I was reading an interesting article in The New York Times about the Presidential dress code. Barack Obama’s recent choice to be photographed without his suit jacket in the Oval Office was front-page news. It rang a bell and then I remembered how another President’s fashion choices changed my life as a photographer.
First, to read the article about Obama’s evolving dress code, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/29/us/politics/29whitehouse.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=obama%20oval%20office%20dress&st=cse
Then let me tell you my story. It was spring of 1980 and I was fresh out of college and just starting to make a living as a photographer. I stumbled onto the California campaign of Illinois Congressman, John Anderson, who was running for President as an independent. Though his campaign had its brief 15 minutes of fame, it never took off nationally. I did learn a thing or two about the art of photographing candidates by following Anderson around. Since I was in California at the time, the photo agency I was working with, Gamma-Liaison, urged me to start following a former governor by the name of Ronald Reagan.
Fast-forward to November of 1980 and not only was the former movie star now the Republican candidate for President, but he won. Having followed his campaign around California meant that I had decent access to him once he was elected. This was a long time ago in terms of how close you could get to a candidate and how few people were skilled as photographers. The photos I made of him as the President-elect suddenly became a hot commodity.
My first published photo in Time magazine shows a beaming Reagan coming down a staircase after Sunday church services. The sales reports from my agency said the work was being used across the globe. I was thrilled to know the work was getting published (and I would eventually get paid for all the effort I had invested).
My most famous picture of Reagan is seen below. If you look at it seriously, you are probably horrified to see the drive shaft leading to the helicopter’s rotor is “growing” right out of the President elect’s head. I wish I could say I noticed that when I made the photo, but I did not. What I can say was that this was back in the “old days” of slide film, where I would take the photos, write some captions and ship the unprocessed film to New York City (and pray all went well).
A few days later, I received the cherished “atta boy,” congratulatory phone call from one of my New York editors. We lived to be lauded like that (and strived not to be chewed-out when we somehow “screwed up.”) Apparently one of my Reagan images was going to be a full page in the Sunday New York Times magazine.
Needless to say, I was thrilled. I had no idea which image it was or what the article was going to be about. All that mattered was that I was a rookie freelancer with a page in the New York Times Magazine.
When I opened the New York Times Magazine a week later, I was horrified. There was my photo, taking up a whole page. The composition was awful! The image was being used in a fashion-related article about the new style of dress that Ronald (and by extension Nancy) Reagan were bringing to the Presidency.
I did not notice it when I made the image, but the “news value” of this image was that Reagan was wearing denim. The fact that “a President (to be) was seen in blue jeans,” that was news. Though I was embarrassed by the compositional lapse, no one else seemed to notice. In fact, Reagan later requested two prints of that image. One for his collection and one to sign and send back to me.
I am not sure which, if any of the photographers following President Obama will get the kind of career boost I did from Reagan’s personal fashion revolution, but I certainly hope so.