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Seeing fewer images from the White House might be better from a photojournalistic perspective
Considering Trump’s desire to circumvent the traditional media, it’s surprising that he has not taken advantage of the position of official White House photographer, which gives the president a powerful way of controlling his image directly.
Many of the photos on the @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump accounts go uncredited, and often have filters applied. Uncredited photo from the @POTUS account
[email protected] aerial photos of Obama’s 2009 inauguration (on top) and Trump’s 2017 inauguration (on bottom) pic.twitter.com/wfGaiO5CBe
The official photos of Barack Obama, pictured here with his daughter Sasha in the White House elevator in 2009, are often more tender.
Trump has a staff photographer, but we haven’t seen much of her work
“It’s interesting because this is how the White House wants us to see the presidency right now,” he adds.
“By my reckoning, there are three official White House photographers on this trip,” he says. But he adds, “you have to be a pretty avid consumer” to find those official photos.
The contrast is marked. And it’s a little surprising, given Trump’s history as a television personality.
Barack Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza, captured many moments like this in the early days of his presidency and published them to Flickr. Photo by Pete Souza
Heading to Joint Base Andrews on #MarineOne with Prime Minister Shinzō earlier today. pic.twitter.com/4JFhyYdeHO
It’s early, but Shealah Craighead’s photographs are often taken from a distance, and are rigidly posed. Photo by Shealah Craighead
“From the standpoint of photojournalism, a lot of people would argue this is better,” Losh tells The Verge. “The control that the Pete Souza image had, it created an image of surplus and abundance of images of the president, but it became invisible how much those images were controlled.”
John Bredar wrote the book about the history of White House photographers, and he agrees with Losh — to an extent. “I remember from interviewing [Pete Souza] back in 2010, that he was saying something like 90% of their selects, 90 to 95% of their selects, meaning his and his picture editor, were being uploaded to Flickr, and that maybe 5% were being filtered out for a variety of different reasons by [Obama’s press secretary] Josh Earnest at the time.”
In its visual representation, as in so many other respects, the Trump administration has made a break with the past. Most of what we see of Trump comes from either the traveling pool of press photographers or the smartphones of his staff. On the one hand there are Getty Images or Reuters shots of Trump standing at podiums (or pretending to drive a truck). And on the other, we get unusually informal images of him posing with world leaders or appearing to be caught off guard. In the meantime, the White House’s Flickr account was purged, and the “Photos” section was removed from the official website.
Souza’s images of Obama in the Oval Office during his first few weeks are much more varied and dynamic, in part because he was often allowed in for more than just the photo ops. Photo by Pete Souza
If you want to learn the type of image Trump truly wishes to project, Bredar says, take a look at this photo:
Some official White House photos wind up looking rushed, though. Here, the horizon is off and Trump is caught mid-expression. Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia attend the meeting of the Leaders of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf Countries, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“There was no Flickr stream, there was no kind of way to put photos out, and to some extent, the official White House photographer’s work was kept under wraps except for under some rare circumstances,” he says.
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Craighead does have some differentiated access from the press pool. She was one of the only ones to photograph Trump up close outside US Central Command, while Getty Images and Reuters apparently only shot the meeting indoors.
Photo by Shealah Craighead
The 1970s was really the early important years that marked Donald Trump’s illustrious career. Take a look these black and white photos capturing Donald Trump in this period.
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Donald Trump attends an event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, Dec.11, 1979Donald Trump in NYC in 1976Donald J. Trump in the living room of his three-bedroom penthouse at 160 East 65th Street in 1976Trump and his father, Fred, in 1973 at Trump Village, Fred’s last project, in QueensA portrait of Donald Trump in 1976Trump opens the Grand Hyatt, 1976Fred C.
Trump with his son Donald visiting a tenant in one of their apartment buildings in Brooklyn in January 1973Portrait of Donald Trump in 1976Trump and City Hall Plaza project, 1977Trump and his Cadillac with personalized license plates, NYC, 1976Trump begins construction on the Grand Hyatt, 1978Trump with his father, Fred Trump looking over NYC,1973Trump’s portrait in 1976
“It’s surprising that an administration that is so TV savvy and image savvy has taken what so far feels like a kind of a retro approach,” says Bredar. “The type of photography coming out of this White House feels like earlier White Houses where there was a more ceremonial and less behind-the-scenes feel.”
