Portrait of the White House photographer

ON THE FLY: Pete Souza, the official chief photographer to President Obama, is first on the tarmac when Air Force One takes off.
ON THE FLY: Pete Souza, the official chief photographer to President Obama, is first on the tarmac when Air Force One takes off. (Erin Harvey)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"The President's Photographer," produced by National Geographic and airing Wednesday night on PBS, is an engaging and rare glimpse of the day-to-day life of Pete Souza, a 56-year-old photojournalist chosen by President Obama for the tireless job of official presidential photographer. For Souza, it's a return engagement - he had a job on the White House photo staff during a large chunk of the Reagan years.

Like all jobs that sound great, this one is also a particular grind. Up at dawn and taking pictures all day until the president calls it a night, Souza is the first to arrive at the tarmac for a day trip aboard Air Force One; he is needed at all times for those countless grip-and-grin pictures that are journalistic chaff but nevertheless crucial to the PR demands of the executive branch; he is rushing to catch his ride near the front of the motorcade; he is putting up with needling little jokes from press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Halfway through, you may wonder how they could have ever left such rich character potential out of "The West Wing" and a dozen other fictional tales of Oval Office drama - the photographer, after all, sees and quietly knows more than just about anyone.

"The President's Photographer" follows Souza following Obama last winter, as the health-care reform effort begins to quiver under the weight of compromise. Contrasted with Souza's earlier stills from Obama's 2008 victory, the shots have suddenly become more grim. A White House photographer's daily output must capture the full spectrum of a public face that is often starkly contrasted with the private mood.

Perhaps only Bo the Dog and personal aide Reggie Love have better access to Obama than Souza, who is a constant presence with a couple of cameras slung over his droopy shoulders. Both Bo and Love figure prominently in some of the memorable shots Souza has taken so far; the president, we learn, is particularly enamored of a photograph of himself blocking Love's shot on the basketball court.

In addition to riding along with Souza - unobtrusively observing the observer while he tries to remain invisible and do his work; the so-called Heisenberg effect is pretty much off the charts, here - "The President's Photographer" looks back at five decades of having an official White House photographer, starting with the Johnson administration, whose photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, created a body of frank, revealing candids that set the tone for the work of his successors. (There have been eight chief official White House photographers, all men it seems.)

Every shot taken becomes the property of the National Archives, which more or less permanently lends them to eventual presidential libraries. Of the many thousands that will accumulate, perhaps one or two of them will become the shots everyone remembers when they close their eyes, the stuff of permanent iconography.

As Souza and his staff of three photographers hustle their way through the days and nights, "The President's Photographer" becomes so preoccupied with the office (and the history of the position) that it only glancingly stops to consider what sort of person it takes to do Souza's job. We get almost no information about his background or social life - except to remark that there is apparently no hope of having a social life.

Some of the more reflective interviews here come from Obama and George W. Bush, who both honor the richness and historical value of having a camera around all the time - even when they might have preferred not to - and how they are able to surrender themselves to the process. A companionable friendship sometimes transcends the journalistic barriers, such as that between Gerald Ford and his photographer, David Hume Kennerly, or between the elder President Bush and David Valdez, who shot a famously tender candid of George and Barbara Bush spending the morning in bed while their grandchildren romped and frolicked about.

For other presidents, the relationship was more fraught. In one clip, Richard Nixon is seen griping at his presidential photographer, Ollie Atkins, just moments before going on live TV to resign. The president forbade photographs during that crucial moment. (More happily, Atkins did take the shot of Nixon meeting Elvis Presley, which wound up being the most-requested photo from the Nixon library.)

Without hammering the point, and with some of the more interesting behind-the-scenes footage yet of the Obama White House, "The President's Photographer" makes clear the lasting power of the still photograph, even in this tech-savvy era. It's possible that Souza's perfect picture of Obama already exists; probably it has yet to be taken. Time has a way of editing all images down to the one that says it all.

The President's Photographer put stars here (one hour) airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on WETA and MPT.

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