Feature: Close-Up

In new book, former White House photographer Pete Souza offers intimate portrait of Obama

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Pete Souza captured a special moment on camera between Barack and Michelle Obama, in the elevator on their way to the inaugural ball on Obama’s first day as president. Photo by Pete Souza.

In the roughly 34 years since Donald Trump assumed the presidency—that’s Emotional Standard Time; chronologically, it’s been less than two years—it’s easy to forget that there was once a time when the president of the United States was so unflappable, he earned the nickname “No Drama” Obama.

My, oh my, how times have changed.

Outraged progressives and forlorn Democrats are likely to be mighty ambivalent when it comes to nostalgia for the Barack Obama years. But, welcome or not, here it comes in the form of a stunning new coffee-table book of photographs by former White House photographer Pete Souza titled Obama: An Intimate Portrait.

The book represents the most revealing images culled from a staggering 1.9 million photos that Souza took of Obama and his family, dating back to 2005 when Obama was first elected to the U.S. Senate. During the White House years, Souza tells me, he averaged somewhere between 500 and 2,000 photos of the president each day.

Beyond his friendship with the president, Souza says that purely as a subject, Obama was a godsend. “He was always very recognizable from behind, probably because of his ears. I could be behind him and show things from his perspective and you could tell right away it was him,” he says. “I feel sorry for the photographers who had Gerald Ford or George Bush 41 as their subjects. I mean, let’s face it, those guys were pretty bland in their looks and their mannerisms. It must have been a real challenge. I had someone who was a very photogenic guy.”

On Thursday, May 10, Souza comes to the Curran in San Francisco to sign copies of the new book and tell stories of his eight years as White House chief photographer. He’ll share his perspective on the most meaningful moments of the Obama administration, from the Bin Laden raid to the Sandy Hook shooting, and shed some light on the private personality of the nation’s first African-American president.

“I knew Barack Obama for years before he became president,” says Souza. “And even as he was leaving the White House on that last day [as president], I can’t say that the core character of the man had changed at all. Maybe his hair was a little grayer. But basically, it was the same person I knew way back when.”

From Day One

Souza was a staff photographer for the Chicago Tribune in December of 2004 when he and Tribune reporter Jeff Zeleny pitched the idea to their editors to chronicle the first year of newly elected Sen. Obama in Washington, D.C. Souza negotiated for access with Obama aide Robert Gibbs (who was later White House press secretary), and was there when Obama–his wife and two daughters by his side–was sworn in for his first term in the Senate.

“The very first day was really just a ceremonial day,” remembers Souza, “and I have this picture of the girls in his new office. Neither he or the girls are paying any attention to me, so I was taking these intimate pictures on Day One. Right away, I knew he was a good subject in that he didn’t mind someone snapping away while he was doing what he does, which is what as a photojournalist you strive to find.”

When Obama was elected president, he was comfortable enough with Souza to bring him on as chief White House photographer, a role in which he supervised three other photographers. “I considered it a professional relationship coming into the White House,” he says. “Coming in, I had agreements that I would have access to everything. Well, that’s easier said than done. As soon as you walked into the Oval Office on January 20, 2009, things changed. Even though I had marching orders, I had to earn the right to be in every meeting and to feel out photographing the family.”

Eventually, Souza and Obama developed a more informal relationship. Obama had a tendency to surround himself with much younger staffers, but Souza was an exception. “Here was I, a guy a few years older than he was. That meant we were kind of from the same generation. So we experienced many of the same cultural and historical things from the ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of those around him weren’t even born yet.”

After a while, the Obamas’ trust in Souza dovetailed with the photographer’s intuitions on when to give the First Family space, particularly when it came to the Obama daughters, Sasha and Malia. “We didn’t want to do anything that would cause the girls any kind of embarrassment or unwanted attention,” he says.

Photo by Pete Souza.

Souza’s body of work as presidential photographer tends to break down into one of three categories: Obama during his workday in his role as president, his interactions with people (often children) and his efforts at maintaining normal-guy activities, such as cheering on from the stands at his daughter’s basketball game. Some of Souza’s images have already become iconic, including an image of the president bending at the waist in the Oval Office to allow a young African-American boy to touch his head. Another famous image shows the president in a freight elevator leaning in to touch forehead-to-forehead with First Lady Michelle Obama, who is wearing his jacket, as the two make their way to an inaugural ball on the first day of the Obama presidency.

Souza was also in the Oval Office the moment that President Obama learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 when 26 people—20 of them young children—were killed.

“Sad to say, we had already been through a couple of these mass shootings before that,” says Souza. “He’s a parent with two young girls at home. His reaction, as a fellow parent but also as the president of the United States, was he couldn’t imagine the horror of saying goodbye to your kids after breakfast and putting them on a school bus, and the next time you see them, their body had been blasted five times at point blank range by some crazy guy, which is essentially what happened. He was overwrought with emotion, as a parent.”

The goal of a photographer is to reveal something about the personality, the morality or the conduct of his subject, and that’s never more true than when that subject is the president. Souza saw Obama’s character come through in countless ways in his eight years as White House photographer. Behind every image is a story, he says, of how Obama relates to people and how he found a balance between his individual personality and his role as president.

Souza remembers accompanying Obama to an immigration event in Texas, during which the president was being heckled—not by conservatives, but by progressives who felt he wasn’t doing enough to help immigrants.

“So he says, ‘Look, let me finish my speech, and when I do, I’ll have a conversation with you guys.’ Now, I’m sure everyone there figured he was just saying that to shut those guys up. But in actuality, he finishes his speech and points to those two guys to come join him backstage. So the photo is backstage with these two young guys, and he’s got his hand on this one kid’s shoulders who he’s talking to. You can tell this kid is just shitting his pants. He’s just been called back by the president of the United States, and now he’s a foot away from him. That tells you a lot about Barack Obama, that he would make the effort to explain himself in that way.”

Pete Souza, presented by Book Passage, Thursday, May 10, 7pm; $65 to $135 (tickets include a copy of the book with signed bookplate); the Curran, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco; sfcurran.com.  

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