a mainstream theatrical release. The last one I can remember is “Finding Vivian Maier,” released in 2014.
Pete Souza is a professional photojournalist who served as Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama and also as an official photographer for President Reagan. Souza was born in Massachusetts and graduated graduated with a BS in public communication from Boston University and a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Kansas State University. He worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and freelanced for National Geographic and LIFE magazine.
There’s an extensive gallery of Souza’s work from the Obama White House on Flickr, I’ll leave a link in the description. Some of his images are iconic, including the famous shot of Obama and advisers in the Situation Room with all eyes fixed intently on a monitor as they watched the raid to capture Bin Ladin.
I’ll also include a link to some of Souza’s photography books.
The Obama White House gave the photographer nearly unfettered access. President Obama once said he spent more time with Souza than with his own family, and it wasn’t a joke. Obama gave him — in Souza’s own words — access to everything.
In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Souza said — and this is a direct quote: “My goal was to document what was taking place, accurately capture the mood and emotion of the moment and not change what was taking place. And by using what I call a small footprint, meaning not using a noisy camera or not using flash, moving around gingerly – I’m not sure if invisible is the right word, but I was certainly trying to be a piece of the woodwork.”
On shooting the group in the Situation Room watching the Bin Ladin raid, Souza said he was in cramped quarters for 40 minutes, with no room to change positions. There was very little conversation and he used a quiet shutter so as not to become intrusive. He said he shot 95 to 100 pictures in that scenario.
Have you ever considered what qualifications a person who shoots inside the White House must have? A photographer with full access to everything the President has access to — what kind of security clearance does that person need?
Souza said he had a top security clearance, which allowed him into all the meetings, but he clarified that a lot of the really secret material is contained in paper documents, which he did not see. He didn’t get emails and memos with secret information. And regarding conversations, he said that he truly didn’t pay much attention to the words because he was working with his gear trying to get the best compositions, and trying to capture the mood.
Souza has described the back story of another iconic shot — the one where Obama has bent down low to allow a small Arican-American boy to touch his hair. Souza said that this was a case where a staff member was leaving service, and it was customary to get a photograph at the desk with the oval office. In this case, the photograph had been taken, and the little boy’s mother — wife of the exiting staff member — said the little boy had a question for the President. The little guy, Jacob, said he had been told that his hair was like Obama’s. That’s the point when the President spontaneously leaned down to encourage the boy to feel his hair.
Souza said Obama was never comfortable having portraits made for magazine covers and such, whereas President Reagan, having come from an earlier life as an actor, with publicity photos being part of his business, was much more at ease with that kind of photography.
There was no such position as official White House photographer until President Kennedy hired one in 1961. Prior to that, all Presidential events were captured by military photographers. Kennedy was well aware of the importance of image, and he controlled the situations where photography was allowed and also approved all photographs that were released to the public.
But it’s President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s photographer Yoichi Okamoto that Souza referred to as a model for his own access levels. Johnson gave Okamoto a great amount of access.
The Trump White House has given less access to it’s official photographer Sheleah Craighead, and the official photographs of Trump are much more formal, and much less intimate. We won’t see images of Trump howling playfully with hound dogs like those of LBJ. Nor will we see authentic behind-the-scenes images of the Trump presidency.
All official White House images are stored in the National Archives, at Archives.gov.
I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but that’s OK. I didn’t intend this to be a movie review, as much as I wanted to recognize the occasion that a photographer is the subject of a major Hollywood release. That’s always a reason to celebrate as far as I’m concerned.
There’s been a lot of words written about the state of photography in the age of Instagram, and a lot of fretting about whether the profession of photography is still important. Souza’s job was important. He helped shape the vision of what a President does in office, and he revealed the humanity as much as the complexity involved in the job.
Sources and Links
Books by Pete Souza (Amazon)
The Way I See It — Official Movie Trailer
Terry Gross, Fresh Air — Interview with Pete Souza
“How White House Photographers Have Shaped the Image of the President” — Artsy, Haley Weiss
Thanks for reading.
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