The Most Captivating Presidential Photography of the Past 50 Years

Collected images.
Nov. 17 2011 11:56 AM

Say Cheese, Mr. President

A new traveling exhibit highlights the most captivating presidential photography of the past 50 years.

Slide Show: Revealing Presidential Moments

How did photographer Yoichi Okamoto capture Lyndon B. Johnson at the most vulnerable and human moment of his presidency? Okamoto became invisible. Sort of.  “Okamoto had this strategy where he said, ‘OK, the only way I’m going to get photos is if he doesn’t notice I’m there,’ ” explains John Bredar, author of The President's Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office, the book that inspired an eponymous exhibit at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.*

 “[Okamoto] would get to the Oval Office early, and when president walked in, he would intentionally not respond if the president said good morning. After about three weeks, Johnson wouldn’t even say hello.”  

One time, Bredar says, Okamoto joined a Cabinet meeting to take pictures of the president and his advisers. He shot the photos and left the room. A few minutes later, Johnson called him back in. “Gentlemen, sit up straight because this man is going to take your picture,” the president told his Cabinet, obviously having missed  that just a few minutes before, “Okamoto was a few inches from his face taking pictures,” Bredar explains, laughing. 

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The ability to capture these seemingly unguarded moments sets Okamoto—and other presidential photographers like Pete Souza, Eric Draper, and Ollie Atkins—apart. These images often reveal the person behind the commander in chief label: the father, the husband, the son, and the friend, and that’s what makes them so valuable. I asked Bredar to select a few of his favorites. Check out the slideshow above for his highlights from the book and exhibit. 

The photos will be on display at the Truman Library and Museum until Jan. 22. (Note: not all of the photos in the slideshow are in the exhibit.) After that they will rotate through other presidential museums.

Correction, Nov. 18, 2011: Because of an editing error, this article incorrectly misstated the location of the Truman Library and Museum as Washington, D.C. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.

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