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National Archives Exhibit Features Rarely Seen Photographs of U.S. Presidents

January 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Presidents are the most photographed of Americans. But in modern times, so many photo opportunities are scripted, so carefully managed, that photojournalists have difficulty capturing the essence of the man.

The National Archives and its presidential libraries hold millions of images captured by official White House photographers, family and friends with the kind of up-close and personal access usually denied to the press. A new Archives exhibit highlights just a few of those rarely seen images: Unguarded moments that give new insight into the character of the men who have led this nation.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You will see, for instance, Gerald Ford and his children just the morning after he had lost that very close election in 1976 to Jimmy Carter by only about 13,000 votes in two states.

TERENCE SMITH: And there is Susan Ford, leaning back against him, in a way trying to support him.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You wonder sometimes about these relationships between presidents and their children, but you see that and you know that can’t be faked.

TERENCE SMITH: But look at this…

Historian Michael Beschloss is vice president of the board of the National Archives Foundation.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Presidents go to enormous lengths to package themselves and in many cases to avoid pictures just like this. They don’t want photographers to be able to penetrate their inner character, as many of these pictures do.

This is taboo, Terry. Kennedy liked to smoke cigars, but he thought that if he was photographed smoking them, he would look like an old Irish pol, which he didn’t want to be seen as.

TERENCE SMITH: The exhibition, curated by U.S. News and World Report, shows more intimate moments: Presidents at play; presidents with their families.

Olivier Picard, U.S. News director of photography, likes this photo of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower at their Gettysburg farm.

OLIVIER PICARD: It’s a candid moment with the president. He’s not wearing a suit. It’s a true moment. It’s simple, that’s why.

And those moments are rare, because presidents are very conscious of their image, so it is not always easy to get them with their guard down.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Here is a sequence that you look at and can’t help but love Jimmy Carter, because this is someone who, despite the fact that he is president obviously has a wonderful relationship with his little daughter. They’re racing to the helicopter.

TERENCE SMITH: And at the end, you notice not only does Amy get a lead in the middle picture, which she lengthens in the next picture, but he has to pause to salute the Marine.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s exactly right. The tribulations of being president. (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: Early photography in the mid-1800s first gave Americans a look at their leaders. Well, this is Antietam.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Matthew Brady photographing Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War; that was the first time that Americans got an extended look at a president.

TERENCE SMITH: As photographic technology developed, pictures of presidents became less stiff, less posed. And presidents learned the power of an image.

With more candid photos possible, presidents became more guarded. Franklin Delano Roosevelt permitted few images that showed the effects of his struggle with polio. Here is one taken by his cousin.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This is one of the three. And that shows how presidents try to package themselves because Roosevelt knew, or at least he felt at the time, that for a large number of Americans to be aware that this president, who was taking them through the Depression and World War II, actually could not walk on his own; he felt that that would hurt him politically.

TERENCE SMITH: Modern presidents also learned to use official White House photos to bolster their images, knowing they could release to the public only photos of their own choosing. Richard Nixon, bowling.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But take a look. Who is he bowling with? He is bowling with an African-American man who had worked with him when he was in the Senate and is very visibly in that picture. And also we know that at the time that picture was taken Nixon was trying to appeal to the working class, people he called “hard hats,” those construction workers. He knew that they didn’t play badminton; they bowled.

TERENCE SMITH: Ronald Reagan, sailing a paper airplane.

PETE SOUZA: This picture was taken in 1986, and the picture was never released to the press until Reagan was leaving office because a lot of people thought it was unpresidential.

TERENCE SMITH: Pete Souza, a White House photographer during the Reagan years, does not object to the selective release of images by administrations.

PETE SOUZA: Our job was to document for history and our job was not to release pictures to the press. So eventually pictures get published, and our job as almost historians, it doesn’t mean it has to be published that day.

TERENCE SMITH: It is to Lyndon Johnson, says Michael Beschloss, that we owe a debt of gratitude for the treasure trove of images of modern U.S. Presidents

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Johnson wanted to be photographed in every possible pose. He was photographed in the bathroom, in his bedroom, in his pajamas.

TERENCE SMITH: This is a very funny picture. He’s howling, the dog is howling, and his grandson looks startled.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This picture gives you a sense of the nice side of Johnson, the side that was very human, which people didn’t see very much at the time he was president.

TERENCE SMITH: A precedent had been set, and a door to the White House opened.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Later presidents did not want photographers to have that kind of access, but Johnson had widened the envelope so much that even somewhat more limited access meant that a photographer was getting a lot more than most photographers in history had.

TERENCE SMITH: The result is an exhibition that shows presidents as people. It will be on display at the National Archives through the third week in February.