Tag Archives: Recession

Pete Souza’s Portrait of a Presidency

The long view of history tends to be the judge of a presidency. As we approach what President Obama hopes will be the midpoint of his tenure in the Oval Office, it is too early to draw conclusions on his legacy as Commander in Chief. What we do know is that Obama’s first term has been a historic one: the first African American to hold the county’s highest office, Obama and his Administration have battled a recession, passed health care reform and legislation to end the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, formally ended the war in Iraq and brought Osama bin Laden to justice.

Through adversity and triumph, public victories and private setbacks, chief official White House photographer Pete Souza and his team of photographers have relentlessly documented the actions of the President, the First Lady and the Vice President since Obama took office in early 2009.

As the President runs for a second term, LightBox asked Souza to reflect on his time photographing Obama and share an edit of his favorite images that he and his staff made during the President’s first term; the photographs offer a fascinatingly candid insight into the life of the President while painting a portrait of Barack Obama the man, husband and father.

“I tried to, in putting together this edit, not only to show some of the high points or low points of his presidency thus far, but pictures that help people understand what he’s like, not only as a President but as a human being,” Souza tells TIME. “And how he relates to other people, how he relates to his family.”

Souza’s process is aided by his long-standing working relationship with Obama — one that precedes the presidency. They met on Jan. 3, 2005, Obama’s first day in the Senate. For Souza, then a staff photographer at the Chicago Tribune‘s Washington bureau, it was the first day of a yearlong assignment to document the new Senator’s time in office.

As the assignment evolved, Souza — who had worked as a White House staff photographer during President Reagan’s second term — began recognizing something special about the Senator. An inkling of things to come, or potential for the future. He began looking for moments that would prove valuable in the course of history, photographs that would define Obama’s early years to those who only knew his legacy.

“I was looking for things that I knew that if he ever became President you would never see again,” he says. “[Obama was] walking down a sidewalk in Moscow in 2005 and no one recognized him. I realized that if he ever became President, you would never, ever see a photograph like that. The odds of becoming President are obviously pretty slim, but I knew he had the potential. And you can’t say that about too many people.”

Souza continued to photograph Senator Obama, who quickly became presidential-candidate Obama and then Democratic-nominee Obama. With Obama’s 2008 election victory, Souza returned to the White House as chief official White House photographer and director of the White House Photography Office.

The photographs that Souza has taken extend the lineage of White House photography that began in the 1960s, first in a somewhat scattered way during John F. Kennedy’s Administration and then more officially with Yoichi Okamoto, Lyndon B. Johnson’s photographer. Okamoto is considered the first photographer to capture the presidency with an eye for history. Souza is quick to acknowledge and praise his work and that of others who have followed, including David Kennerly (Ford), Bob McNeely (Clinton) and Eric Draper (George W. Bush).

An all-digital workflow is one thing that differentiates Souza’s work from the majority of his predecessors. Although he wasn’t the one to move the process to digital — Draper, Bush’s photographer, made the switch from film to digital — Souza made the first official portrait of an incoming President with a digital camera. The Obama Administration has understood the insatiable appetite for imagery that the digital age has wrought and embraces Flickr as a means of disseminating presidential photography.

The Administration encourages sharing behind-the-scenes photos now, he says. “[It wanted] to establish a way to become more transparent than any other Administration, so every month, we upload a new batch of behind-the-scenes photos. The response has been overwhelming.”

But alongside the ease brought by the digital era came one difficulty: the Presidential Records Act prohibits Souza and his team from deleting any photographs. ”One of our bigger challenges is just the storage of all these images,” he says, noting the immense difficulty the team will experience moving millions of digital files to the National Archives at the end of Obama’s tenure.

Souza’s work with the President follows in the golden age of photojournalism’s best traditions, when photographers working for magazines like LIFE established relationships and spent inordinate amounts of time shooting beautifully crafted images of public figures.

“I spend a lot of time with [the President], around him, on vacations, sometimes on weekends, depending on what’s going on. He’s used to me being around,” Souza says. As his friend P.F. Bentley described it, “When the President is on, I’m on. And when the President’s off, I’m still on.”

Souza recalls one meeting that he missed because it had been rescheduled unbeknownst to him. “I was a little upset with the President’s secretary for not telling me that they had moved the meeting up, and [the President] heard us talking and he said, ‘What are you talking about? You were in that meeting.’ He’s so used to me being there that he thought that I had been in the meeting that I wasn’t even in. So I took that as a compliment.”

