Picturing the Presidency

How White House photographers keep America’s leaders in focus

For the Record

Pete Souza
Pete Souza, Associated Press

"Creating a good photographic archive for history is the most important part of my job, creating this archive that will live on... This is not so much photojournalism as photo-history."
—Pete Souza, Official White House Photographer for Barack Obama

The President’s Shadow

Pete Souza is a man on the run. He has to be first, and he has to be fast. No, he’s not an Olympic sprinter, although he probably feels like one as he races from the West Wing to the Oval Office. Souza is the official White House photographer for Barack Obama [see Barack Obama above]. He literally works in the shadow of the president—attending Obama’s conferences, chronicling his campaign appearances, capturing playful moments with the president’s dog, Bo, and observing private exchanges between Obama, his wife, Michelle, and first daughters, Malia and Sasha. With so many other photographers focusing their lenses on the president, why is Souza’s role so important? Because he is in a unique position to document history.

Curiosity about the presidency is as old as the office itself. From the day John Adams moved into the partly-finished Executive Mansion in 1800, the press has covered life at the White House. But until photography was invented decades later, the public had no real-life portraits of their commanders in chief. In 1849, James Polk became the first president to be photographed. In the 1860s, photographers captured Abraham Lincoln’s years in office, from his visits to Civil War battlefields to intimate portraits with his young son, Tad. As new technologies made it easier to take images and print them in newspapers, the corps of photographers covering the White House grew. By 1921, President Harding established the first White House pressroom, which finally gave photographers the inside scoop [see White House News Photogs above].

Yet there was no “official photographer” to the president until John Kennedy appointed Cecil Stoughton to that position in 1960. Since then, the public has been able to share the behind-the-scenes moments—family occasions, national crises, state visits—that are critical to understanding the men who have held the highest office in the land. Souza says that the key to the job is having the trust of the president as well as unlimited access to him. Obama agrees, but acknowledges that having an ever-present observer was one of the hardest things to get used to when he moved into the White House. Now, he says, Souza is “like a member of the family.”

The 8,000–20,000 digital images Souza produces each week cover every aspect of the Obama presidency. Everything must be photographed because who knows what will be important later? Someone who shakes the president’s hand at a White House event today may become a future president tomorrow. This actually happened to young Bill Clinton, who met John F. Kennedy at a White House reception in 1963 [see Bill Clinton meets JFK above]. When he became president in 1992, Clinton remembered that occasion as a defining moment in his life—one that inspired him to go into public service. How fortunate that a photographer was there to capture it. The rest, as they say, is history.

Candid Camera

Un-posed, spontaneous images reveal a lot about a person’s character. In October 1962, Cecil Stoughton caught President Kennedy taking a break from the pressures of the job with his children Caroline and John, Jr [see John F. Kennedy above]. This image, which shows a truly joyful moment in the White House, became especially poignant six weeks later when the president was assassinated in Dallas and the young and glamorous first family was plunged into mourning. Photographs serve as a record of the past, but their meanings change with time. What once showed the public JFK’s human side now saddens Americans who remember his loss.

Not all meetings in the Oval Office are with heads of state. When the five-year-old son of a departing White House employee visited Obama, Pete Souza clicked the shutter just in time [see Obama's Hair above]. Apparently, the child wanted to know if he and Obama had the same kind of hair. The first African American president said, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” Then Obama leaned over, so the child could reach his head. That simple gesture makes such a powerful photo—the president bowing humbly to a child, the boy looking to the president as a role model. The president said that for him the image of a boy patting his head in the Oval Office serves as a reminder “not to take yourself too seriously.” For others, it hints at history and harks back to the Clinton-JFK photo. Could this boy become president one day, too?

Candid shots that catch the president unaware often warm the hearts of the public. They show these men of power to be caring leaders, loving fathers, doting husbands, jovial colleagues—or the reverse. Sometimes a candid photo backfires. Lyndon Baines Johnson adored his beagles. His most popular pups were named “Him” and “Her.” In a playful moment, LBJ was photographed lifting “Him” up by the ears [see Lyndon Johnson above]. But the image provoked anger among Americans who felt such treatment of an animal was cruel—a quality they did not like in their leader.

Times of Crisis

The Situation Room

Obama’s National Security team receiving live updates on the raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, May 1, 2011

The photo called “The Situation Room” [see player above] was not actually taken there, but in a smaller room next door. Obama’s national security team is watching tensely during the covert operation to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. The Washington Post called this image Peter Souza’s magnum opus (or best work). Of all the images Souza has taken during his tenure in the Obama White House, why does this one stand out? Look at the composition. You are peering into a privileged scene—one you could never physically enter. You witness the intense stares of the leaders at the table. They sit in silence. Most are dressed far too casually for a top-level meeting at the White House. You notice that Secretary of State Clinton’s hand covers her mouth, as if to stifle a gasp. The president is hunched over, his body angled forward in anticipation. All protocol is on hold as the team waits for an unknown outcome. This picture defies all the myths about what power looks like. Later, Americans learned that Navy Seals completed their mission and killed their target.