And that much is true. Consider these photos from CBS News’ Mark Knoller:
The article also points out that “there are plenty of photos of the Trump-Pope meeting showing a less dour looking Pontiff.”
If the administration continues to downplay the official photographer role, it might not necessarily be a bad thing, according to Liz Losh, an associate professor at William and Mary who has written extensively about the visual culture of government.
If you look at the archive of the White House’s Flickr account under Barack Obama, Souza was already taking a wider variety of photos of Obama, from loosening his tie on Inauguration Night to stressing during a budget meeting two weeks later.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull for a bilateral meeting aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Thursday, May 4, 2017.
And aerial images from The Associated Press showed the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was much smaller than Obama’s.
@KingSalman and @POTUS inaugurate The Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. #RiyadhSummit pic.twitter.com/do6cFL7wBW
The photos from President Donald Trump’s overseas trip have been the gift that keeps on giving.
“From the perspective of someone who looks at history kind of with a student’s eye, those are valuable documents to understand what was going on,” Bredar says. “And if nobody’s kind of avidly collecting or managing that, that’s one issue, and potentially a significant loss to the country.”
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Losh argues that viewing Trump mainly through spur-of-the-moment cellphone snaps and the editorially independent photojournalists means we’re getting a more accurate portrayal of the president than we would if the official photographer was more active. Often these offhand photos can drive small news cycles of their own.
It’s not clear if any of these smartphone photos are being properly managed or archived
This photo, from Inauguration Day, is one of the few we’ve seen of Trump from behind the scenes of his presidency. Photo by Shealah Craighead
Of course, there are other pictures of Trump visiting the Vatican, says John Bredar, the author of “The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office.”
Bredar and Losh both agree that the Trump administration is off to a bizarre start visually. “Usually when a new president comes in, there’s a huge amount of buzz ahead of time about who the photographer’s going to be within that photo community,” Bredar says. “And you didn’t really hear that kind of conversation through this campaign.”
In 2013, Obama came under fire when photojournalists from mainstream outlets noticed that Souza was uploading large numbers of photos from events and engagements to which they hadn’t been invited. The White House Correspondents association and 37 news outlets sent a letter to then press secretary Jay Carney that compared the behavior to that of Soviet Russia. The New York Times described the protest as a “mutiny.”
Kellyanne Conway checks her phone after taking a photo of President Donald Trump and leaders of black universities, colleges in Oval Office pic.twitter.com/MgVhCoJFuC
Many of the most iconic photos of Barack Obama’s presidency came from Pete Souza, the official White House photographer. Granted extensive access to Obama, he shot the Osama Bin Laden war room photo, moments the president shared with Michelle Obama, the many famous images of the president interacting with kids, and countless more. These carefully composed photos so defined the public image of Obama that it nearly made Souza a household name.
“If you look at Ollie Atkins, who was Nixon’s photographer, he reported to [press secretary] Ron Ziegler, and they had total control over him. He wasn’t allowed to go in [the Oval Office] without Ziegler’s approval,” Bredar says. That’s why Nixon’s presidency is often remembered for stiffly posed photos with people like Elvis Presley. Sound familiar?
Craighead’s photos are instead mostly taken from a distance. She appears to be situated with, or even behind the White House press pool. Even the few photos of Trump or his daughter Ivanka that you could consider behind the scenes are still taken from far away. If anyone has the access that Souza had, it’s people like Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway, who are only armed with smartphones.
Trump is photographed meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, with portraits of past presidents in the frame. It borrows a nearly identical framing as one of the other 50 photos in the only gallery of Craighead’s work so far.
Photo by Shealah Craighead
As opposed to official White House pictures of President Barack Obama, which were often intimate and candid, the photos of Trump are more “formal” and “ceremonial,” says Bredar. We see him from a distance signing a bill, standing at a podium or occasionally giving a thumbs-up.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Saudi Arabia, Saturday, May 20.
Some of the most iconic images of the administration have also come from bystanders taking photos with their phones, like when a Mar-A-Lago guest snapped a photo of Trump using his cell phone’s flashlight to look at what appeared to be sensitive documents.
Take this shot of Trump, his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka standing next to Pope Francis at the Vatican. Trump looks stoked. The pope looks like someone stole his ice cream cone.
