Meeting Pete Souza — President Obama's Chief White House Photographer

Caitlin and Pete Souza at the Leica Gallery in NYC One of the thrills, for me anyway, of still working within news journalism is meeting the lions (and lionesses) of the industry, people whose skills and images literally  document history. Pete Souza, pictured here with me last night at the opening of his show, now on until November 7, 2009 at the Leica gallery at 670 Broadway in Manhattan, is one — as he is the official photographer for President Obama. The 63 color images in the show document the first 200 days of the Obama Presidency, and, unfortunately, are not available for sale. They were wonderful!

Some of them you already know well: the Obamas in their finery of inauguration night, forehead to forehead in a freight elevator. But seeing these images up close was amazing because every little detail was visible — now I know what shoes she wore, that her toes were painted pale pink, that the hem of her white gown glittered with paillettes. I wasn’t the only observer happily gulping down minutiae. “Wow, there’s at least eight strands on that necklace,” said two women leaning in close to an image of Michelle Obama dancing, wearing a thick pile of pearls.

A shot taken January 23 frames just the President’s hand reaching for his official desk phone. Who knew POTUS’ phone was so…ugly? It looks like an remnant from the 1970s, gray plastic, and I counted at least 50 square buttons, separate phone lines, on it. It even has a silvery metal Presidential seal on it, just in case someone’s not quite sure whose phone it is — although it’s the only one on his desk. His wedding ring is yellow gold and looks like it’s woven of rope in an African pattern. It’s unusual, elegant, memorable. The leather top of his desk is a rich deep mahogany leather, edged with a gold Greek key design, slightly worn. The image captures so much in one frame: history, tradition, the weight of the job (who are all those buttons calling?), Obama’s personal style.

“Briefing, February 2”, shows the President with his feet up on his desk (!), his leather chair reclined so far back it looks like it will tip over. It brims with confidence.

The extraordinary pleasure of these images is their extreme intimacy. Pete’s job is incredibly cool. He hangs out with the President as much as he is allowed to, (his job, basically, to become invisible), and, as a result of that unobtrusive trust, he captures moments of great tenderness — Obama hugging Sasha tightly in an elevator, Sasha lying down behind one of the Oval office’s pale yellow sofas, hiding, waiting to surprise her Dad. Even as the Obamas are making history, they’re real people living real lives.

I can’t imagine many other Presidents, or world leaders, scrambling on their knees as one shot shows him with Caroline Kennedy looking for his desk’s trap door. Or him leaning back, sitting on some stone steps in his suit in Paris, staring up into the sun at his advisors — looking like a high school student waiting for the bus. A shot taken May 20 shows Obama stretching his arms straight upward, his palms outstretched, his face upturned into the sun, taking a meeting in the Rose Garden. He looks blissful, relaxed.

The opening drew a glittering crowd, filled with photo stars like Pulitzer Prize winners Todd Heisler and Damon Winter (New York Times,) and Anthony Suau. David Alan Harvey, a National Geographic photographer attended, as did Pancho Bernasconi, assistant managing editor for new photos for Getty Images.

I wish I could offer T/S readers some firsthand news from Souza, (who is a former D.C. colleague of my sweetie), but Souza was not allowed to do interviews. I tried! (He graciously allowed my sweetie, a former D.C. colleague, to shoot the photo above, joking “He’s such a perfectionist!” True.)

Here’s an audio interview with him.

3 thoughts on “Meeting Pete Souza — President Obama's Chief White House Photographer

  1. Marcelo Ballve

    Nice details:

    … now I know what shoes she wore, that her toes were painted pale pink, that the hem of her white gown glittered with paillettes. I wasn’t the only observer happily gulping down minutiae. “Wow, there’s at least eight strands on that necklace,” said two women leaning in close to an image of Michelle Obama dancing, wearing a thick pile of pearls.

    Another point: I’ve seen many photos of Obama with his feet on his desk, his shoe soles scuffed. Somehow it bothers me. Feet on desk is an arrogant pose. Maybe it’s the one flaw in his personality.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Marcello, it’s funny you say that. I had the same feeling when I saw the image of him with his feet on the President’s desk while in a meeting with a group of his aides. It’s a desk with enormous historic significance and that felt disrespectful and weird to me. I know it shows confidence, but when you’ve already got the top job, how much more of that do you need to show?

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