If the eyes are the windows of the soul, The Wall is the window of the ego. In Washington offices, living rooms, hallways, dens, bathrooms and vestibules, the photographs glisten, row upon row of glossy photos commemorating the meeting, the handshake, the greeting, and that most precious of moments -- the candid. Me and the President. Me and the Secretary. Me and my mother and the President. Collected over the years, adjusted to mirror shifting loyalties and administrations, documents of history sometimes, but more often documents of self, The Wall is as much a Washington addiction as a tradition.

"It's an anthropological signal to your visitors of who you are and what your station in life is," says Martin Kaplan, a one-time Walter Mondale speech writer who was so enamored of the phenomenon that he took it to the opposite coast, where he speaks with the perspective of distance. (He now hangs his collection on the wall of a Disney Pictures office in Burbank, Calif., where he is vice president for production/motion pictures. "Fritz Mondale is cheek by jowl with Bette Midler," he says.) "It's a sign of what fires you've walked through and what campaigns have formed you and what potentates you've touched. It's a way of letting your visitor know who you are, establishing a parentage and a peerage much more interesting than the Green Book or Burke's Peerage."

In a capital where the getting and maintaining of access has always been a religion (and where the reigning administration has elevated the "photo opportunity" to an art form), mere proximity to an influential person is good. And every day, the official city conspires to cover more walls as receiving lines snake past cameras that spew forth roll after roll of soon-to-be treasured images of handshakes.

"It's a very powerful thing -- it's human nature, I guess," says former White House photographer Michael Evans, who declares his "most treasured possession" is a photo of himself "playing hockey in the Oval Office -- the president, Deaver, Baker, Darman, the vice president, too, watching me do my hockey demonstrations. That's a fun picture to have ..."

"One likes to be perceived as being associated with powerful people," Evans says. "And people have to get things done so fast these days that the mere perception of being associated with powerful people is enough to fit the bill. It's sort of a latter-day touching of the hem."

Wall Tips Before you can get on a wall, you have to get in the picture. Various techniques exist. The obvious method is to hire a photographer, but why not be more creative? One popular method: Edge your face over the shoulder of an oblivious guest of honor and smile toward a camera-toting friend. Click -- instant intimacy!

An alternative is the grand entrance. "Certain people stop when they come into a room like they expect you to take their picture," says a free-lance photographer who knows whereof she speaks. "A lot of times you know you don't even need the pictures, but you flash anyway because they expect it.

"Politicians can go either way. They kind of want their pictures taken, but in fairness -- and I'm not usually fair to politicians -- they're busy. They come because it's on their schedule to speak to the Women Bankers and they just want to give their speech and get out.

"The Hollywood people know this is their lifeline. They don't pretend they're making important policy decisions. They just pose and are very polite. Betsy Bloomingdale -- those people are far more gracious than the more liberal people. I think they're more attuned to this and they're bred to be gracious. Betsy Bloomingdale is a professional at this. So is Mrs. {Leonore} Annenberg."

When all else fails, there remains the direct approach. Elbow in, ask if it's okay but don't stop if it's not, say hello as if you belong, and smile.

Wall Royalty The King of the Wall: Rep. Claude Pepper.

Pepper's Rayburn Building office might as well be an adjunct to the National Portrait Gallery, although the pictures are actually copies. The originals reside in the Claude Pepper Library in Tallahassee, Fla.

There are faces. Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pope Paul VI. Margaret Thatcher, Franklin Roosevelt (several), Helen Hayes, Anita Bryant and the entire beaming Bryant family. Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Bob Hope (several), Jackie Gleason, Orville Wright (signed). Anwar Sadat, Gerald Ford, Robert Kennedy, a very young Tip O'Neill and one of the few wall faces to look somewhat assaulted by the camera -- "Mrs. Millie Waller, executive assistant to Congressman Pepper, at her retirement luncheon in February 1973."

But the Wall need not be limited to photos. Any form of memorabilia will do. Pepper has a subspecialty of letters. From Betty Ford to Pepper's late wife: "Dear Mildred, How very thoughtful of you to give me such a lovely hand-painted elephant." From Franklin Roosevelt in 1945: "Yours of April fifth has been sent to me down here when I am getting a ten-day vacation -- more for catching up with mail than for a rest." By the time Pepper received the letter, Roosevelt had died.

