How the Official White House Photographer Is Chosen


If you’ve been anywhere on the internet
over the past twelve months, you’ll have come across these – photo retrospectives of
Barack Obama’s presidency. Many of the shots featured were taken by Pete Souza, the Official
White House Photographer. But how do you land that job? Like a number of White House positions, the
Official Photographer is an optional one, but most recent Presidents have stuck with
the tradition. In fact, many have developed close friendships with their photographers. Obama: I think at this point Pete and I are like an old couple. We sort of know each other and he’s like a member of the family. Once in the job, the President’s schedule
is the Photographer’s schedule. The Official Photographer follows the President to almost
every meeting and engagement, documenting each presidential day for posterity JFK was the first US President to work with
a full-time photographer, Cecil Stoughton, who became crucial to developing the narrative
of Kennedy’s time in office Having trained as an Army photographer, where
he once worked under future president Ronald Reagan, Stoughton was assigned to JFK after
his inauguration, and took over 8,000 photos of the President during his tenure. He was
the only photographer to witness the iconic moment that Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as
president after Kennedy’s assassination, where he artfully framed Jackie Kennedy’s
bloodstained skirt out of the shot Some presidents are more open with their photographers
than others. Richard Nixon, for example, was quite restrictive with official photographer
Ollie Atkins. His most famous photo was this one, taken during a secret meeting between
the president and Elvis. Today, it is more requested from the US National Archive more so than
photographs of the moon landing. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter is the only president
in modern times to have not appointed an official photographer. He did offer the job to Stanley
Tretick, who had worked on JFK’s 1960 campaign, but Tretick turned him down, saying “I didn’t
feel he wanted an intimate, personal photographer around him.” As well as being tasked with documenting history,
Presidential Photographers need to keep up with technological shifts. For example, Reagan’s
first-term photographer, Michael Evans, made the jump to full-time color shots in 1981,
while Eric Draper moved from film to digital while working for George W. Bush. Bob McNeely, once described as a ‘wild boy’
by no less than Hunter S Thompson, was Bill Clinton’s official photographer. The two
would regularly golf together, and play cards aboard Air Force One. After Clinton’s affair,
many of McNeely’s images were subpoenaed. Feeling betrayed and shut out by the investigation,
he found it difficult to continue and eventually quit in 1998. Interestingly, though, one of McNeely’s
junior photographers would go on to become Hillary Clinton’s official photographer,
and would have been given the top job in the White House had Clinton won in 2016. Pete
Souza, Obama’s photographer, also worked for President Reagan for a time. It seems
that if you’re interested in photographing a president, it helps to know someone who
already does. Alternatively, you’ll need to work your
way up from the campaign trail into the White House, alongside the candidate. Pete Souza, for example, first photographed
Obama in 2004 for the New York Times, and joined his campaign staff in 2007, two full
years before his inauguration. A number of photographers have risen alongside
President Trump, who has been notoriously picky about how he’s shot. As yet there’s
been no word on which one will join him in the White House. Pete Souza, however, has
definitively ruled himself out of the running. One thing is for sure – you’ll need a stellar
portfolio and a proven track record to get anywhere near the job. Each presidential photographer
has had a unique relationship with their subject, differing levels of access and an individual
eye for photography, but proven skill is the one thing that
ties them all together.

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