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Up close and presidential: The Griffin looks at official White House photographers and their history-documenting practice

President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson while they watch the US Senate vote on her confirmation.Adam Schultz/White House

WINCHESTER — The obvious thing about that photo of President Biden with Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (she’d just been confirmed by the Senate) is, yes, the president of the United States taking a selfie. But what we see isn’t the photo Biden took. We’re seeing a photo of Biden taking a photo. The person who took that photo is Adam Schultz, the chief official White House photographer.

Schultz is one of a dozen individuals who have held that position. Ten of them have work in “In the Room Where It Happened: A Survey of Presidential Photographers.” It includes some 160 photographs, that one of Biden among them. The show runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through March 31.


Yoichi Okamoto, Lyndon B. Johnson confers with the NAACP's Clarence Mitchell in the Oval Office, Oct 18, 1967.Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Presidential Library

Besides Schultz, the photographers are Yoichi Okamoto (Lyndon Johnson), David Hume Kennerly (Gerald Ford), Michael Evans (Ronald Reagan), David Valdez (George H.W. Bush), Bob McNeely and Sharon Farmer (Bill Clinton), Eric Draper (George W. Bush), Pete Souza (Barack Obama), and Shealah Craighead (Donald Trump).

The first president chronologically to have his photograph taken was John Quincy Adams. Adams was an ex-president then, so the first sitting president was William Henry Harrison. The Adams portrait is really quite something. Sitting or ex-, the point is that almost as soon as photography began, presidents were being photographed. Yet there wasn’t a chief official White House photographer until John F. Kennedy appointed Cecil W. Stoughton to the post. You likely don’t recognize Stoughton’s name. But you likely recognize his most famous photograph: Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One, on Nov. 22, 1963.

Eric Draper, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney check their watches in the Oval Office before departing for the swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of State Colin Powell, Jan. 26, 2001.ERIC DRAPER/White House Photo Office

“In the Room Where It Happened” (the title comes from “Hamilton”) has no photographs approaching that degree of fame. That’s not a drawback. Seeing very familiar faces in nowhere near as familiar images is one of the pleasures offered by this very pleasurable show. Another is how hard to categorize it is. Is “Room” about history or politics or personality or celebrity or media or photographic skill? Yes.


The show groups together selections of work from each photographer, presenting them in chronological order. All the selections include a photograph from that president’s first day in office and last day (except for Biden, of course). Beyond that, the photographers proposed candidates for inclusion, which Griffin director Crista Dix and associate director Ally Cirelli helped edit down.

Pete Souza, President Barack Obama in the doorway of the Oval Office talks with Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, April 30, 2015.Pete Souza

One of the earliest photographs, from 1967, shows Johnson conferring in the Oval Office with the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell. It’s an example of how richly layered so many of these images are. The dramatic sweep of Johnson’s arm is what first catches the eye. But notice the interplay between the two men, the central placement of the Resolute desk in the background, the sense of space Okamoto conveys, and not only the little dog sharing the couch with Mitchell but how it’s looking right at the camera. There’s a lot going on here, and that is more rule than exception in “Room.”

That’s not the only view of the Oval Office. Draper shows George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in there, doing a me-and-my-shadow version of consulting their watches. Souza’s view of Obama half hidden by a door as he speaks to someone just outside (it’s Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican) is just as funny, not least of all because it hides the face of one of the most photogenic presidents.


Shealah Craighead, President Donald J. Trump speaks to members of the press at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., on Aug. 9, 2020.Shealah Craighead/White House

Some presidents the camera responds to more than others. Love him or hate him, Trump is a force of visual nature. Craighead captures him in silhouette talking to a group of reporters in 2020, and that unmistakable outline is almost as striking as the magic-hour background.

David Valdez, George H.W. Bush on his last morning in the White House as president, 1993.David Valdez

George H.W. Bush probably is the least prepossessing of those pictured here. Even less than Ford, who retained the stalwart build of the All-American football player he once was. Yet Bush appears in what may be the single most appealing image in the show. Certainly, it’s the most intimate. He’s lying in bed, reading the Los Angeles Times. More than that, it’s his last day in office. It’s not the only picture of a president in pajamas. Ford has one, too, though he’s not in bed. Speaking of intimacy, there’s a photo of Clinton in a bathroom. No, he’s not doing anything embarrassing. How could he be: Al Gore’s in there, too.

Bob McNeely, Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton, 1996.Bob McNeely

Clinton is the one president with two chief photographers: McNeely, who shot only in black and white, and his successor, Farmer. There are many images of presidents here with first ladies, as you might imagine. McNeely’s, showing Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in profile, staring off into space, is a bit stagy (a lot of the photos here are, but that’s not a complaint). It’s also notably handsome and in the sense it conveys of simultaneous distance and connection would seem to say something foundational about their relationship.


Michael Evans, Nancy Reagan prepares to surprise her husband, President Ronald Reagan, with a birthday cake during a White house press briefing, Feb. 4, 1983.Michael Evans, Reagan Presidential Library

The interplay of public and private is a consistent motif: Up close and personal meets up close and presidential. Evans shows Nancy Reagan about to interrupt a press briefing to surprise her husband with a birthday cake. Presumably, his response began, “Well, . . .” Or there’s up close and self-aware, as when Farmer shows Clinton, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger mugging for the camera.

Sharon Farmer, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton, and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, 1999.Sharon Farmer/SHARON FARMER

There are views one might not expect. Leonid Brezhnev wears a very large fur coat. Ford sits in the back seat of a limo (expected) with Caroline and Ted Kennedy (not). First lady Betty Ford dances on the Cabinet Room table, though not during a Cabinet meeting. George H.W. Bush wields an electric guitar. What would a Jimi Hendrix version of “Hail to the Chief” sound like?

David Hume Kennerly, President Gerald Ford With Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, prior to a Bicentennial event at Old North Bridge, in Concord, 1975.

Joyce Boghosianalso in the show, wasn’t a chief White House photographer. She did work as a photographer in the White House under Reagan, both Bushes, Obama, and Trump. Now that is bipartisanship of a high order.

Jeffrey Aaronson’s “The President and the Press,” which also runs through March 31, serves a kind of pendant to “Room.” The dozen images were taken during a 1998 Clinton trip to China. Instead of the president being the focus, it was the coverage the trip was receiving. We’re still in the room where it happened, room construed loosely, only it’s the people looking into the room who matter rather than its figurative proprietor. Here the center of attention isn’t at the center. It’s on the margins.


Jeffrey Aaronson, President Bill Clinton as seen on screen, 1998.Jeffrey Aaronson

On Jan. 20 (that’s right, the date presidents are inaugurated) the Griffin hosts a panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. featuring Boghosian, Craighead, Farmer, Kennerly, and McNeely. For information go to griffinmuseum.org/event/0120panel.

IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED: A Survey of Presidential Photographers

JEFFREY AARONSON: The President and the Press

At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through March 31. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.