The King of the Plaques: Walter Fauntroy.

While Fauntroy has a few well-selected pictures (LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, congressional colleagues and George McGovern -- "For Walter, with fond memories of '72"), he has specialized in two walls of plaques. The plaqueization of the office extends to a telephone, the ear-piece of which is labeled "Friends of Scouting."

The Queen of the Scraps of Paper: Esther Coopersmith.

Democratic fundraiser Esther Coopersmith admits she is known for her collecting. "My husband teases me," she says, "that the real reason we bought this house was because it didn't have a basement. He says he doesn't know how I manage to collect anyway, but I do. I just collect whatever has happened to me because I think it's a great historical kind of thing that -- prayerfully -- someday, if I ever have grandchildren, they'll say, 'Aah!' "

Coopersmith began her collection with pictures of Estes Kefauver "because he brought me here," and moved on to "pictures with Dr. Kissinger, President Kennedy, the political memorabilia." But her prize piece is a simple check -- but a check signed by Harry Truman, of course.

Wall Business The pictorial equivalent of book jacket blurbs, the Business Wall says, "These people eat/shop/hang out here, and if you're lucky you'll be allowed to do the same."

At the Occidental Restaurant, a short walk from the White House, picture frames cover the wall so completely they seem to be holding up the ceiling. The Columbia Historical Society owns 1,600 pictures that used to hang in the old Occidental, and when the restaurant was reborn 1,000 of the great and near great were loaned to restore the air of an insider's establishment.

The Occidental pictures are solo portraits, but the assumption seems to be that even if you didn't know Harry Truman, proximity to his portrait suggests a certain collegiality.

"I've watched people come back to the restaurant and take the kids around," says general manager Michael Sternberg. "They love to show them their great-grandfather or their uncle or their uncle's third cousin. We've had people who call and say, 'My father was on the wall in 1945. I've got a picture of him -- wouldn't you like to put him back?' I say, 'Call the Columbia Historical Society.' "

But those dated faces are history; the Occidental has to keep up with current events. "We knew we would have to start again," Sternberg says, "because all our customers keep saying, 'I want to get my picture on the wall.' And so this summer he reinstituted the old Occidental tradition of putting up Washington power brokers' pictures, inviting White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, retired House speaker Tip O'Neill, consultant Ed Rollins and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to contribute the first four to be hung in the revived restaurant. The event was, of course, documented on film, no doubt for use on some future wall.

Both branches of Helga O's, the rhinestone-studded bauble shops owned by Helga Orfila, are bedecked with images of Helga: Helga and Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra solo, Helga in a receiving line with Nancy Reagan, Helga in a receiving line with Jimmy Carter. "For some of your old friends, your new fancy 'duds' won't help," reads the inscription beneath Sen. John Warner in jeans. (The signature? "Your neighbor, Farmer John.")

"Knowing all the people, why shouldn't I put them up?" says Orfila. Her customers, she thinks, are "fascinated with the pictures -- that I know them all. I think I'm known for my taste, and people can see that."

By Their Walls Shall Ye Know Them -- Wall Facts Perhaps the quintessential Photo Wall was created in 1985 when Michael Evans selected and photographed the 595 people he felt made up the power elite of "the Federal Village." The pictures hung in the Corcoran, were published as a book and caused no end of slightly defensive heartache among those who ranked 596th and lower.

The standard excuse for the snapshots being taken is that they are for out-of-town relatives. Do not believe this. After all, if the photo was destined for the mother in Dubuque, what's it doing on the K Street wall?

Journalists are not immune. They are, in fact, among the most addicted. "Journalists, like politicians and like Hollywood types, share one crucial thing, which is access to free high-quality photographs," says ex-speechwriter Kaplan. "People in the private sector, when they amass a really impressive wall, really have to work a lot harder than journalists."

