Behind The Scenes At 1600 Penn: Documenting The President Hundreds of reporters and news organizations cover the president's trips and speeches. Few people are given as much access as the White House photographers who capture the presidency through photographs.
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Behind The Scenes At 1600 Penn: Documenting The President

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Behind The Scenes At 1600 Penn: Documenting The President

Behind The Scenes At 1600 Penn: Documenting The President

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, when President Obama stepped into the East Room of the White House earlier today, dozens of camera shutters snapped like tap dancers in a show. Most of those cameras belonged to reporters but not all of them. Some were in the hands of White House photographers. Almost no one has as much access to the president every day in public and behind the scenes. The White House photographers' job is to document the presidency through pictures, and their images help us understand the person behind the podium.

So today, we get to speak with two people who are given such close personal access to presidents. Robert McNeely is a former White House photographer for President Bill Clinton. His books include "The Clinton Years: The Photographs of Robert McNeely" and also "Barack Obama: The Official Inaugural Book." He joins me now in Studio 3A. Welcome to you.

ROBERT MCNEELY: Thank you, Ari. Nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: And also we have Eric Draper on the line. He's a former White House photographer for President George W. Bush and author of the forthcoming book "Front Row Seat: A Photographic Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush." He joins us by smartphone from his phone in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Thanks for being with us, Eric.

ERIC DRAPER: Thank you very much for inviting me.

SHAPIRO: Robert, let's begin with you. How were you picked for the job?

MCNEELY: Well, it's one of those processes where just be there. You just have to be involved in the process of photographing the presidency, be involved in political campaigns. I volunteered in 1972 for the George McGovern campaign, and as I moved forward through my photographic career, people I've met at that time, I built on that. I was a photographer in the Carter White House. I photographed Fritz Mondale in the Carter White House. People I met through that were working in the Bill Clinton campaign and spoke to me early on about photographing Bill Clinton's campaign, and I demurred at that time and suggested they find a younger person...


MCNEELY: do it. And later, right after the convention in 1992, having watched the convention and realizing what an incredible political candidate and person Bill Clinton was, I expressed to my wife, you know, I probably should have taken that job...


MCNEELY: ...being his campaign photographer. And the next day, the phone rang and said the other person wasn't working out. I had like an hour to...


MCNEELY: hour to decide if I wanted to go.

SHAPIRO: Eric, does that sound like your story of how you ended being George W. Bush's photographer?

DRAPER: Well, sort of similar and the fact that I had been in political circles covering politics as a press photographer. I was a staff photographer with The Associated Press covering presidential campaigns. I covered the campaign in '96, and then when 2000 rolls around, I was assigned to cover the Bush campaign. And so I was a member of the press, you know, traveling with everyone else. And at the end of it all, I decided to take a chance at doing the job. And I knew it would be a tremendous experience. And so what I did was I (technical difficulties)...

SHAPIRO: Sorry. We're having just a couple of phone glitches but go on. Please continue.

DRAPER: Oh, sorry. I actually pursued the position by asking President-elect Bush at the time for the job, actually walked up to him, and I was prepared with my portfolio. And I knew I had a good chance, because I had - was able to get to know him and the staff when I was a press photographer. And I walked up to him and ask him for the job, and I was fixed a week later.

SHAPIRO: That sounds pretty brazen. Talk to us - given your background in journalism, tell us about what the difference is between being a White House photographer and being a photojournalist who covers the White House. Obviously, as a White House photographer, you get a lot more access. But what's the difference in the job description? How are you photographing the same guy in a different way?

DRAPER: Well, first of all, you're part of the staff, which means you work for the president. You serve the president. And what that means is I had an all-access pass to (technical difficulties). So I was able to see the schedule ahead of time. I was able to be present for all the meetings, and basically, to shadow the president throughout his day. And it's all about access. And that's what you have when you're a White House photographer.

SHAPIRO: Robert McNeely, talk about how the technology of being White House photographer changed in just the amount of time that you were in the White House over those many years. It must be just a huge, huge sea change.

MCNEELY: Well, it's extraordinary. I mean, when I first - the first time I ever went to the White House in 1974, the - as a press photographer for Time magazine, there were photographers in the press room that had used 4x5 Speed Graphics.

SHAPIRO: Well, explain what that is for non-camera junkies.

MCNEELY: That's a large camera that shoots sheets of film, that you load one sheet at a time, a single sheet.

SHAPIRO: I imagine a guy with his head under the curtain, you know, look here.

MCNEELY: Pretty much, pretty much. Except you read - you look on a piece of glass. You don't have the hood. But it's a very large camera. It was used to take the picture at Iwo Jima.