Great legislative affairs meeting this afternoon at the @WhiteHouse. pic.twitter.com/Pu3cx6Jj2E
The Hannity article has an entire gallery of cheery-looking photos of the meeting.
The access that Richard Nixon’s official photographer, Oliver Atkins, had was carefully controlled by Nixon’s press secretary. Photo by Oliver Atkins
Some of the changes in the role of White House photographer can likely be attributed to organizational chaos in the administration. Outgoing Obama White House photo editor Al Anderson told the National Press Photographer’s Association that the Trump administration “didn’t take the time to build a team before Inauguration Day,” and that Craighead asked him to stay at the White House while the photo department was restaffed. Anderson says that military photographers had to be brought in to help cover the inauguration, while Craighead tried to both organize coverage and take photos herself. Craighead declined to comment and the White House did not respond to inquiries.
As for the smartphone photos, Bredar says he’s a bit wary about how they’re being handled since it’s unclear if they’re being managed or archived by the White House picture editor. It’s also not clear if one’s been hired — after being asked last minute to stay on, Al Anderson left the post after two weeks.
Another possibility for why these photos aren’t gaining traction is that they’re just not interesting or visually arresting.
Press secretary Sean Spicer has some of the closest access to Trump, but is only ever armed with a smartphone. His photos are often poorly exposed or blurry. It’s not clear whether the White House is taking steps to archive the photos aides take with their devices.
Photo by Sean Spicer / Twitter
The new administration does have an official photographer in Shealah Craighead, who was hired in late January. She was the personal photographer for first lady Laura Bush, as well as the photo editor for Vice President Dick Cheney. So far very few of her photos have been published. The majority exist in one 50-image gallery on the president’s official Facebook page or are scattered around Instagram. A few others seem to show up in the graphics created for the official @POTUS Twitter account. Wherever they can be found, the pictures we see appear to show Craighead has little in the way of special access to Trump.
Fox news personality Sean Hannity has one theory. In an article on his show’s website, Hannity staff write that the media is “cherry-picking” photos of the president in an effort to “drive an anti-Trump narrative.”
And now, these have become the images so many people will remember from Trump’s meeting with the pontiff.
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Instead of leveraging the White House photographer, Trump’s team has published large numbers of photos taken by phone-wielding staffers. We often see the same pic collages, thumbs-up photo ops, and phone conversation photos. This is in keeping with Trump’s campaign. Trump kept the campaign press pool on a different plane, so the only behind-the-scenes looks we got of him were informal, often taken casually and at a distance. The photos were typically blurry, underexposed, and poorly composed. The campaign appeared to prioritize graphics, screenshots of tweets, and videos over high-quality photography.
As a gift, Pres Trump presented @Pontifex with a 1st-edition boxed-set of the writings of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The Pope seemed pleased. pic.twitter.com/TXAaKsR5ov
The Trump team could settle in, and Craighead’s role could evolve. But sometimes, Bredar says, that takes a very long time to happen.
In an excellent essay in The New Yorker, Ian Crouch points out that the Trump administration was burned early on by mishaps with official photos. An Agence France-Presse photo of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on an Oval Office couch as Trump hosted leaders of historically black colleges and universities was widely interpreted as disrespectful of the black community.
President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and Ivanka Trump meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. @AP_Images pic.twitter.com/4rB2jwBDBb
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President Donald Trump poses for selfies in Miami, Florida, on Oct. 25, 2016.
“It’s not what I would consider a good photograph,” Bredar says. “It’s a really formal, extremely wide shot taken somewhere in the Saudi King’s royal receiving room.”
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House photographyphotographerPopeforeign tripoverseas trip
It wasn’t until Atkins learned that Nixon was telling his family about his decision to resign in 1974, Bredar says, that the photographer protested enough to get access to a truly intimate moment. He was rewarded with a set of iconic, if awkward, photos of the Nixon family’s darkest hour. “Those are the best photos that I’ve seen from Ollie’s work.”
Compare that to this photo of Obama early in his presidency, cradling his daughter Sasha after an event.
Bredar says he’s holding his judgement on Craighead’s role until he sees more of her work. What’s more, he says it’s hard to define the role of a White House photographer, because it’s not a position that’s prescribed — it’s more of a kept tradition. Bredar says it wasn’t until the Johnson or Ford administrations that we “really knew what kind of access the photographer had.”
The @POTUS account is full of pic collages, blurry smartphone photos, and lots of videos