Says Michael Evans, one of four men in history to be the official White House photographer: "I was just turning away to wash my hands in the White House men's room one day when in walks this unnamed Cabinet member, obviously in a great deal of hurry. So I started telling him about my Portrait Project, and there just was no way he was going to get by me unless he agreed to sit for it. He was jumping all over the place, and I just stood in his way until he agreed . . . That's the sort of thing I had go through. Not as glamorous as it appears, hmmm?"
Michael Evans is the president's personal photographer, a job that requires him to be both ubiquitous and invisible. He's the one White House staff member who must be on the scene for every private meeting, while never being noticed. At 40, he has the conservative presence of a K Street lawyer, with his gray flannels, white button-down shirt and neatly graying hair. His is a demeanor and look not unlike that of the people he must photograph daily in the White House, but strikingly different from that of his most famous predecessor, David Hume Kennerly, who would show up in Jerry Ford's Oval Office wearing blue jeans.
"Someone wrote once that if Kennerly was like a son to Ford, I'm like the president's nephew," says Evans. "That's an accurate assessment of our relationship."
In the past four years, his portfolio has come to include pictures of then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig informing Reagan that Anwar Sadat was indeed dead; Reagan's look of horror as the CIA briefed him on the downing of the Korean Air Lines jet by Soviet fighter planes; and many quiet personal moments between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. There are also the shots he missed and doesn't like to remember. "When there's something like an assassination attempt," he says, "you just hope you don't disgrace yourself."
But it is perhaps his own controversial Portrait Project that will best secure his name and fame, a collection of 595 pictures constituting Evans' personal interpretation of Washington's power elite. It's a project Evans undertook with the blessing of the White House, and one from which he stands to gain no personal profit. He does not own the copyright, and some of the photos will go on to the Library of Congress while the negatives will find a home in the National Archives. "What I tried to do was create a geological sampling of this era," he explains.
Last night those pictures, in an exhibit called "People and Power: Portraits From the Federal Village," opened grandly at a private party at the Corcoran Gallery. Washington officialdom turned out en masse to view themselves -- in the flesh and on the wall. It was the night of the ultimate vanity.
Everyone from Evans' boss, President Reagan, to attorney general nominee Edwin Meese to Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler roamed around, picture books and programs in hand, matching the names with the faces.
"What page are you on? asked Civil Rights Commission chairman Clarence Pendleton of political consultant Roger Stone.
"I'm on page 69," said Stone.
"You mean you know?" asked Al Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. Hunt happened to be in the middle of the conversation.
"Will you sign your picture for me?" asked Pendleton. "I know it's tacky, but I have to do it."
"I don't believe this," said Hunt. "This is just so Washington."
Reagan was particularly inaccessible last night, viewing the exhibition with Mrs. Reagan privately, as the remaining 1,500 guests waited at the bottom of the marble stairs for them to finish.
"I'm pleased with it," the president said of his portrait earlier this week. "I don't do as well in the mirror."
In his remarks, at a podium, he singled out a few of the pictures.
"And consider the portraits of two skilled and dedicated government servants," Reagan said. "Although they have hectic schedules, both are nevertheless looking at the camera calmly, even perhaps with a twinkle in their eyes: Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan and chief of staff James Baker."
"Or is it the other way around?"
The crowd roared.
As Evans' first one-man show, it has certainly been auspicious, annoying some subjects while also creating the kind of intrigue that always arises here when an event is synonymous with power.
During the 30 months it took to compile the portraits, Evans spent much of his time, initially, begging people to pose. After the portraits started appearing in Washingtonian magazine, Evans spent at least some of his time saying no to last-minute requests.
"I guess there's an enormous amount of interest about who made the list," says Evans. "I didn't intend it that way . . . I deal in a currency of the White House that is of high value."
Not everyone is as impressed with the project, though. At least one subject was concerned that Evans did not ask permission when he released the photos to Washingtonian. And an uncomfortable situation developed when Chief Justice Warren Burger insisted that his photograph be dropped from the exhibition, as well as from the book of the same name.
According to those close to the dispute, Burger believed he had veto power over the pictures, and after a sitting last July, let Evans know he did not want any of them used. Evans maintains there was never a veto agreement.