MCNEELY: The picture of the flag raising at Iwo Jima was taken with the Speed Graphic. But then the small camera came with roll film. And then, of course, I was still shooting the same technology that was, you know, from the '40s and the '50s, '60s, the '70s, the '80s. Of course, then in the '90s, when digital began, that was the big sea change because of the speed and because of the - just the whole different approach. But I'm a film photographer. I'm - my book - the book I did was all done with rangefinder Leica cameras, which is a camera that was basically designed and built in the 1920s, and is unchanged.

SHAPIRO: Now, when you say you're a film photographer, you still don't use digital photography?

MCNEELY: I have digital cameras, but I also have a dark room in my basement. And the book I did in 2009 on Obama's inaugural, there's some black-and-white film pictures in there, which are only there because I was the director of photography and I could say, we're still going to shoot a little bit of film. I love the effect of film. It's pretty much gone in the media, just because of the speed factor. I mean, you cannot justify having...

SHAPIRO: And a dark room.

MCNEELY: Well, you can just by having an image that needs to be out to the world and if it was digital, it could be uploaded that second and seen by everyone in the world. Well, I just have to go home and develop this film. And then I have to proof it, and then I have to print it. You know, that's not going to happen.

SHAPIRO: So I want to talk about the behind-the-scenes access that you each got. And if you'd begin, Robert, tell me about some of the most incredible moments when you thought: Am I really watching this - whether it was comedic and unexpected in the human moment, or just witnessing history.

MCNEELY: Well, it's both at the same time. I mean, the watching history - there isn't a day, I think Eric would agree, that you don't drive to those gates as the White House photographer - having been a journalist and having gone through the press room, as you know very well. You go into the press room. You're in that little room. You wait for them to come to you.

Well, as a White House photographer, you drive through the gate. You walk in with that pass. You have total access. You can go anywhere you want in the building short of running into the president somewhere, you know...

SHAPIRO: So you've got a long list of incredible images and moments in your head and in your portfolio. What stands out at the top of the list?

MCNEELY: Well, I mean, a lot of them are just - it's constant. It's one of those things that if you do your job right, the total mass of what you've done is the historical view of that person. There's not one single image. I mean, as a news photographer, you're remembered for the Pulitzer Prize-winning image. A White House photographer, in my mind, is remembered for the body of work. What you've accomplished over a period of time gives people an insight into who that person is, because you are seeing them behind the scenes.

SHAPIRO: And so - at the White House Flickr website, where Pete Souza just released the year in photos, there's one image that stands out on my mind, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the Oval Office with President Obama, had apparently just dropped all of her briefing papers, and Pete photographed Secretary Clinton pointing at him, the photographer, as if to say: Don't you take a picture of me having just dropped all my papers on the floor.


SHAPIRO: Eric Draper, what image stands out in our mind from your years in the Bush White House?

DRAPER: Well, I kind of agree with Bob (technical difficulties) it's the volume. And that's what the - was - I remember the most in terms of working there. I mean, it's like drinking through fire hose everyday. And you try to prepare for everything. You (technical difficulties). You photographed bad things. In my case, I mean, nothing could prepare me for a day like 9/11 in September of 2001. And that day particularly stands out in my mind in (technical difficulties) entire week of history still stands out in my mind. Yeah. And it's (technical difficulties) it's part of that body of work.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, there are few phone glitches, but we're hearing what you're saying. Robert, talk about the pressures of documenting this for history. Does the White House expect you only to shoot the president from his good side, never to get him when he's having a bad hair day? I mean, you know, to what extent are you supposed to make the guy look good?

MCNEELY: Exactly. I mean, that's the crux of doing that job. You do have an obligation. You are hired by the White House, by this person who you've gotten to know. And yet at the same time, you're - there's the view of history is over your shoulder at all times, as well. And there's the sense of this is the record of this presidency. This is a record that it's not going to effect - except occasionally it does - as they kept saying Pete Souza's pictures are like Obama's secret weapon, because they're pointing him out...


SHAPIRO: Hugging the kids, holding hands with the first lady.

MCNEELY: Oh, yeah, yeah. All of this that affects - right, affecting politics today. And that does happen occasionally. I mean, I had a couple of images that got released immediately and did have an effect. But I always felt that my greater responsibility, with all due respect to the presidency - and I respect Bill Clinton's politics. I'm a progressive Democrat. I was there because I was part of - you know, I felt connected to that process.

But at the same time, the human side of Bill Clinton - and we - there's obviously an understanding there of a very complex human being, which I felt, over time, some responsibility to leave as a record. And maybe it won't be really understood till a historian goes and spends months in Little Rock, in the presidential library.

SHAPIRO: And so were there moments that, for example, you know, during the impeachment scandal, when you thought boy, he's looking haggard? That's something I need to capture.

MCNEELY: Right. Well, I actually left in August of '98. As the impeachment scandal started, it - I had been there six years. The restrictions on the job - there was this sense that nothing was - I was - literally had total access to every meeting until it started to be restrictions on meetings with independent counsel-related events. And then there was this sense of the impeachment. And there was just a sense in my mind that I had fulfilled what I wanted to do. As it went forward, I couldn't do it.

