Photograph The President of The United States
Maybe someday I'll Photograph of the President of the United States.
In 1968 there was this little moment when this thought popped into my head, "Photograph the President of the United States." At 16 years of age, after having just discovered that photography was way cooler than I'd ever imagined, I'd asked myself the question, "What would I most like to do with a camera?" It was the day my first ever published pictures appeared, on the front page, no less. I recall seeing that triptych of Susie Lambert, high school cheerleader, shot during lunch in the cafeteria the previous day. Just beneath the photos in the Santa Maria Times was my first ever photo credit.
The day before I'd gone to my after school work-education job as a photographer at the Times. Emil Frey, a hippie type photographer was in the process of showing me how to make prints the newspaper way. My high school photo teacher had introduced our class to the Ansel Adams and Edward Weston style of precision photography where we were learning Adam's Zone System, requiring meticulous exactitude. Now, after school, Emil Frey was showing me how to do things entirely differently, the newspaper way; fast, down and dirty.
Whilst I was practicing this considerably different printing technique, Emil grabbed the roll of film I'd shot earlier that day and took a look at it in the dim orange glow of the darkroom safelight. Without a word he quietly slunk out of the darkroom, my 36 shot uncut strip of film pinched between his thumb and forefinger. When I peeked out through the darkroom curtain into the newsroom I saw Emil loping towards the managing editor's desk, my film strip twisting and trailing behind him like the tail of a demon. Incredulous, I watched him perch himself on the edge of the world's grumpiest man's desk whilst animatedly pointing to my negatives. By the churlish look on the editor's face, I thought for sure I'd done something wrong. The ensuing argument between Hippie and Mr. Grump had caused everyone in the newsroom to put their heads down and me to duck mine back into the darkroom. When Emil returned the only thing he said was, "Go out and shoot something interesting around town this afternoon."
The next morning there were my pictures of Susie ... with my name beneath them! Front page! Three big pictures! Above the fold! Later that day Emil informed me I'd been assigned to take pictures of the big cross town rivalry basketball game that night. As soon as I arrived at the big game both team's cheerleader's called out my name, "Jim! Jim! Take my picture!" Wow. That's when The Thought popped into my head: "Maybe someday I'll Photograph the President of the United States."
Ten years later I found myself living in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from The White House whilst my wife was firmly ensconced in law school. Several times a week I made my way across the Roosevelt Bridge in order to stand in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I recall the burning desire I felt as I projected every particle of my being through those black steel bars, imagining myself as one of those photographers inside.
I began shopping my little portfolio of newspaper photos; a discombobulation of pictures of night time football games, an escaped tiger captured inside a bread truck, an astronaut in a parade, downed power lines and little old lady's sewing circles was my only calling card. I showed my work everywhere; TIME, NEWSWEEK, US NEWS, THE WASHINGTON POST, AP, UPI, etc. I heard "You've got a good eye" as many times as I heard, "Forget it kid, EVERYONE wants to cover The White House." I thought, "Maybe everyone does, but maybe everyone doesn't want it as much as I do."
Eventually I found an International News Photo Agency who was willing to write a letter of introduction for me because they needed someone to cover The President full time. After a brief meeting in The West Wing Press Office with an assistant press secretary, I was shocked to discover The White House was more excited than me about having a freelance photojournalist cover The President for a news organization who'd release and disseminate color images to publications around the world. I was told to go down the hallway to see the Secret Service about my background check for my very own Secret Service approved, Permanent White House Press Credential. That was one helluva moment.