Washington is the world Wall capital, but every city has its walls. One Manhattan observer comments that New York walls can be enigmatic. "A lot of the time, you don't even recognize the people. They're money people, or they had supporting roles in the third revival of 'Brigadoon.' " According to Kaplan, "In Hollywood, every self-respecting dry cleaner has a wall of 8-by-10 glossies."

Wall of Ages: A Brief History Lesson Like the plague and so many other scourges, The Wall was born in the Middle Ages. At the time, the idea of access conjured up associations a little more spiritual than it does today, and the fact that the invention of the camera was centuries off did not prevent people from riding on saintly and divine coattails. Savvy art patrons were behind it. Just take a look at a medieval altar painting. There they are, along the foreground, below the saint or the Annunciation -- somber burghers and their extended families kneeling in pious devotion. Portrait painting followed.

Time passed. More time passed. The camera arrived on the shores of the United States, but technical naivete' hampered the efforts of the few forward thinkers looking to update the wall concept.

"Mr. Healy, the artist, requested the cabinet & myself to go into the parlour and suffer him to take a degguerryotype likeness of the whole of us in a groupe. We gratified him," President James Polk wrote in 1846. "We found Mrs. Madison in the parlour with the ladies. Three attempts were made to take the likeness of myself, the Cabinet & the ladies in a group, all of which failed."

Despite Polk's pessimistic comments, a daguerreotype that most likely came from that session did survive, though nothing is known about whose wall it graced. It is now in the collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., where it does no one's ego any good.

The Hierarchy of Images As Michael Evans sees it, students of the Wall fall into a field that might be called "Accessiology."

A few guidelines follow for newcomers to the field.

Good: Anything. People have framed out-of-focus, unflattering, indecipherable images from which all the viewer can gather is that someone in a dark blue suit was in the vicinity of someone who looks vaguely like a member of the cabinet, but might be a waiter.

Better: A nonreceiving line shot displaying some semblance of collegiality. If adorned with an inscription, the value skyrockets -- but just remember, the scholars of inscriptions know that not all messages are created equal.

"The lowest echelon of picture-land is something that's been touched by the autopen," says Kaplan. "One step above that, and I know people who claim to be able to recognize this, is the forged signature of the confidential secretary."

"It's all very structured in terms of how well the person knows the principal," says Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan and now deputy to the chairman at Hill and Knowlton. "If it's just calligraphed and signed, that's the lowest level of pictures -- the calligrapher writes the message and just the signature is of the principal. If it says 'To Sheila Tate, with best wishes, Nancy Reagan' -- that would be the second level of messages. 'Dear Sheila ... Fondly, Nancy' -- that would be top level."

Best: Decorated with the full inscription that testifies the Important Person values the Less Important Person enough to joke with/tease/flatter in his very own words. "The inside jokes -- I have a couple of those on my bedroom wall at home -- those are a real source of pride," says Tate. "I have one on an airplane with {Mrs. Reagan} and me and {Assistant Secretary of State} Ann Wrobleski and we're screaming laughing and she just wrote 'The terrible trio strikes again.' "

Wall Entrepreneurs Kevin Darcey and his partners Joe Nelson and John Lane are what capitalism is all about: Having recognized a basic truth about the human spirit, they went out and found a way to make money off it.

In 1983, the three college students took a life-sized cutout of Ronald Reagan and a camera onto a Washington street corner, invited passers-by to be immortalized standing next to the head of state and made trend history. By now, there are 350 "Get Your Picture Taken With the President" franchises, and the stand-ups of Reagan and a changing cast of 27 others occupy corners across the United States and in China, Singapore, Hong Kong.

"It works everywhere, but in Washington it's especially strong," says Darcey. "When you come to Washington, you expect to see President Reagan."

And not only to see him -- to venture into intimate conversation. If this is not possible, a cardboard replica will suffice.

"Reagan is our most popular character by far," says Darcey. "In all countries. We were amazed. Even some of the countries where relations aren't doing so well, people are still ordering President Reagan. Even with Iranscam, our business has not dropped off too much. We thought all the trends would affect us, but when the farmers were in town protesting, it was one of our busiest seasons. Even though they were protesting, they got their pictures with President Reagan."

