By: Thorsten Overgaard. July 7, 2018.
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I flew from Brussels to Washington DC on a red-eye for the opportunity to photograph President Trump a few weeks ago.
I’m a big fan of presidential photography, photographing a president is always on my bucket list, preferably as much behind the scenes as possible. One of my favorite books is “The Clinton Years” by White House photographer Robert Mcneely, shot with a Leica, showing pictures from his presidency. But any photographer who has had special access to a president, I find it interesting reviewing what they made out of it.
One of the favorite photos by Mcneely is the one of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President Clinton alone in front of the fireplace in the oval office. Everybody had left the room and they were now to speak one-on-one. Mcneely stands his ground as the White House photographer, and President Boris Yeltsin looks annoyed as if to say “Didn’t you get the memo? Bugger off”; Mcneely looks at President Clinton, who gives a nod that means, “He stays”. (There’s a one hour talk by Robert McNeely on YouTube here).
You cannot photograph the moment others want to indulge in, if you aren’t there. You as a photographer have to be prepared for the moments, and you must be prepared to work within the short windows of being allowed there, until the moment somebody decides to throw you out. Ideally, the photographer is the last one to leave the room. Stay a fly on the wall and make something out of the seconds it takes until someone discovers you and decides to throw you out.
So that’s what I try to envision. The possibilities of being a fly on the wall, or perhaps even a welcomed guest, in the moments where nobody else is there to see what happens.
In this case I had a few opportunities as my wife Joy Villa would be singing for President Trump at the Susan B. Anthony List Gala in the evening.
Visiting the East Wing. Leica M10 with Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4.
My morning started with a tour of the White House East Wing, which was more of the normal tourist route than I had hoped it to be. Frankly, it was a tourist trap where I ended up having to photograph people with their own iPhones. My visit as guest to the White House Christmas Dinner in December had been much more fruitful with unlimited access to the whole place.
In the afternoon I went with Joy to the event space for the sound check, so I got to get an overview of the location, the backstage and the schedule of who would arrive when, and where they would likely walk to the stage. I build a mental timeline and a map of possible locations I should try to be in to get my fly on the wall photo.
My official assignment, not to forget, I had to get great photos of my wife singing, and be ready for any photo opportunities she ends up in.
As you know if you have read up on me, I flew to the Faroe Islands to photograph President Bill Clinton and had a one-on-one coffee drinking photo opportunity with him in the midst of all the frenzies of the official visit. I was there, alone with Clinton – until someone decided to throw me out a few seconds later. I know the drill.
I am always looking and hoping for the unexpected – but not unlikely – moment of getting a chance to photograph the president off-guard and casually.
Part of my considerations for the President Trump photo was also which camera to wear. I decided upon the Leica M10 with the 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25, knowing that this new exciting lens might look so big it could cause problems in the entrance. I had a plan B, but didn’t need it. It was a gala diner, and thus not very restrictive on “professional cameras” which usually means cameras with big lenses and/or flashes (and always remove the electronic viewfinder if you intend to use it as it is often mistaken for a flash).
Tables decorated with chocolate treats curtesy of the president. Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.
I was seated with Joy Villa at a table just next to the stage and I had scouted which locations I would photograph from, beforehand. I tested the grounds before people got seated to see how the Secret Service would react.
Suddenly a Secret Service woman walks determinedly over to me as I am next to the stage and the speaker’s chair. My eyes go to the bulge of weaponry beneath her jacket and my heart freezes for a second. She stares at me and stops. “Is that Christian Louboutin sneakers?” she asks and point at my shoes. “Yes”, I answer, relieved. She nods approvingly, and continues her rounds remarking, “I love them”.
So good so far. I’m recognizable, they’ve seen where I am and what I am doing. If the locations would cause a problem later, they would have told me by now. Of course somebody else might come around later, with the President, who may see things differently.
You just have to limit your possibilities of sticking out. Only do what’s necessary. It’s like photographing in a museum. You plan the angles and things that you want, and when you have planned it properly and the scene is as you want it, you take the photo. The museum guard comes over and tells you, “No photographs” and you act surprised and say, “Oh, I’m sorry”. You got your photo of children and people studying a painting. Then you walk to the next room in the museum where it’s a new guard and a new opportunity.
There’s plenty of people who prefer that nobody takes any photos of anybody or anything, so you as a photographer must be able to decide what’s fair and what’s worthwhile to preserve; and find a way to do it without setting off all the alarms. As long as what you are making of it is valuable for history and a greater good, you can do it. I’ll get into that in another article, “Why no photographs”.
How is he?
I know by now that President Trump will arrive just a few minutes before he goes on stage, and I know I won’t be backstage. Joy Villa might be, but it is unlikely that I would have any plausible reason to casually hang around there. Even for her to get backstage, the Secret Service is very courteous, but determined. Not a thing you can talk around or charm your way about. They know their business.
Joy Villa singing the national anthem in Washington DC. Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.
I get my assignment photos of Joy Villa singing, and the one that I need is of course the one that shows the context. Her singing for an audience. I also have the ones that show her singing, with the stage behind, but that doesn’t really communicate.
Next is President Donald Trump.
