Thursday, May 5, 2011

Private Presidential Pathways: last chance for "transparency?"

Of his famous photo of President John F. Kennedy, Tames said ""I wanted the blackness,
the mood that I saw with my eye."

Interested in seeing honest, revealing photographs of your American President on the job? You know – candid, un-choreographed visual records which give us glimpses of the human being occupying the most powerful office in the world?

If those kind of images might appeal to you, then run! As fast as you can, to the Averitt Center for the Arts in Downtown Statesboro. Don't delay, because this may be the last opportunity to see photographs like this.

The Averitt Center's main gallery will be featuring an exhibit titled "Private Presidential Pathways," displaying photographs by former New York Times photographer George Tames. While he covered many aspects of Washington, D.C. for nearly half-a-century, Tames developed a reputation for capturing unguarded, honest moments of Presidents with his camera.

What made Tames different were his instincts and persistence for finding something visually profound – his refusal to settle for the "herd" mentality that still often plagues news photography. Tames had an ability and desire to develop easy and informal access to powerful politicians, including – especially – the President.

Since Tames' death in 1994, both photography and politics have changed. The implementation of digital photography in reporting the news has accelerated the notion of being the first and the fastest, over all else. George Tames, on the other hand, emphasized thoroughness and familiarity to create his images. Tames was often the last to produce an image because he stayed later and shot longer than those clinging to the "herd."

And politicians have learned a lesson – all too well. Image is everything.

It started, perhaps, with Ronald Reagan. Tames daughter, Stephanie (who lives here in Statesboro), told me Wednesday that her father got frustrated with Reagan, who first made his mark as an actor in Hollywood and was quite comfortable with the traditional method of producing moving pictures, whether film or video. Television producers, editors, and their ilk seemed all-to-willing to produce multiple takes and get things "right."

A posed-but-spontaneous photo of Harry S. Truman.

Reagan was surprisingly uncomfortable with still photography, however. Once the photographer clicked the shutter, the record was made. Period. No re-takes. The image could be published. Or not. The President and his staff had no control over that.

 Stephanie Tames related a story about an image her father made of Reagan. It was an exercise in frustration. The newly-elected President invited photographers into the Oval Office. Tames wanted a picture of Reagan at work. Reagan simply wouldn't stop posing. Tames stayed longer than every one else. Finally fed up, he started packing up his gear. That's when the President picked up his papers and got back to work. And that's when Tames was able to rattle off a frame or two to get the real picture.

Today, in 2011, getting even that picture is practically impossible. Not saying that most Presidents haven't been concerned with their image, but each one since Reagan has become exponentially more guarded, especially when it comes to photography.

Much has been made of the news media's alleged infatuation with Barack Obama. It's been vilified by some. Parodied by others. However, I can tell you about one group of journalists that is not enamored with our sitting President - the pool of White House press photographers representing dozens of publications from all over the world.

It's ironic that a President who's election platform included a commitment to government "transparency" has become so elusive to those assigned to cover him.

The previous administration became frustratingly adept at limiting public appearances to simple, choreographed "photo ops" where photographers were typically allowed to make as many photographs as possible while walking between the entrance and exit of a room.

I participated in one of these events when I worked in Savannah and the G-8 conference was held in Sea Island in 2004. I got the honor of waiting hours to photograph George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin sitting in a small room in chairs next to each other. It was like a very short rock show with all the strobe lights going off as many photographers simply laid on their shutter releases until we were ushered (herded) out. The whole thing lasted about 20 seconds. Rattle rattle, here come the cattle.

After promising greater "transparency," the present administration has gone so far as to eliminate even the cattle call photo op. Right from the start, the photographers assigned to covering the White House were excluded from the President's first day in the Oval Office. From the controversial "do-over" oath of office. And a month later, from a historic meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama.

In all these instances, the White House preferred, instead, to allow only Official White House photographer Pete Souza to witness these events with his camera, who's images were subsequently distributed via the Flickr photo sharing web site. The response from photo editors everywhere was immediate.

... information is "more valuable to the public if you know where it's coming from."
Michael Oreskes, Managing Editor for U.S. News, the Associated Press

It's clear that the White House staff saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the internet. To "democratize" the process of distributing photographs by allowing anyone to download these photos from Flickr rather than letting the wire services distribute pictures to subscribing news outlets. See for yourself: here's a link to the Flickr White House photostream. That's good, right?

Well, it's also clear this was seen as an opportunity to exert greater control over the image of the President. While the credibility of Pete Souza, a veteran news photographer and educator who also served as Ronald Reagan's personal photographer in the White House during the 1980s, is widely-respected, wire services refused to distribute these photographs based primarily on two concerns: 1) this practice eliminates the potential diversity of images available to the public, and 2) the difficulty of determining the authenticity of an image not produced by someone on their staff.

Changing of the guard. Lyndon B. Johnson eyes Richard M. Nixon.

Even in a clearly controlled situation, each photographer makes decisions about how to compose their photographs. When to click the shutter. How to interpret what they witnessed. And each publication makes a choice about which photographs to publish.

No more. What's the harm, you say? Well, in an era where the authenticity of every digital photograph is in question, a multitude of photographers shooting the same event helps minimize the potential for deception. Photographers, or editors, or staffers in charge of publicity, are unlikely to manipulate, digitally or otherwise, photographs or situations for their own purposes if there are a multitude of images available from different sources.

One of the core principles that makes the news media relevant and useful is its diversity of voices and points-of-view. Information often becomes credible when a consensus is produced from many independent sources. And this principle is just as true of photography as any other medium of communication.

Ultimately, the question for you, the audience, is whether or not you are satisfied with our government representatives being the only source of visual information about themselves. I'm all for breaking with tradition as long as it serves a greater good. Are you being best served by this policy?

 Before you answer, though, please go see Tames' photographs. They will be on display until June 15.

He left us with lasting images of our Presidents. Ones that really stick in our minds, individually and collectively.

 Tames' photographs are ones that tell us something of the human beings who occupied the office of the President of the United States – their emotions. Their personal style. Their egos. Their strengths. And sometimes their frailties.

Why are these images so important? Why am I telling you to run – as fast as you can – to see them?

Because we may never see their like again.

The Averitt Center’s main gallery is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

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