And it's not only tourists who flock to the figures. Members of Congress have been known to pose, but the discreet Darcey won't speculate on their motives. ("We didn't ask.") And proving that even celebrities like celebrities, Darcey says Gerald Ford has been snapped with a Reagan, and Jamie Lee Curtis with a Princess Diana.

To the jaundiced eye, embracing a cutout for posterity may seem like an ironic comment on Washington photomania, but Darcey sees no such cynical subtext. Throw a glance toward the picture, which is all most people do, he says, and it's not obvious that the president is two-dimensional. "If you're looking for it to be a fake, you'll notice, but if you're not, you won't," he insists.

Theoreticians of the Wall Some say all the pictures speak of the child that lurks behind the yellow power neckties and the designer dresses, the child who can't quite believe he or she has caught the attention of the adults and wants to document the fact. Others say it's all just ego, ego, ego. After his many years behind the camera, Evans can proffer any number of theories.

The Quest-for-Celebrity Hypothesis: "I think it has a lot to do with the People magazine kind of journalism where everyone feels they have to be somebody. This is one way of being somebody. It goes back to Andy Warhol's statement that everyone is going to be famous for 15 minutes."

The Love-of-Perks Proposal: "It's like Air Force One. I feel sorry for whoever is in the office at the White House deciding on who gets in what plane. People who go to work for the government don't get paid a lot of money. I am convinced that the fallout of this is that where they're sitting on the plane or who's in the picture gets to matter a lot."

The Man-as-Competitive-Beast Dictum: "I suppose if you analyze the pictures, I think you could tell which is the more important person. This goes back to some reading I've done about the sociology of wolves -- the wolf who bays the loudest is usually the biggest. I am sure there are anthropological indications of this in the pictures. I'm quite sure there's a PhD in anthropology examining these pictures on the wall."

Hill and Knowlton Vice Chairman Frank Mankiewicz has been known to muse on the subject as well.

"Maybe when you go into elective politics that's a statement that you want to live vicariously -- you are who you know," he says. "People here, particularly in politics, know the power is kind of evanescent, it comes and goes every two years. Even guys who get elected every two years have a sense the voters could turn on them and all they really have is their title."

And their pictures.

The Framer She has learned many things over the years. She has deciphered the body language of photographs. She has taught herself not to mention that the much-treasured print of yours truly and A Very Important Person bears an autograph not made by human hand. And she has come to recognize the attitude of the photo-struck seeking a frame.

The framer, who dares not speak her name for fear of alienating her downtown clientele, says, "They're proud, but they're studiedly casual. They want to be nonchalant about it." She mimes the oh-so-relaxed gesture of someone pulling out a prized shot: "They say, 'And I need to get this framed too ...' "

She always silently asks herself, "Where are the cymbals?"

"Being visually oriented, I see a lot in the pictures. Reagan has always got that public grin, and he's never looking at the person. He's looking at the camera. They are too, usually, so they can get the full face. You see them leaning towards Reagan. He's just there -- nothing reciprocal. And they always look dazed. You can tell the real social climbers because they're doing the handshake with two hands -- it's like they're saying, 'You're not getting away!'

"And money is no object. They usually spend too much."

She is no longer surprised by White House Christmas cards on which $70 worth of framing is bestowed. And she no longer suggests unusual color combinations. "I'll show you a classic. They'll do this," she says, pulling out a dark gray mat, "with some conservative color in the center. It's always blue and gray or burgundy and gray. It's like they went to prep school -- or wish they had. It's an old-school-tie framing job."

The Ultimate Wall "I think the truly powerful people maybe have one Mondrian print on the wall and don't need the 'Man of the Year' and the greetings from Larry O'Brien," says Mankiewicz.

"Nancy Reynolds, she has no pictures," says Tate, about the longtime Reagan intimate who is now at Hill and Knowlton. "That's the ultimate, if you don't feel the need to do it. I've tried to emulate her."

Imagine. The photoless, plaqueless, letterless wall. It says, "I have no need for ego validation." It says, "I am a well-adjusted person." It says, "My power is obvious without any pictorial evidence."

Or maybe, "The pictures come back from the framer tomorrow.