(The following is excerpted from Photographs from the Edge of Reality , by Black Star photographer John Harrington.)
I’ve had the privilege of photographing presidents going back to the first George Bush, and if you count President Reagan’s visit to the White House and ceremonies at George Washington University Hospital, where he honored those who saved his life, Reagan too.
Almost every time it was a news event, although from time to time I was the exclusive photographer traveling with a foreign dignitary for a private meeting with whichever president was in office.
Once, when on assignment for National Geographic Television, I had behind-the-scenes access to the White House for a state dinner. Yet, I had never had the opportunity to have studio lighting and the undivided attention of the president before.
Grips and Grins
When I have photographed each president, the opportunities have ranged from a 20-second stint in the Oval Office with a collection of my colleagues, to 20 or so minutes during a ceremony in the Rose Garden, or even 45 minutes to an hour during a primetime press conference.
In this case, the valuable time I had was boiled down to about 10 seconds.
The initial assignment — grip and grins with the President — wasn’t all that. In the end, however, it’s not what something is, it’s what you make of it. It was my assignment to, in a private room, photograph the president in a receiving line with about two dozen VIP guests who had sponsored an event that the president was attending.
The entire time in the room was about 10 minutes or so, and because of the VIP nature of the guests, we brought in lights, both for recycle time and for a flattering quality of light. Beforehand, we tested the lights — two umbrellas, left and right, with the left light about half a stop brighter than the right.
At the appointed time the president came in, and the guests were queued up and waiting for the president to arrive, so I determined that my opportunity to photograph the president alone would likely come at the end.
With precision, the White House staff shuffled each guest pairing in, and each had a moment to chat with the president and first lady, and then the foursome would pose for the camera.
For each guest we would make two frames, just in case one of the four people in the image had his or her eyes closed. In fact, in one pairing the president had his eyes closed in the first image, and in the second image one of the guests had his eyes closed, so we had to “swap heads” in that image so that the VIP guest could have his picture suitable for framing.
Precision When It Counts
Typically, as the president wraps up a meet-and-greet, there is a brief moment or two while security mobilizes to advance the president, staff gets into position, and the president bids farewell to the organizers. When all of the pairings were done, just such a moment occurred, and there were no guests surrounding the president; it was just me and him.
I lifted the camera and said, “Mr. President, look this way for a moment,” and I made two frames of him — eyes to camera, all by himself. The strobes fired as desired, and the background was nondescript enough that I liked it. And with that, he was whisked away to his next engagement.
When I reviewed the two frames, I was quite pleased, and either would have served quite well.
All too often, clients will call with an assignment request and say that the shoot will only take about five minutes, suggesting that it should cost less because of the mistaken notion that we bill by time.
In point of fact, when you only have a few seconds to make a photo, and you’re able to accomplish the creation of a good image in that amount of time, you should be able to command a premium because of that ability. Almost anyone can make a great portrait if they have hours — the test is, can you make one in 10 seconds?
Photo © John Harrington