His access to Obama’s inner circle and day-to-day routine stems from the trust he built during their relationship prior to the presidency. “I’m there to seriously document his presidency. I’m not looking for cheap shots, and I think that’s the kind of relationship any White House photographer should have with the President they’re covering,” he says. “That they have a level of access and trust that will lead to important photographs for history.”

Souza is aware of the significance of the photographs he and his team are taking, but he’s also focused on capturing the small and incidental moments that make the Obama Administration unique. “There are days that you certainly think about the importance of what’s taking place — you’re serving an important role in visually documenting this period of time for history,” he says. “But at the same time, a lot of the pictures that tell you a lot about a President are not [made] during those times. They’re when he’s having a private moment with one of his daughters, or when something unexpected happens that may not be, you know, important in terms of history’s sake.”

“I think that’s what keeps you on your toes. You never know when those moments are gonna occur, because they don’t always occur when big things are happening,” he says. The image of Obama playing in the snow with Sasha and Malia is a testament to Souza’s approach. The photograph is not simply of the President but of a moment shared between a father and his daughters.

These personal images round out Souza’s portrait of the President and give it greater depth. While preparing this edit for LightBox, he acknowledged that it was hard to present what a presidency is about in just a handful of pictures. “I don’t gravitate toward any singular image right now,” he says. “I try to look at a body of work, and so I’m proud of this edit that I submitted. To me, it’s all these photographs together which tell you something about this man, this President, and I guess to a certain extent, about me and what I think is important.”

Although Souza’s edit comprises more than 100 images, it is by no means a comprehensive record of Obama’s time in office. “I’m sure that I left out some important moments,” he says. “I don’t think I included anything from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and that’s historic in itself — he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it just didn’t fit in with the series of pictures that I wanted to present.”

Says Souza of the President: “He has certainly created history just by being the first African-American President. Hopefully in future generations, we’ll soon have a woman President or a Hispanic President, and it won’t matter that much. But I think that if you’d ask him, he wants to be remembered for the things that he’s done.”

For Souza, it’s difficult at this point to reflect on the last four years and the photographs he and his team have made. “One of the difficult things, doing this every day, is having a chance to really sit back and take it all in. Putting these photos together helped that a little bit,” he says. “You’re a little bit overwhelmed about everything that happened in four years, because a lot of stuff has happened. I hope there will come a time where, when I’m not doing this job any longer, I’ll be able to sit back and reflect on everything that he’s been through and everything that I’ve been through.”

An exhibition of Souza’s work, The Obama White House — Photographs by Pete Souza, is on view at the Leica Gallery in New York City from Oct. 5 to Nov. 10, 2012.

Kirk Crippens

It is rare to gain access to a world behind bars, but photographer Kirk Crippens achieved that task in 2008, and since then, he has been granted one hour with the prisoners on an annual basis.  That access has resulted in the project, Hidden Population, a series of portraits on San Quentin inmates.
Kirk is one of the most prolific photographers making work today, and one of the most generous.  Much of his work explores The Great Recession, with projects that look at foreclosure, job loss, and the collapse of auto dealerships. Kirk had an early start with photography, inspired by
his grandfather who kept a darkroom in his closet. In college, he
ventured into photojournalism, interning at prestigious newspapers around the
US. Based in San Francisco since 2000 he focused his efforts on personal
projects. He has exhibited widely in solo and group shows,  he was  named Top 50 Photographer in Photolucida’s Critical Mass in 2010 and 2011, nominated for the 2011–2013 Eureka Fellowship Program, nominated for Photolucida’s book prize, and exhibited in the
International Photography Festival in Lishui, China. He is currently the artist
in residence at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco and 2013 he will be the Artist in Residence at Newspace
Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon.
Images from Hidden Population

I was in the midst of a long process of photographing portraits inside San Quentin in May 2011 when the Supreme Court declared the overcrowding in California’s prison system unconstitutional and ordered the population lowered by 133,000 to achieve 137.5% capacity. My project began in 2008, when I petitioned the prison to allow me inside with my cameras. A year and a half later I was granted limited access and began a series of brief one-hour visits with the men. I was allowed inside once a year between 2009-12.

When I first arrived at San Quentin with my cameras, the prisoners were seated facing one another in a circle of metal chairs arranged for a gardening class. Fluorescent lights reflected off the tile floor onto their faces. The warden was present and guards were scattered throughout the room. I was given 45 minutes. Rushed and constricted, I struggled to find resonance. A man with a hand-sewn cap caught my attention, and I isolated him in my viewfinder. As I took in the scene, it occurred to me that I could capture individual qualities of the men from behind while they were participating in the class. By approaching it this way, I could also reference the hidden aspect of the lives they lead, locked up inside the prison.