I already have my location for one of the photos, which happens to be my seat at the dinner, next to the speaker’s chair. The saying is that President Trump is supposed to speak for 20 minutes, but that he always speaks twice as long. All I have to do is sit and study the gestures and expressions and make a decision which ones I want.
I’m not going to photograph non-stop for 20 or 40 minutes. I have certain looks I want, and overall they should communicate something about the person that gives you an idea about how and who he is. It’s like making a portrait of a person, but one who is speaking, and it won’t work with mid-sentence photos, open mouth and so on. It has to be a moment of a pose in-between all of the other things going on.
A determined look into the camera while not speaking. Maybe a smile.
I work my location from the seat, the same location standing, from the front of the speaker chair, from an angle amongst the tables and from an angle behind the stage.
One of my planned angles from a location amongst the tables. Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.
People always ask, “How is he?” and the answer from a photographer viewpoint, and a bystander is that he is very energetic. He balances his weight from one leg to the other behind the speaker’s chair, like a Muhammed Ali dance, and he’s comfortable speaking, and addresses specific people in the audience as if it was a family dinner, rather than an official speech.
There are lots of expressions I don’t want to capture. Open mouth, freezing face, and you can tell he doesn’t really care to look photogenic for the cameras. His main aim is to affect the people he is speaking for, as if there were no press and no cameras. In this event there happens to be 15-20 photographers below the speaker’s chair, herded in the minutes before President Trump arrived.
It’s not easy to make a great, historically significant photograph of a speaker who uses gesture and talks most of the time. President Trump is not making it easier. From a live standpoint, he’s moving like he’s an athletic person in his 40’s, and he is charming and has confidence, and the experience is that this speaking engagement is all he has on his program this week. In reality, he likely had a presidential schedule of meetings and work stretching 14 hours back before he got here. From a visual standpoint, he doesn’t have a slim face, and he doesn’t dress as slim as he could. He has a number of gestures and facial expressions that I could capture in-between sentences and which wouldn’t work for a photograph portraying the personality.
When the official White House photographer stands next to you, you know you got a good angle. Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.
The more you photograph, the less you look. So I make it a point studying how it works visually, and then aim for the moments that could work. My total of photographs is 120 photos during the 40 minutes, so I spend a lot of time observing, not photographing.
A lucky strike
The photo I took away from the event, is very cool, I think. I happen to like President Trump as a person. I always look for the personality of a person, not their job nor their image. In my books, I talk about ‘capturing the soul’, and by that I mean the personality despite his current occupation and how he dresses.
"Thank you, Joy Villa" from President Donald Trump in his address to the guests at the Susan B. Anthony List Gala. Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.
When we look back in 20 years, what person was he? That’s the photograph I would like to make.
The moment comes where he points to me, and smiles. It’s as if he recognizes the 75mm Noctilux, and says, “Awesome lens. You got one!”
But reality is that he’s making a gesture to my wife sitting next to me, and says “Thank you Joy” (for the song and your work).
So, I’m stealing that moment, and what I got was Trump looking straight at the viewer of the picture and smiling confidently.
Interestingly enough, this was very close to what I wanted, and I think that if one pre-visualizes the look, or perhaps more applicably, the significance and soul of the photo, one can recognize when the possibility arises, and get it. If you have no idea, it’s going to be chance only, and likely what you will get will be a person behind a microphone.
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I had hoped for some audience interaction, maybe President Trump walking out in the room, or something else giving other photo opportunities, but none of that happened. That’s where the family dinner feeling leaves and the reality of the presidential schedule and security steps in. He exits through the back of the stage and straight back to the White House.
I saw that at the Christmas Dinner as well, there’s no mingling with people or taking selfies and shaking hands for half an hour. His work seems more focused on the office and less on pleasing people with nice family album photos.
I had a tour of the White House later that evening again, this time the West Wing. For me of course, it was another possibility of eventually bumping into President Trump. But the West Wing was empty of people, just a few working, and the Oval Office was open to look at, but empty of action.
One interesting thing I got to see was the walls throughout the West Wing with lots of framed 13” x 19” prints from the White House photographers. It’s an ever-changing gallery of their work, displaying recent events like the French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit, and many other unique moments.
What was particularly interesting to me was the excellent quality of editing and printing. I was somewhat disappointed in a lot of the Obama period photographs done on mostly Canon dSLR’s, and when President Trump took office, there wasn’t a White House photographer appointed until weeks later.
The online Flickr feed of White House photos doesn’t do any justice compared with the many excellent and unique photos I saw on the walls there. I always feel a sort of desperation when history passes by and nobody makes any aesthetic preservation of it. So I was glad to see that my desperation was unnecessary. Like there eventually came a great photography book out of the Obama presidency by Pete Souza (who was a Leica Digilux 2 user for a while), there will be thousands and thousands of high-quality photographs from the Trump presidency.
As an aside, the photos on the walls have yellow Post-It notes on their backs, with the names of White House employees who would like to have the photos when they are taken down and new ones put up. A lottery draws the winner.
I hope you enjoyed today’s Story Behind That Picture. As always, feel free to e-mail me with suggestions, questions and ideas.
The Whie House view to the obelisk. Leica M10 with Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4. © 2018 Thorsten von Overgaard.