It’s an autumn morning in the southeast Iowa town of Albia. The sun is coming through the clouds, highlighting leaves turning yellow and the light blue sedan sitting next to a gas pump.
It’s an ordinary scene. The only people around are the woman who just filled the car’s tank and the man she’s talking with. When Callie Shell took the photo in November 2007, any Iowan could have been the woman having a conversation with the man running for president, Barack Obama, without any fuss to speak of.
Shell reports that Obama had just bought himself a bag lunch when he stopped for a visit, and she makes the most of the moment. Obama’s back is to her, turned just a bit to the camera, with his face in profile, getting the benefit of that morning light, coming in 135 degrees from Shell’s lens, making the aspirational politician’s face glow.
Her photographs in “Hope, Never Fear” cover the Obama family’s ascent from the Illinois Statehouse to the national stage. It’s ground she was familiar with, having served as a White House photographer for President Bill Clinton and as a photojournalist on the campaign trail for Time.
She was on assignment for the weekly, photographing John Kerry during his 2004 campaign for the presidency, when she first met Obama. His job that day was as the state senator introducing the prominent candidate to a group of Chicago voters in 2004. Obama, she notes, introduced himself to everyone in the hall, including the janitor, and when he introduced himself to Shell, the two of them hit it off right away.
They bonded over being parents and the challenge of being on the road while trying to raise their children. That connection turned into a bond of trust and led to Shell’s being asked to serve as the chief White House photographer after Obama won.
Thinking of her son, she reluctantly turned down the offer but continued to photograph the Obamas throughout their years in the White House.
Even though Shell was a visitor, the Obamas’ trust in her is apparent. That’s critical because even with the president, access isn’t everything. A historic room decorated grandly makes for an eye-catching image, but a photographer's images rarely feel authentic without the subject’s buy-in.
For example, Obama agreed to let her take his picture when he napped, as long as she didn’t take pictures if his mouth fell open while he slept. And when he put his feet on a table to rest while getting some work done, he didn’t mind that she made thin spots in the soles of his shoes the prominent element in the frame.
That kind of access and cooperation let Shell give nod to photojournalism history. The image recalls Bill Gallagher’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of another presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, on the campaign trail in Flint, Michigan, in 1952, with his left shoe similarly worn out.