NEW YORK TIMES - July 13, 2003
Glimpses of a Leader, Through Chosen Eyes Only
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
ASHINGTON, July 12 — The official White House photograph of President Bush, splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers last summer, showed him striding vigorously on a Camp David trail, just hours after he had been sedated for a colonoscopy. It was a flattering portrait of a fit chief executive, ready to take up the nation's business once again.
And no wonder, say photojournalists: the president had selected and approved the photograph's release to the news media.
Eric Draper, the chief White House photographer and the only photographer allowed at Camp David that weekend, had shown Mr. Bush the small image of the picture in the back of his digital camera. "I said, `What do you think about this?"' Mr. Draper recalled in an interview in his West Wing basement office last week. "And he said, `O.K., that's good.' "
All recent presidents have had official photographers, and all have distributed White House photographs that they hoped put the president and his administration in the best light.
But photographers, picture editors and even administration officials say that no other administration has moved as forcefully as the Bush White House to limit the access of outside news photographers to the president. There are two reasons, they say: the administration's desire for secrecy, and new technology, like the ability to send digital photos by e-mail, that makes immediate dissemination of images possible.
"The truth is, it's always been controlled," said Susan Kismaric, the curator of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the author of "American Politicians: Photographs from 1843 to 1993."
The photographer Mathew Brady touched up photographs of Lincoln, Ms. Kismaric said, and Kennedy gave extraordinary access to his photographer, Jacques Lowe, who made some of the most romantic images of Camelot.
Generally, the official pictures of Mr. Bush follow the White House's narrative line of a manly, resolute leader, like the photograph of the president clearing brush at his Texas ranch wearing a cowboy hat. Others portray him as deeply engaged in his duties, like one widely used photograph of Mr. Bush in an intense meeting in the Oval Office the morning after the United States opened the war against Iraq.
"Obviously, we're looking for something where the president looks good," said Mr. Draper, 38, a former photographer for The Associated Press who was assigned to Mr. Bush's presidential campaign and who got his job at the White House when he simply asked the president-elect if he could have it.
Picture editors say the problem with limited access to the president is that while the White House photographs are technically excellent and capture important moments of history, they are the administration's version of events, not journalism.
"This administration, in times of crisis, has really put out its own image from its own employees," said Chuck Kennedy, a Knight Ridder photographer who has covered the White House since Ronald Reagan's last term. "I don't know that any one of these handouts is a grand fabrication or a distortion of what's going on, but we're only getting one voice."
Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said in an interview that he tried to find common ground between photographers who wanted access and a president who guards his privacy. "When that's not possible, the White House photographer can still help shine light on what the president does," Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Bush, longtime White House photographers say, is not as comfortable with the camera as his father, Mr. Reagan or Bill Clinton. "I think having a photographer in the room is distracting for him," said David Hume Kennerly, the White House photographer for Gerald R. Ford who is now a contributing editor for Newsweek. "He's a natural guy, he's not uncomfortable in his own skin, but part of that is him not being totally comfortable being photographed all the time."
Newspapers often run White House photos without crediting the White House, an article last month in Editor & Publisher said. Many times the credit line lists a news service that distributed the photo.
Last summer, when Mr. Bush gave a rare day-at-the-ranch interview to Scott Lindlaw of The Associated Press, he did not want an outside news photographer to come, Mr. Fleischer said. Instead, the White House asked Mr. Draper to do the work. The resulting pictures, which ran for weeks in publications across the country, including The New York Times, showed Mr. Bush silhouetted against the Texas morning sky after an early run or looking rugged in a T-shirt and cowboy hat while hauling a cedar log over his shoulder.
The Oval Office photograph taken by Mr. Draper the morning after the war against Iraq commenced showed the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, engaged in what looked like a tense discussion. Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, looked on.
White House officials say that allowing a group of news photographers in for that scene would have compromised security and changed the character of the meeting. "Have you ever been in the Oval Office when the photographers come running in?" Mr. Fleischer said. "Literally, it's a thundering herd. That picture could not have taken place."
Mr. Draper, chief among five presidential photographers, shadows Mr. Bush throughout his day and accompanies him on most foreign and domestic trips. He photographs all official meetings and events for the White House archives and Web site.
When photographs are to be released to the news media, Mr. Draper typically asks Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, to choose one out of three or four shots of the same scene.
Photographers tend not to quarrel with the White House about taking photographs of sensitive meetings.
The larger issue, they say, is that there are fewer outside photographers allowed to discreetly follow the president for a behind-the-scenes look at his day, a practice that was standard in other administrations.
"It can be so illuminating — just a touch, just a look, just a gesture of some sort," said Diana Walker, a longtime Time magazine photographer and the author of "Public and Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency." In 1997, Ms. Walker caught the look on Hillary Clinton's face when Chelsea Clinton opened her coat to reveal the micro-miniskirt she was wearing to her father's second inaugural.
Photographers readily acknowledge that behind-the-scenes photography is not necessarily reality either. "You're going to see what they want you to see," said Dirk Halstead, a former Time photographer who covered the White House.
Mr. Halstead, who is now assembling collections of presidential photography at the Center for American History at the University of Texas, said that the lack of outside access would leave a gap in the public record of the Bush presidency.
"I really think we're going to come up short on an historical basis from the standpoint of `What were these people really like?' " Mr. Halstead said. "Eric's pictures are there, but they are suspect because he's working for the president."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company