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White House Photographer Pete Souza Has the Country's Top Photo Op

Pete Souza takes another turn as official White House photographer, this time to document President Barack Obama.

But Stoughton's most famous photograph -- perhaps the most enduring image captured by an official White House photographer -- is the cramped, harrowing scene of Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, a shattered Jackie Kennedy at his side, on the day of Kennedy's assassination. Historians credit the photograph with conveying a sense of reassurance and continuity to a startled nation. If there'd been any doubt about having an official White House photographer, it surely ended that day.

Official White House photographers are not journalists. They work for the president, and the White House press office decides which of their images will be released to the public. It follows that there would be a temptation to lean toward distributing photos that show the president in the best light. Eventually, though, all the photographs make their way to the National Archives and to presidential libraries.

Souza considers himself a documentarian, a collector of moments that will form the historical record. In "Images of Greatness," Souza's compilation of photos from more than five years as an official photographer in the Reagan White House, he describes himself as one of the president's "shadows."

Souza, who also served as the official photographer for Reagan's funeral, writes that his "personal political philosophies didn't necessarily mesh with Reagan's" but that he was "glad fate and good luck put me inside his White House." Souza didn't respond to a question about whether his political views align with Obama's.

Souza's Reagan is at once magisterial -- bathed in warm, almost cinematic light -- and playful. Here is Reagan tapping golf balls on Air Force One, slipping into a Michael Dukakis mask, tossing a paper airplane off a hotel balcony in Los Angeles. (The White House didn't much like that airplane shot, refusing to release it until Reagan's last month in office, Souza writes. He later framed the photograph for Reagan, signing it "Mr. President, bombs away.")

Souza says he usually is too busy worrying about getting his shot to listen to his subjects. But he writes of hearing a snippet of unforgettable conversation at a stalled nuclear summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. Gorbachev said: "I don't know what else I could have done." Reagan responded: "You could have said, 'Yes.' "

Souza told presidential aide Pat Buchanan what he'd heard, Souza writes, and Buchanan "barked: Write it down! Write it down!" White House press secretary Larry Speakes released the conversation "verbatim from my notebook to Time magazine," Souza writes.

Souza's photographs from that day show Reagan with pursed lips, anger and weariness etched on his face. They contrast with the cheery Gipper of our memories, the horseback-riding optimist.

But it was not those iconic Reagan images, it seems, that really got Barack Obama's attention.

It was a picture of a little girl.

Senator Obama

In 2004, Souza was working in Washington as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. A colleague, Jeff Zeleny -- now a political writer for the New York Times -- asked him to take photographs for an ambitious project documenting Obama's first year as senator.

Souza hadn't seen the now-legendary speech at the Democratic National Convention that launched Obama. But he quickly figured out that "there was just something special about this guy that I hadn't seen in a lot of other politicians," he says one recent morning in his snug West Wing office, which once served as a barbershop.


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