In the first of a two part “Behind the Lens” series MC'ed by David Hume Kennerly, former Ford White House photographer, the President Gerald R. Ford Museum welcomed three of his colleagues to share their stories as official White House Photographer. Joining Kennerly were David Valdez, who served President George H.W. Bush, Bob McNeely who worked for President Bill Clinton, and Eric Draper who was the photographer for President George W. Bush.
Kennerly started off the lecture by giving a history of White House photography. He credited President Lincoln as being the first to understand the power of the photograph. Sitting for a portrait before his famous Copper Union speech with Mathew Brady, Lincoln attributed the image he took as well as the speech for winning him the Presidency.
Kennerly attributed President Lynden Johnson as being the first to travel with an official White House Photographer. Having been photographed by Yoichi Okamoto, L.B.J decided to call him up and offer him the job as he so much cared for the images he had captured. Okamoto was granted incredible access to the President and to show the person that L.B.J. was, which set the standard for his predecessors.
Kennerly then delved into his experiences as photographer for President Ford. He recounted the most memorable images he took while serving President Ford, from the moment President Ford decided to pull out of Vietnam, to the Mayaguez incident, a situation where the Khmer Rouge had taken 75 Americans captive aboard a U.S. container ship. Kennerly recalled the incident as the “point where Ford really came into his Presidency”. He detailed his relationship, not only with President Ford, but the entire Ford family, recalling a picture he took of Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table, and conspiring with Susan Ford to get Liberty, the Ford family’s Golden Retriever.
David Valdez was next at the podium. He had been George H.W. Bush’s photographer when he was Vice President and was then selected to continue his work when he became President. He fondly remembered the unrestricted access he was given by the Bush Family, recalling taking shots at their vacation home in Kennebunkport, as well as the first time President Bush met one of his grandsons, thus demonstrating family as the biggest theme of the Bush era.
Next to appear on stage was Bob McNeely. He elucidated the sense of history one feels when serving as White House photographer. The utter chaos before President Clinton was about to address the Nation for the first time to the “Black Hawk Down” situation in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the signing of NAFTA in the White House stood out as marquee moments for him during his tenure.
Last to present was Eric Draper who spent eight years and took over 1M digital photos of President George W. Bush. He recalled the events of 9/11/2001, a close re-election, and the worst U.S. natural disaster in history as the defining moments in his career The White House.