Are Photographers More Connected To U.S. Presidents Than Writers?

Jan 6, 2014
A member of Black Star, NPPA member Dennis Brack has covered ten presidential administrations and major news stories for Time and Newsweek. His photographic archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin consists of more than 150,000 slides of U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, world leaders, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices.
A member of Black Star, NPPA member Dennis Brack has covered ten presidential administrations and major news stories for Time and Newsweek. His photographic archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin consists of more than 150,000 slides of U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, world leaders, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices.

By Richard Pyle

NEW YORK, NY (January 6, 2014) – In five decades as a professional photographer covering the White House and other major news subjects, Dennis Brack became a master at capturing the essential story-telling moment on film. So the exquisite timing of his book, ``Presidential Picture Stories: Behind the Cameras at the White House,'' should come as no surprise.

Whether by design or coincidence, this history of American presidents being photographed at work and play reached bookstores amid heated arguments over an Obama administration decision to bar the long-time professional news-photo corps at the White House from its customary coverage, while issuing photo handouts by an official in-house photographer. 

Many presidents have had official photographers on call, but not at the exclusion of newspaper, magazine and TV cameras. Responding to fierce criticism of this virtual blackout of the working photo media, as ``propaganda,'' and ``the kind of thing that totalitarian governments do,'' White House officials did promise to give the policy another look. 

While waiting for bona fide photojournalism to be restored (or not) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, interested readers can find much to savor in Brack's self-published book.   

There are a few historical gaps. The author might have noted, for example, that the first president to be photographed in office was James K. Polk in 1849, and the first to have his photo printed in a newspaper – Teddy Roosevelt? Taft? – is not named at all. But the book is well-researched and replete with colorful anecdotes and gossipy vignettes of unique relationships between presidents and the picture press.

Brack's narrative also makes clear that photographers generally have been more connected to presidents than their writer colleagues could ever be. For one thing, presidents generally like being shown doing their job; for another they have much more control over what photos show than what reporters write.   

Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War era photographer, was a powerful force in bringing Abraham Lincoln to public attention in 1860 as a statesmanlike figure, not just a western rube. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson – no friend of the press to begin with – suffered a stroke that was kept secret from the nation, but intrigues to expose the truth about his health became so intense that the chief of the White House Secret Service detail was warned he would be fired if anyone got a photo of Wilson in his wheelchair.

Wilson's successor, Warren G. Harding, was the only newspaper publisher to become president, and predictably opened doors to the press. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, was the taciturn ``Silent Cal.'' but always ready to be photographed, even in Indian headdress. As Brack writes, Herbert Hoover was ``not known for his charisma,'' distrusted the cameras and, like Wilson, let his wife manage his media image. The result, says one photographer, was ``very few pictures of Hoover in action, or in the White House.'' 

Despite strict rules keeping his polio-induced paralysis virtually secret and strict wartime security, it remained for Franklin D. Roosevelt to usher in a new era of warm president-photographer relations that would continue beyond his time. Breaking the rules on FDR's handicap ``just was not done,'' the author says, but the president ``photographed like a million dollars, and seemed to enjoy the barrage of cameras.''

In Congress, Harry Truman was so friendly with news photographers that, as president, ``this down-to-earth former senator would enjoy the company of working men who showed no pretense.'' Indeed, Truman himself founded and served as president of the ``Just One More Club'' of White House photographers, and on his last day in office, toasted its official disbanding.

From Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton and the Bushes, presidents have generally maintained friendly, if arms-length, relations with the camera corps, even when their wives did not share the same attitude. Jacqueline Kennedy, herself a former newspaper ``inquiring photographer,'' barred pictures of her children, so those were taken only when she was out of town. Richard Nixon attended the photographers' annual dinners, where he had ``no friends but no enemies,'' Brack writes.

Apart from the anecdotes, there's interesting history about the evolution of the tools – often first used by press photographers – from cumbersome tripod cameras and magnesium flash powder to the fabled Speed Graphic, the 35-millimeter Leicas and Nikon Fs, and the digital camera that has made film obsolete. 

As technology continues to race ahead, Brack asks, ``Who knows what is coming tomorrow?'' 

The question may already have been answered – not by a presidential photographer, but by a president – when Barack Obama famously made a cellphone ``selfie'' at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.  

Richard Pyle, a former Associated Press foreign and Washington correspondent, is the author of Lost Over Laos. Brack has been an NPPA member since 1996.