This post was written in anticipation of my conversation with former White House photographer, Pete Souza at the fabulous Photoville festival in New York. True to our mission, the preview was intended to highlight our focus on framing, composition, symbolism and body language, as well as Pete’s role as a photo editor. My goal here was to discuss how the public, as well as the political sphere, make judgments about personality and character. We will also be posting a video of the talk after Pete’s soon-to-be-published book on Obama comes out.
It goes without saying that many of Pete’s photos of Obama were and remain highly personal, and sometimes, quite vulnerable. Certainly, it took a great deal of confidence to publish those kinds of pictures in the face of not just antipathy from the right, but also so much conventionality in our culture around behavior.
Take some of the images Pete made of Obama in those early budget meetings. Inheriting a country in financial meltdown, we saw images of a new, young president forced to immediately handle this desperate crisis. But how are we to understand photos like the one above Pete took in the Roosevelt Room in January 2009? Many on the right saw it as Obama unable to deal. They actually used these photos in attack ads. Even observers without an agenda were thrown. A post on a photo blog that December, reviewing the White House “year in photography,” captioned this photo: “How Obama lost his mojo.”
Our society has a lot of unspoken norms about strength and vulnerability in men and in leaders. Certainly, the two parties do. With Obama inheriting a country in free fall, it’s interesting how some people could appreciate the intention of the photos — of Obama digging deep, reflecting on high, or taking the weight of the crisis on his shoulders — where others just saw weakness.
⠀This is one of the most popular shots Souza made as Obama’s photographer. Taken in 2010, it shows Obama putting his toe on a scale as Trip Director Marvin Nicholson tries to weigh himself during a hold in a volleyball locker room at UT Austin. Yes, it’s totally funny. But Pete doesn’t just do one-liners, and there are a couple things to appreciate here.
First, there’s the president’s sense of humor, which Pete documented well and often. Humor accomplishes a lot of things: it relieves pressure; it’s motivating. It’s also great how the photo acts out a famous idiom, known as “putting one’s thumb on the scale.” It’s about the ability to tilt the balance of a situation. In a larger sense, it speaks to Obama as a competitor (it’s a locker room, no?), and as someone you dare not underestimate. How else would the health care act have gotten passed, and after the Republicans ran the table in November, actually manage to survive and grow in stature?
And there’s one more totally distinctive “Pete move” here. If you’ve studied thousands of White House photos like we have, you know Pete loves using mirrors to add depth and interest. What’s totally rare about “the Nicholson scale,” perhaps unprecedented, is how Pete captures three of them.⠀
— Michael Shaw
(Updated for timing, 9/19/17)
Photos: Official White House Photos by Pete Souza Caption: Aug. 8, 2010 “We were walking through a locker room at the University of Texas when White House trip director stopped to weigh himself on a scale. Unbeknownst to him, the President was stepping on the back of the scale, as Marvin continued to slide the scale lever. Everyone but Marvin was in on the joke.” steps on a scale that Trip Director Marvin Nicholson is weighing himself on, during a hold in the volleyball locker room at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, Aug. 9, 2010. Personal Aide Reggie Love, Assistant Press Secretary Bill Burton, and Victor “Vic” Erevia, United States Secret Service laugh in the background. Caption 2: President Barack Obama during a budget meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 29, 2009.