Speculation on Burger's dissatisfaction with the pictures ranges from his possible belief that a picture with his hands in his pockets was undignified to his feeling he did not look his best on the day they were shot.
In any case, another sitting was never arranged, and Evans used what he had already shot in the exhibit.
Evans has no comment on the matter, and refused The Washington Post permission to run the Burger photograph. He is, after all, one of a dozen or so people who will have to face Burger on the day of the private presidential swearing-in ceremony on Sunday.
Not to mention that he'd rather not get in a legal wrangle with the chief justice.
A Supreme Court spokesman says Burger will not be attending tonight's party because he "rarely, if ever, goes out on week nights" when the court is in session.
At least one other person declined a chance to be a powerful person: Nancy Reagan.
"She was not able to find time in her schedule," says Evans tactfully. "She also has a feeling that being in the show would imply that she's -- -- she was sort of put off, I think, by the people-in-power aspect of it . . ."
During a recent tour of the exhibit, Evans pointed out some of his favorites. "Some of the senators, the older folks," he says. "I really liked doing Strom Thurmond R-S.C. and Jennings Randolph D-W. Va. . Their faces say so much."
The toughest to capture? "James Baker was one of the toughest," says Evans. "He's a good poker player. And George Shultz. He doesn't give you much."
In the past quarter-century, the White House has always designated someone or other to visually record history. John F. Kennedy used a military aide, but it was Lyndon Johnson who first created a full-time job for photographer Yoichi Okamoto.
Today, Evans operates in the basement of the West Wing with a staff of about 15. His office was once the White House safe -- a claustrophobic cubicle of a space that is considerably brightened by a collection of Evans' photos. Interestingly, there is one of Burger with the inscription, "With Best Wishes, Warren Burger."
Evans is the son of a Canadian career diplomat, and was born in St. Louis and raised overseas. His interest in photography began at an early age, despite a serious visual problem that at times causes him to see double. "Don't make a big deal of it," he says.
He was a photographer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times and Time magazine, for whom he covered the Reagan presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980. He hopes to return to Time as a contract photographer when he leaves the White House this spring.
Evans was offered the White House position shortly after Reagan won. It was a job he knew he wanted to do for this president ever since 1964 when, as a college photojournalist student in Kingston, Ontario, he first heard Reagan speak for Barry Goldwater.
In 1983, when he married Story Shem, he tried to pick a weekend when the president would not be doing anything newsworthy. He chose a Saturday in October when Reagan was flying down to Atlanta to play golf.
Before he walked down the aisle, he heard that a gunman had taken two other presidential assistants hostage in the clubhouse, and was demanding to speak to Reagan.
"Then Grenada was invaded, and the bombing in Beirut," says Shem, a Carter Democrat who runs the Washington public relations firm of Arrive Unlimited. "We had a one-day honeymoon."
Evans came up with the idea for the Portrait Project, which has been underwritten by CBS Magazines and American Express Travel Related Services, early in the administration. He sent out 150 letters asking people to pose, and after The Washingtonian published some of the portraits in several issues last year, the response picked up. "Then all the schedulers started calling back," he says.
There is also a book of the photographs, page after page of portraits that come to seem like a yearbook of the Reagan administration.
There are every Cabinet member and senior White House staff member, an array of White House media correspondents, Geraldine Ferraro and various ambassadors, and terrific pictures of the White House chef, the gardener, and the president's personal pilot.
Almost everyone stands with arms folded or hands in pockets. Ferraro's nose is peeling in her picture, taken after the election.
"It's better than I deserve," said national security adviser Robert McFarlane last night, posing for People magazine in front of his portrait.
"I love mine," says Joe Canzeri, former White House assistant, and chairman of the inaugural gala. "He made me a legend in my own mind."
"Mine is all right," says Laurence Barrett, Time's senior White House correspondent. "I didn't realize it was for this and I was dressed a little casually. I was wearing an old-fashioned shirt with a odd collar. It's not Barrett dressed for success, so to say. If you use that, say I said it laughing. The picture is fine."
Says Evans: "I'm not one of these photographers that want to make people look freshly honed from marble, and I like their personalities to speak through . . . All the portraits appeal to me personally. It's really hard. It's like I have 590 children."