Photographs from the White House walls.

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April 22 2009 11:57 AM

The White House Canon

Photographs from the rotating collection at the White House.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about a collection of photographs selected from the walls of the White House.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about a collection of photographs selected from the walls of the White House.

President Obama can't walk very far from his office without being confronted by a picture of himself. One hundred and forty-seven frames hang throughout the White House, displaying images of the daily life of his presidency. Known as "jumbos," the 20-by-30-inch prints are a long-standing presidential tradition that goes back to the Nixon administration. These pictures don't hang in the grand spaces of the White House. They line the hallways and staircases of the cramped quarters where the work gets done. There are grand offices in the White House, but much of the work area is dim, with low ceilings and such crowded work spaces that it almost seems as if the staff  sit two to a chair.

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Most of the jumbos are not formal photographs but candid views into the daily business of the presidency. "We want to show the president, not just photo-op situations," says White House photographer Pete Souza.

It would be hard, with so many of these photos hanging around, not to let the pictures go to your head. Obama, who photographs well, is usually captured in the most commanding way. It also helps that Souza, who also worked in the Reagan White House, has been photographing Obama for some time. He's also got perhaps the best material since the Kennedy administration. "I'm envious of Souza," says former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly. "You couldn't cast a situation better: an attractive couple, the first black president, two kids, the dog."

But the photographs aren't just for the president. They're for the staffers who don't get to see him much. Those who are captured in a photograph with Obama—from White House stewards to speechwriters to journalists—get the thrill of being on public display. And when the photographs are rotated out, as they are every few days, the subjects can hang the picture in their own offices.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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