SHAPIRO: But just generally, were there times he was not looking good? And you thought...

MCNEELY: Oh, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: know, if I were a portrait photographer, I wouldn't shoot him today. But as a guy documenting the presidency, here's what I'm going to do.

MCNEELY: Oh, exactly. Exactly. And the trauma and the day-to-day - I mean, one of the things that I learned about Bill Clinton is he's an - extraordinarily optimistic. Bill Clinton didn't get up any morning that he didn't feel, you know, that this was a day he was going to work as hard as he could to do what he thought was right, which was inspiring. But at the same time, there were times when events and things that happened were not - exactly didn't turn out the way he wanted them to or weren't the exact things.

And on our instance, one of our - the domestic terrorist event of Oklahoma City was an extraordinarily terrible event which I photographed, and we went, you know, his reaction to it and then - it wasn't the same kind of involvement of 9/11 for the presidency, but there was that sense of history being made in what was going on.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about documenting the White House with former White House photographers, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We have Robert McNeely, former photographer for the Clinton White House, here in the studio with us. And on the line, we have Eric Draper, who was the photographer for President George W. Bush. And, Eric, I'm curious: photographing the same guy day after day, year after year, does that ever get old? Does it ever get boring? Do you ever think, God, I wish I could photograph someone else today?

DRAPER: Well, I have to admit, I mean, there were some days that were slow. There's a lot of repetitiveness in the photography. But at the same time, there's just so much that happens in a president's schedule (technical difficulties) stories to follow in the president - in what happens. And so I never really got bored, because there was always something unexpected. And even when you expected something to happen, I always tried to follow (technical difficulties).

SHAPIRO: Oh, looks like the line just dropped you, but - oh, you're back now. OK. Sorry. Go ahead.

DRAPER: OK. Sorry about that. Yeah, so I never really got bored, because there was always something to look forward to down the road (technical difficulties) schedule. There's - there were always lots of presidential travel, international trips, huge events like state visits where he would have, you know, head of states visit, including, you know, the queen of England. And so there was always something to look forward to, and it never really got bored.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's take a call from Hugh in San Francisco, California. Oh, let's see. Hi, Hugh. Go ahead. You're on the air.

HUGH: Thanks. You know, I had a question about copyright and these photos that are done by official photographers. I figure that since they are created by a public employee, that they should be in the public domain. And I wonder, like, what sorts of issues - if that's the case, then what sort of issues have come up around that?

SHAPIRO: Robert McNeely, can you answer that question?

MCNEELY: Yeah, you're exactly right, Hugh. They are in the public domain. There is some restrictions based around the Presidential Papers Act, and any picture that is released out of the White House automatically goes right into the public domain. All of those pictures on the Flickr feed at this time from Pete Souza, those are all pictures in the public domain. Our process for that wasn't Flickr. We just - there wasn't that kind of - there wasn't the Internet. There weren't all these digital processes. But we did release individual photos to the media.

Any picture that we handed out became part of the public domain. And so these pictures, you know, they can be used by anyone. Now, over time, you can make Freedom of Information requests for pictures to the Clinton library for other pictures, and they - those will be handled under the Freedom of Information, you know, Act. But basically, these pictures, over time, all of them become accessible to scholars and pretty much to everyone at the library, because they go into the presidential library.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Hugh. And, Robert, in a given day on film, I imagine you were taking dozens of pictures. And today, with digital photography, there are probably hundreds of photos of the president that White House photographers shoot every day. What happens to all of those? Who decides what gets released? Where do they all go?

MCNEELY: Well, our process, obviously, with film - I mean, on a day that was, say, a trip somewhere that was very involved or an event state arrival at the White House, as Eric was talking about, there could be 40, 50, 60 rolls of film combined, both black and white and color. Of course now, with digital, you just measure the number of images, and there are thousands. I mean, in all forms of photography now, whatever anybody is shooting, digital has just expanded the number of frames people make.

SHAPIRO: And so is there a White House editor who then says here's today's photograph?

MCNEELY: Well, all of that material is put into the archive. I'm not quite sure of the process at how often Pete actually looks at his personal take digitally because of the sheer volume. There are editors.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. But there's someone choosing.

MCNEELY: There are editors that go through and pick things.

SHAPIRO: Fascinating conversations. Robert McNeely, former White House photographer for President Bill Clinton and author of the "The Clinton Years: The Photographs of Robert McNeely," as well as "Barack Obama: The Official Inaugural Book," joining me here in Studio 3A. Thanks for being with us, Robert.

MCNEELY: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And we also spoke with Eric Draper, former White House photographer for President George W. Bush, author of the forthcoming book "Front Row Seat: A Photographic Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News, and I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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