Continuing the Legacy of the U.S. President's Photographer

Continuing the Legacy of the U.S. President's Photographer

The tradition of the White House photographers, now officially known as the Chief Official White House Photographer, was started by John F. Kennedy in January of 1961. A free press is responsible for accurate reportage and is essential to a democracy, though access can provide certain limitations. Having unprecedented access, where the press are typically held at a greater distance, the President’s photographer adds a level of transparency for the American public to engage and see the President working for the country within the context of current events.

These photographs serve as a message to the world as to what our leadership values, without compromising security. Perhaps most notably, it has become a role necessary to intimately chronicle the history of the office, while concurrently humanizing the Chief Executive as a person. Digital and film images are preserved by the National Archives, with negatives maintained in cold storage.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip greets President and First Lady at Windsor Castle on April 22, 2016. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The President's New Photographer

It was announced only hours ago that Shealah Craighead will be the official White House photographer under President Donald Trump. She previously worked as a White House staff photographer under President George W. Bush and was on hand to document the inaugural balls on Friday after President Trump’s inauguration. She becomes the tenth official White House photographer. It was initially unclear as to whether President Trump would select an official White House photographer.

Vice President and Mrs. Bush traveling on Air Force II during the 1984 Presidential Campaign, October 25, 1984. Photo by David Valdez, from the National Archives.

A Brief Overview of the Office's Updated History

  • President John F. Kennedy - Cecil W. Stoughton
    • Stoughton took the inaugural role of the President's Photographer in January of 1961, remaining with President Kennedy until Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson - Yoichi Okamoto
    • Okamoto got his start as an Army photographer chronicling World War II in Italy before photographing Vice President Johnson ahead of hs presidency.
  • President Richard Nixon - Ollie Atkins
    • Atkins worked as a White House staff photographer in various capacities for nearly a quarter of a century.

      Ollie Atkins confering with the White House photo office staff, circa 1/20/1969 to 8/9/1974. Created by the White House Photo Office, from the National Archives.

  • President Gerald Ford - David Hume Kennerly
    • Before photographing for President Ford, Kennerly won the Pulitzer Prize and was a photographer for Time.
  • President Jimmy Carter  - None
    • No official photographer was appointed during the Carter administration, though there was a White House photography staff which included Bob McNeely.
  • President Ronald Regan - Michael Evans & Pete Souza
    • Evans covered Regan's presidential run in 1975 then President Regan's first term. Souza took over to cover Regan's second term in office.
  • President George H. W. Bush - David Valdez
    • Valdez started photographing for Vice President Bush and followed him into the presidency.
  • President Bill Clinton - Bob McNeely
    • After serving in Vietnam, McNeely worked in the White House Photo Office during the Carter administration before later serving under President Clinton.
  • President George W. Bush - Eric Draper
    • Formerly an accomplished AP photographer, Draper served under President Bush where he transitioned the White House Photo Office from film to digital capture.
  • President Barack Obama - Pete Souza
    • Souza built on his experiences photographing for President Regan, covering Senator Obama as a Chicago Tribune photographer, later to serve the office of President once again.
  • President Donald Trump - Shealah Craighead
    • Craighead is the first female to occupy the office. She was a White House staff photographer under President George W. Bush and covered Governor Sarah Palin's campaign during the 2008 presidential bid.

Senator Barack Obama campaigning for U.S. President. © 2008 Jordan Bush.

The Peaceful Transition of Photographic Power

On his exit, Pete Souza archived his Instagram account of presidential coverage, renaming it @PeteSouza44, and created his own personal account @PeteSouza.

As of this writing, The White House’s Flickr account is devoid of any photographs, but with Shealah Craighead now appointed to the role, we can hope that will change soon. You can follow Craighead on Twitter.

Former Vice President Joe Biden at his Welcome Home Event on Inauguration Day, Friday, January 20, 2017, in Wilmington, DE. © 2017 Jordan Bush.

Jordan Bush's picture

Fstoppers Writer Jordan Bush is a pro photographer focusing on commercial, editorial, and photojournalism work. He writes and photographs the monthly column, "Foodographer." A former Apple software trainer and hardware technician, he also has an affinity for retro video games.

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Big shoes to follow in....Pete Souza.
Wondering if I'm related to Shealah. My mother is a Craighead. Hmmm....

Big shoes indeed! What an incredible assignment, exhausting, but incredible.

"and the first female to occupy the role"

First female what? The correct word is "woman".

"and the first woman to occupy the role"

Of course you're right but kinda nit picky.

I don't think anybody can really top Souza after seeing the images he made for Obama.

Souza was fantastic, but I'm sure she will be his equal in her own way. Only time will tell, but I hope she gives him a run for his money. Such an awesome roll model atleast.

Yeah. I really like her photographic style and see a lot of similarities with my own. In places it is loose to the point of being more like a video still, but it has an informality, kindness, quirkiness and inventiveness to it.

I hope given her long experience she sticks to that and we see the off-centre compositions and the out of focus foreground frames, and more of the low angle stuff which is often so telling.

Speaking of Lyndon B. Johnson, I first heard this clip of him on some local commercial radio years back... Off topic, I know, but it's funny:

Did she take his official portrait? Because it's terrible.