When invited back in January 2012, I decided to try a different approach that included bringing a tripod and directly asking the men to pose for me. I set up my tripod in front of a cinder block wall in the San Quentin cafeteria and began asking the men if I could take their portrait. Most seemed honored; a few declined. It wasn’t how the guards or warden expected me to work, and I could feel the tension. The guards whispered and huddled together in the corner. Less than an hour later they asked me to leave and ushered me out. Although the series I’m submitting feels complete, I continue to be interested in prison culture and the political issues affecting it. I hope to visit again.

Martin Usborne, Tea with five sugars

Martin Usborne, Tea with five sugars

Martin Usborne

Tea with five sugars,
Hoxton, London, 2008
From the Joseph of Hoxton series
Website – MartinUsborne.com

Martin Usborne lives and works in London. He trained in architecture, then philosophy, then psychology, then 3D animation before finally settling on photography. His current work consists of portraits, both human and animal, and he is particularly interested in capturing the relationship between the two whether directly (when both appear in the frame) or indirectly (as in the case of his MUTE: the silence of dogs in cars series, where the human's role is implied). He strives to make his work poignant but playful – he feels there is too much unremitting sadness in contemporary art photography. He has published two photography books, the first called I’ve Lived in Hoxton for 81.5 years about an old man that has only once left East London, and another, My name is Moose about what it is like to be a dog in the recession. His third book, The Silence of Dogs in Cars is due out in October.

The Point by Kirk Crippens and Michael Jang

Somewhere in the virtual world, I came across The Point, a new Blurb book that is the collaborative effort of Kirk Crippens and Michael Jang. I’m a big fan of both photographers, and I love the idea of working apart and together to create a significant project. Their statement and some of the book’s imagery follows, but as this is an on going project, there is surely more to come. Congrats to both photographers for a terrific project and book.

The Point is an ongoing collaborative project between Michael Jang and Kirk Crippens. Each spread in the book spans a decade, with one unlabeled photograph by each artist. The series began in 1999 when Jang, a native San Franciscan, became curious about the often-ignored Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco. Sometimes referred to as The Point, this was the last remaining San Francisco neighborhood left untouched by developers. http://www.kirkcrippens.com/portfolio.html?folio=2011

In the process of taking pictures, Jang built trust with some of the residents and heard rumors of big changes on the horizon: the area was slated for massive redevelopment. He completed his work on the series in 2001, set aside the negatives, and per his usual practice, moved directly on to another project.

A decade later, Jang was making his way through his volumes of negatives when he discovered the Hunters Point work and began editing and printing it. During the same time he came across Kirk Crippens’ series on The Great Recession: The Dealership Wreck. He sent an email to Crippens that began, “I know you shoot change…” and he asked Crippens if he would consider continuing his Hunters Point series. It was an unusual proposition, but Jang had an intuition. So did Crippens, who began working in Hunters Point the next day.

He chose a church in the heart of the neighborhood and began attending services each week. The congregation immediately
welcomed him, making an effort to shake his hand and remember his name. Soon Crippens found himself describing the project to the pastor. Meetings were then coordinated with pillars of the community who invited him to photograph their homes and granted access to photograph some of the iconic rooms slated for redevelopment.

Although a core group of long-term residents remain, many changes have taken shape in and around the neighborhood since
1999, and the changes continue. Today, a vast wave of construction just north churns closer each day. The largest redevelopment site in San Francisco, the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, promises to convert 700 acres of The Point’s eastern waterfront into 10,000 residential units. Photography has also changed dramatically since 1999. When Jang completed his work in 2001 he was using film, processing with chemicals, editing on a light table, and printing at a color lab. By the time Crippens began working on the project he had the opportunity to make digital images, upload and edit on a computer, and print large format photographs in his home.

Still, much of the process Jang and Crippens employ in the creation of The Point remains the same. Relationships must be
formed, trust must be earned, and access must be granted.

Kevin Miyazaki

“These portraits were made on the sidewalk outside the Wisconsin state capital building in Madison. During the protests, the unofficial theme, expressed in words, drum beats and car horns, has been, “This is what Democracy looks like!” This is what Democracy looked like to me, in the form of faces, signs, buttons, and hard hats. “

This Is What Democracy Looks Like
Portrait Society Gallery
207 E. Buffalo Street (Marshall Building), 5th floor, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
April 15 to May 1, 2011
Gallery hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1-5 p.m.

Clampdown: Labor, Management, and the Recession
Zaller Gallery
16001 Waterloo Road, Cleveland, Ohio
April 30 to May 20, 2011
Opening reception on April 30, from 6-10 p.m.

He has also created a terrific video of this project.