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The Public & Private Diana Walker

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

On a truly godawful afternoon a few weeks back, when the thick, greying snow on the ground was being pelted by a relentless cold rain, Diana Walker bounded into her upper northwest Washington home and greeted me with the same kind of irreverent bonhomie that I'd come to know over a couple of decades of shared campaign trips.

The elegance of her home would have been enough to make me slough off the wretchedness of the day – she and her husband Mallory are rightly proud of their just-done renovation. But what was even more delightful as I waited her arrival drinking her wine was viewing her near museum-quality collection of original photographs, carefully hung on fresh-painted walls.

Things like the Berenice Abbott over the fireplace and the Margaret Bourke-White in the foyer.

[Then of course, there is the picture in the kitchen of a very, very young Diana sitting at a Hollywood studio canteen with Elvis Presley. Right before the picture was snapped, Diana recalled, The King uttered his only words to her: "Hello,ma'am."

I am not making this up. But it is another story.]

Diana Walker's career as a photographer is what we are about today. A career as a contract shooter for Time Magazine that spanned the administrations of five presidents, from Ford to Clinton, and more than two decades. That career now is being celebrated in a beautiful book, Public & Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency (National Geographic Insight, $40), as well as in two major exhibitions.

A just-opened show at the Leica Gallery in New York will run through April 5th. And this fall, a major retrospective of her work will be held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Not bad for someone who once shot weddings and bar mitzvahs and who didn't really turn pro until her 30s.

"I always say if I lived in Cleveland I might have spent my life photographing horses and flowers and children and maybe the Chamber of Commerce," Diana said. But she grew up in Washington, where the business of the town is politics. She was interested enough in the game to have worked on the presidential campaigns of Jack and Bobby Kennedy yet, despite a childhood love of taking pictures and of getting her hands wet in the darkroom, she never combined her two interests. "I kind of just...stood back and didn't do anything [back then]," she said.

Well, you did raise a family, I noted, referring to her two grown sons.

"Oh yeah, yeah," Diana replied with a laugh. (She's now a very proud grandmother.)

Diana had been working for her mother in her mother's small dress shop in Georgetown in the 1970s when she finally got up the nerve to form a photography business with her friend Gail Tirana. The outfit was called "I am a Camera."

"Gail was the accountant and the stylist. We did book jackets and weddings and bar mitzvahs."

Eventually, Diana hooked up as a kind of hybrid staffer-freelancer for the old Washington Monthly magazine. As a staffer, she was able to obtain Capitol Hill and White House press credentials – and therefore precious access to news and newsmakers – and also have the freedom to work on her own freelance stories and, most important, to build up her portfolio. There were an awful lot of train trips to New York and an awful lot of pavement-pounding. Not everyone was glad to see her ("I'm still waiting for Ms Magazine to call back!" she says in her book's intro.) But enough doggedness, and a fair amount of networking ("I think making yourself available is really important when you are first starting out") finally got her in the door, first at the Village Voice, then at the Washingtonian and finally at Time-Life. She signed a contract to shoot for Time in 1979 and never looked back.

Still, you have to remember the times. This was nearly 25 years ago and Diana not only was the low person on the photo totem pole, she was female. She wasn't an equipment geek, so she couldn't schmooze about gear. Having just started out she didn't have a lot of friends in the news business, and she had neither the interest nor the inclination to talk sports – that great social lubricant, especially in football-obsessed DC. She remembers spending a fair amount of that early time feeling "removed and irrelevant." Her pictures had to speak for her. They did, and "eventually, I came to be accepted."

How accepted? I remember one presidential campaign trip (I think is was Mondale '84) in which Diana, a bandana artfully tied around her neck, her tan photo vest heavy with equipment and credentials, looking in wry amusement at her younger male photo colleagues scrambling to and fro like so many puppies.

"Sometimes I feel like their den mother," she told me then.

But the real measure of how Diana Walker grew as a photographer is contained in the pages of her book.

She has the innate talent to capture the telling gesture – a talent that no amount of high-tech equipment smarts can replace or substitute for. In the foreword to Public & Private, historian Michael Beschloss declares: "Walker combines the sensitivity of an 18th-century portrait artist with the shrewd news judgment of a world-class journalist."

To make great pictures – and make them consistently – in the controlled confines of the presidency, whether at the White House or on the road, takes an exceptional eye, not to mention reflexes. One need only view Diana's much-reprinted 1983 shot of Ronald Reagan exploding with laughter at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth as the Queen delivers a one-liner with straight-faced aplomb to know that Diana is as good as anyone at nailing a shot. But, especially in her later White House years, she also was able to bring that eye truly behind the scenes in a remarkable series of black and white available light essays for Time that gave readers all over the world an intimate, very human, look at our presidents.

"It was two entirely different ways of shooting," Diana told me. "For the out-front pictures which I was doing with the rest of the press pool, I was shooting in color. I would use tungsten film when there was television light. Otherwise I was using chrome because [we thought] the reproduction still was better in those days than color negative. And I'd have to light some situations–use on-camera strobe–and I would carry everything from a 17mm to a 300mm, with a 1 1/4 extender in my pocket–and a monopod.

"That was my 'kit' for normal, everyday coverage of the White House.

"To go behind the scenes I had an entirely different bag. And that had in it basically two Leicas and one Canon. And the reason I chose to use Leicas was that if you're gonna be in the room with the President of the United States when he is engaged in some activity, the last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself. Therefore the quietest camera is the most ideal camera. So I opted for a rangefinder camera like the Leica rather than a single lens reflex which makes a whole lot of noise. Also in those situations I didn't need long lenses...so what I would use usually was one camera around my neck with the [Leitz] 35mm f1.4 spherical and the other lens would be a 50mm 1.4 – on two M6's".

The Canon, an SLR, basically was a backup, that usually had a 24mm wide-angle lens attached for shooting in really tight quarters. As important, the camera also could take a longer lens if necessary – usually a fixed focal length lens of 100mm or 135mm.

Diana and Time Magazine chose bxw for these essays for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that the bxw picture stories she produced fairly screamed "Time Exclusive!" when juxtaposed with all of an issue's color work.

On a more practical level, bxw film produced far better images in low light than equivalent film in color. In most cases, Diana shot with Kodak 400-speed Tri-X that could, on occasion be pushed to 640, and also with T-Max 3200 (shot most often at 1600, then processed at 3200 to bring out the most detail.)

Finally, Diana noted: "we felt that if you are going to ask the President for something special, the film ought to last, and archivally black and white lasts longer than color."

There are some wonderful pictures done like this, especially during the first Bush Presidency and in the Clinton White House. Walker notes in her book that she always was professionally "deaf" during these exclusive sessions, not even telling what she may have overheard to Time's White House correspondent. "Some of my colleagues argued this point with me," she conceded – the counter argument being that a photojournalist always is as much a journalist as a photographer. But in these special cases – exclusive access behind the scenes, in which officials already are being photographed privately and "off the record" as it were, I will concede Diana's point, if reluctantly.

Diana Walker, Public & Private at the Leica Gallery, now through April 5th. 670 Broadway, New York, NY. 212-777-3051. Tu-Fri, 11-6; Sat 12-6.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Diana Walker's book Public & Private is a marvelous behind-the-scenes look at five different presidencies that also features the personal reminiscences of many of those portrayed.

©Diana Walker
A simply wonderful picture, never before published. Bill Clinton, barely hours out office, is about to head for the plane at Andrews Air Force Base that will take him from Washington. His face tells it all, while his hands and attitude conjure a tormented Lear confronting the storm.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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