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There has been some confusion expressed on the National Press Photographer's discussion list over what the term "White House Photographer" means.

From a media standpoint, in its broadest sense, it can mean any photographer who is assigned to that beat by an organization such as in "Time's White House photographer"

However from a historic standpoint that title belongs to the photographers who are in the employ of the White House, or who are seconded to the White House by other governmental agencies for the purpose of doing official documentation of the activities of the President.

In charge of these photographers is the "photographer to the President". This photographer has been specially commissioned with the trust of the President to be his official photographer. It is a commissioned responsibility and is considered a senior staff appointment. The official photographer serves at the pleasure of the President, while the other photographers on the staff can be civil service employees, although in most cases, their job ends at the termination of the administration.

The responsibilities of most of the photographers is to document the day to day comings and goings, and the numerous special requests to get pictures of the President with visitors, etc.

For example, at the White House Christmas parties, the photographers do grip and grins of all the guests with the President and First Lady, and those photos are sent out in January as gifts from the White House.

The official photographer, however, normally does not do many of these photographs. His (or her) job is to photojournalistically document the Presidency Each official photographer brings his own style to the administration.

Until Kennedy, there was no official photographer. White House photo coverage was handled by either the Navy or the Parks Department.

When Kennedy became President, his military aide, Gen. Ted Clifton brought Cecil Stoughton, an Army officer who used a hasselblad over from his prior office at the Army's Office Of the Chief Of Information to take photos. It was Cecil who took the famous photo of LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One after Kennedy was assassinated.

Actually, Clifton and Stoughton also some times brought over a Spec 4 from CINFO named Dirck Halstead to help out.

Lyndon Johnson brought in another reserve office from CINFO, who was also working for the USIA named Yoichi Okamto. "Okie" as he was called, was a serious documentary photographer, who specialized in black and white 35mm photography. Due to the perverse nature of LBJ, who not only accepted, but demanded ,the presence of the camera in his most private moments, his "Jap", Okie was permitted to do what still stands as the most record of the Presidency.

During his campaign in 1968, Richard Nixon's media chief, Herb Klein, hired a Saturday Evening Post photographer named Ollie Atkins to document the campaign. When Nixon won, Ollie became Nixon's official photographer.

For most of Nixon's six year administration, Ollie was kept under control. The only time he was allowed to take photos was either when the press was allowed to do photos, or for some special moment, such as Nixon's meeting with Elvis, which is the most requested photograph from the Richard Nixon library.

However , in the last moments of the Presidency, Ollie was allowed to photograph the broken Nixon tearfully being embraced by his daughters. Ollie didn't flinch, and this one set of photographs vindicates all the time he spent in the shadows .

When Gerald Ford became President, his first official act was to name David Hume Kennerly as his official photographer.

David, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam in 1972, had become close to the Fords while working as a TIME contract photographer Washington.

David's tenure was the most unique of all the official photographers. Due to the special nature of his personal relationship to the Fords, he was perhaps one of the most powerful people in the White House. The Secret Service, who gave him the code name "hotshot", knew that perhaps next to Henry Kissinger David had the highest priority of access.

Deciding to work entirely in black and white, David's body of work from his period in the job rivals Okamato's.

Frankly, I can't even remember if Carter had an official photographer..there were a bunch that sort of came and went, some better than others, but it was not a distinguished period.

When Ronald Reagan took on his greatest acting role, Micheal Evans, another TIME photographer came along as his "special still". Michael had an affable relationship with the Reagans, shot in color, (c41), but the President offered few real behind the scenes insights that we as photographers covering the White House couldn't shoot ourselves.

George Bush, who loved photographers, and called them his "photo dogs", brought in David Valdez who was given free reign to shoot whatever he wanted. However, the same could be said for most photographers who wanted to take "behind the scenes" photos. There were so many "closet jobs", that after a while nobody really cared any more.

Bill Clinton brought along Bob McNeely, a Washington freelancer who was hired to do the campaign.

McNeely, who likes to play golf , as does the President, has a solid relationship with the first family. He tends to like to work in black and white, and his access is considered in the midrange of good. Clinton knows when he wants pictures taken, and when he doesn't, and the White House photographer adheres to that line.

On balance, the official photographer performs an important historic service. The best of them have given us insights into Presidency that could not be obtained from any other source. r

-- dirck halstead (dirck.halstead@pressroom.com), September 28, 1997


thank you for the info on this site. does the official photographer retain copy rights of work done during employment? For the official white house photographer position is it better to apply to the candidate or white house?

-- matthew thorsen (matthewthorsen@adelphia.net), December 30, 2003.

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