President’s day seems like a good time to dig into the archive and
talk about my first assignment to photograph in the Oval Office. I had only
been in Washington two months when the Los Angeles Times called and
needed some updated pictures of President Clinton. I jumped at the
chance. Before arriving in DC, I had lived in Los Angeles and had
photographed a bunch of famous Hollywood types. Steven Spielberg was
the best and Tim Robins was the worst. However you look at it, movie
stars have to take a back seat to the Big Guy.
I had seen those behind the scenes pictures in Vanity Fair of Annie
Leibovitz photographing (don’t think you can really use the word
shooting here) in the White House with her huge light boxes and
multiple assistants so I also wanted to pack enough gear to properly
photograph the leader of the free world.
Back in sunny southern California I would fill up my Suburban with
equipment and be able to park right at the location. This was going to
call for a much different game plan. I ended up with a small two-wheel
cart to carry a set of Dynalite strobes, tripod, light stands and some
When I cleared security and got inside, the White House media people
looked at my cart like it was R2D2 from Star Wars. What do you think
you’re going to do with that, they asked? You guessed it; I was not on
equal footing with Annie. All that gear stayed outside the oval as I
entered with just two Canon film cameras, an 85mm 1.8 lens and a
70-200mm zoom. What they knew and I didn’t was my time with the
leader of the free world was going to last only three minutes or about
two rolls of color neg film. I knew I didn’t want a standard behind the
desk shot; I decided to go in tight around his face, to capture him in
a pensive moment. The resulting image, of a brooding Clinton, his chin
resting against a clenched fist, stands up well today. And it still amazes
me that I pulled it off in just about three minutes.
When my meter expired, a press person walked into my frame and
waved me toward the door. I grabbed the handle of my still unpacked
equipment cart, and headed for the front gate.
Canon EOS1, Fuji 800 speed film and 70-200 2.8 zoom lens. It may be the Oval Office but it was DARK.