official presidential portraits

Portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson

President Lyndon B. Johnson

Votes for the 2008 U.S. Presidential election are being tallied as I write this. The past year feels like it’s been one long, non-stop political conversation and many of us are relieved to see it finally coming to a close. Though prophotolife isn’t a forum for politics, it seemed a natural to tie photography into the big event somehow. Rather than looking at what’s happening today or contemplating the future, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at Presidents and photography.

In a few months there will be a new nameplate on the Oval Office at the White House and shortly thereafter a new Presidential portrait will be created. Since many of us have an interest in portraiture I took a look online at some images preserving the likeness of those who have served at this country’s highest post.

A quick search turned up two interesting sources for Presidential portraits:

1. The Library of Congress Special Presentation: Time Line of Presidents and First Ladies

2. This smaller collection at the U.S. Military Department of Defense

The portraits all have different qualities and inspired a few different thoughts.

President William J. Clinton

President William J. Clinton

First, the photo of President Lyndon B. Johnson (above) from the Department of Defense site. This is a beautiful environmental portrait with a strong main light and a nice edge light from slightly behind on the same side. This is a well known image among photographers of my vintage. Hmmm, I wonder if we should be concerned that the Department of Defense officially lists the photographer as “unknown”. For the record, the photographer was celebrated portrait artist Arnold Newman (and there’s his signature in the lower right of the photo).

The attached portrait of President Bill Clinton (right) is from an admittedly poor quality copy negative, so hopefully we can look beyond that. The most interesting thing to me is how this image defines “pre-digital photography” from not so long ago. Yes, airbrushing was available in the days of film but this portrait managed to slip through with a bunch of fly-away hairs. The reason I mention it is because it’s really easy for even amateur photographers to retouch such things now. Fifteen years ago they were often overlooked.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is looking relaxed and dignified in this simple two-light portrait. There’s a fairly hard main light at left (beauty dish?), no fill light, and a small spot light on the background. This is a perfect example of Rembrandt lighting that creates a triangle of light on the subject’s cheek (discussed in video episode 13, beautiful portraits with just one light). The lack of a fill light creates more contrast and drama. A sharp suit helps “Ike” look downright dapper.

There are many more portraits on the sites mentioned above and some are covered by copyright exclusions preventing them from running here. They range from nice images to not-so-impressive photography, to be honest.

The one constant is that they’re all of former Presidents of the United States, men among the leaders of the free world. That’s a lot of power to wield, isn’t it? Trying to capture that in a photography could understandably be a daunting task.