Thursday, November 7, 2013

Presidential Picture Stories: Behind the Camera at the White House, by Dennis Brack

Brack Books, ISBN 9780615648828, December 2013

Dennis Brack, a White House photographer himself, gives us a very readable short history of the photographers who have worked the White House beat, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. We get engaging stories about the photographers, the presidents, their interactions. It was Teddy Roosevelt who first moved the photographers from the street to the first improvised photographers' room in the White House. We see that working space for the photographers and reporters evolving over the decades, because of the changing technology, needs, and numbers of the working press.

Each of the photographers brought their own personality and backgrounds to the job of photographing the President, his official activities, and his family, and each President brought his own personality and needs to their interactions. Some liked the photographers, some did not. Some were considerate, others not. FDR was a natural for the camera, but also needed to conceal the truth of the crippling effects of polio on his body. Lyndon Johnson was friendly, but also demanding, capricious, and never gave any thought to the effect of long hours and unannounced trips on the photographers who had to cover him. Truman was a friend of the photographers for years, as Senator and Vice President, before he became President. George H. W. Bush was a real friend of many of the reporters; his son, George W. Bush, friendly but more distant.

There are many entertaining or moving stories here, the experiences of the photographers, and the important, historic moments that produced iconic pictures. A few of the stories strike truly odd and uncomfortable notes. The most off-putting for me was a story he says may be apocryphal--so why tell it? It's the story of a photographer who covered the White House but also did other features. He visited a certain woman to take pictures of her, in her twelfth floor apartment. She had a "yippy little dog," and while she was out of the room, he threw a ball for the dog--threw it to the balcony, where it rolled off under the balcony railing, followed in close pursuit by the dog.

This is apparently supposed to be a funny story. Yet we know that the "yippy little dog," if this story ever happened, would have died from that fall. For the crime of being "yippy." What the heck is wrong with the person who thinks this story is funny?

And among all these Presidents, most of whom had dogs, we get only glimpses, for instance one brief mention of one of LBJ's beagles, and the picture of him pulling that dog up by his ears. For the most part, you'd never know the Presidents had dogs, no matter how famous the dogs were. No mention of FDR's Fala, Bush 41's Millie, Bush 43's Barney and Mrs. Beasley, Obama's Bo. How does a book about White House photography not mention these much-photographed dogs?

Up through Reagan, the Presidents mostly get a chapter each, but after that, it's much more compact and hitting the highlights of photographing the last twenty years or so of Presidents. This is followed by brief bios of some of the most famous, significant, or interesting of the photographers, and then the history of their tools, the technology of photography.

Overall, an interesting read with a few odd, off-putting notes.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.