Because they are always with the president, official photographers have witnessed crises that altered the course of history. On November 22, 1963, photographer Cecil Stoughton was riding with President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas, when shots rang out. The president was hit by an assassin’s bullet and taken to Parkland Hospital. Mr. Stoughton followed and learned that Kennedy had died and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would be flying back to Washington. Stoughton made it to Air Force One just in time to see Johnson take the oath of office. The only photographer on board, he captured the instant that power was transferred to the new president [see Johnson Oath of Office above]. Mrs. Kennedy—still in the skirt stained with her husband’s blood—looks on. The heart-wrenching image stirred the grief of a nation who lost its leader and brought an outpouring of sympathy for the stricken Mrs. Kennedy. It also assured Americans that Johnson was solemnly but confidently in charge.

Eric Draper, White House photographer for George W. Bush says, “9/11 is a good example of why the White House photographer is around.” On September 11, 2001, President Bush was reading a story to second graders at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Suddenly, the president’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, interrupted to whisper something in the Mr. Bush’s ear. In that instant, Draper clicked the shutter [see George W. Bush above]. He caught the president’s change of expression as he learned that two planes had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Draper kept taking photos as Secret Service agents ushered Mr. Bush safely onto Air Force One and took him to an undisclosed location until they could assess the threat. The photographer was so caught up in the moment that he couldn’t digest the situation immediately, but he knew it would be a historic day and that his images would tell a crucial part of the story.

Posed Portraits

President Nixon was not comfortable in front of the camera. He beckoned White House photographer Ollie Atkins to the Oval Office only for formal, posed portraits. Interestingly enough, this resulted in one of the more amusing presidential photos—Nixon meeting rock and roll icon Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970. The “King,” with open collar, gold medallion, and hefty belt buckle shares a firm handshake with the staid-looking president [see Richard Nixon meets Elvis above]. The juxtaposition of the two men is fun because even now, few can imagine Nixon and Elvis having anything in common. Yet, they did. In fact, Elvis requested a meeting with the head of state. He personally delivered a note to a White House guard saying that he wanted to become a federal agent to help fight the war on drugs. A White House aide, sensing Elvis’s sincerity and believing he would be a good spokesperson for Nixon’s anti-drug policy, convinced the president to meet with the singer. Elvis received his agent’s badge after the meeting, but never got the opportunity to use it.

It’s a sure sign of trust when the president’s wife confesses to the official White House photographer that she always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table—and then sheds all decorum and does it. Betty Ford got her wish on her husband’s last full day in office. She kicked off her shoes, hopped on the table, and posed for David Hume Kennerly [see Betty Ford above]. This portrait captures the character of a first lady who studied dance as a young woman, became a political wife, supported equal rights for women, survived cancer, and spoke her mind. Kennerly’s memory of Mrs. Ford highlights the conflict official photographers have between the personal and professional nature of their assignment to create a historic archive for future generations: “My relationship with the Fords was professional—I was, first and foremost, the White House photographer—but it was also intensely personal. I spent many hours not only in the West Wing but in the family residence on the second floor. I shared my problems with Mrs. Ford and she shared hers with me. She showed me how a woman could be strong, outspoken, and independent—and loving and caring at the same time. She shattered my preconceptions.”

Photographs of everyday life in the White House shatter our preconceptions as well. The images help us connect with our leaders and understand them in a new way. Many pictures are so memorable they come to define a president’s term. Stored at the National Archives and in presidential libraries, posted on Flickr and other online sites, they are valuable sources for historians, researchers, students, and people who simply want to know what it’s like to be the president’s shadow.



Amy Pastan

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Bredar, John and Pete Souza, The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office. Washington: National Geographic, 2010.

Flickr: The White House's Photo Stream online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse

Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum online at http://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/

Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library online at http://www.lbjlibrary.org/

John F. Kennedy presidential library online at http://www.jfklibrary.org/

Kennerly, David Hume. “Betty Ford: Gilded Cage, Meet Free Spirit,” New York Times lensbog, July 12, 2011, online at, http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/betty-ford-gilded-cage-meet-free-spirit/

Krule, Jackson. “All the Presidents’ Photographers,” New Yorker February 20, 2012, online, at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/2012/02/presidents-day.html#slide_ss_0=1

National Archives and Records Administration online at http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/gallery-government.html#presidents

The President's Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office, PBS online at http://www.pbs.org/programs/presidents-photographer/

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