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Former presidential photographers kick off Newseum exhibit with panel

Aaron Schwartz | Staff Photographer
Kenneth T. Walsh, chief White House correspondent for the U.S. News & World Report, discusses life as a presidential photographer with Callie Shell and Eric Draper.

Before the opening of the new exhibit “Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe,” the Newseum hosted a panel with two former White House photographers Thursday.

At the event in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, the two photographers – who each documented eight-year presidencies – discussed the challenges they faced and the process of establishing trust with POTUS as they became part of their intimate everyday lives.

Eric Draper, who was the personal photographer for former President George W. Bush, said an integral part of his job was showing the story behind the story, which was particularly important as Bush responded to the events of 9/11.

“I’ll never forget sitting inside the helicopter, smelling the smoke as we neared Manhattan,” Draper said. “You realize that everyone has a weakness.”

Draper explained that as a presidential photographer, his job was to use his photographs to document American history for the presidential archives.

“You’re not there to really participate,” Draper said. “President Bush opened his life to me, seeing the president not just as the president, but as a person.”

The exhibit was originally housed in the Newseum in 2013, but the museum brought it back this year in honor of 100th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy’s birth. The display showcases intimate images of Kennedy and his family during his presidency.

The panel was moderated by Kenneth T. Walsh, who serves as the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Walsh’s upcoming book, “Ultimate Insiders: White House Photographers and How They Shape History,” is set to be published Oct. 13 and tells the stories behind White House photographers.

Callie Shell, who photographed former Vice President Al Gore and former President Barack Obama during his 2004 campaign, explained that it is not the job of a White House photographer to serve as a public relations agent for the White House. Instead, she said photographers have to show a real, behind-the-scenes look at the president’s life.

“Everybody should see the life of who they elect,” Shell said. “I don’t think you learn anything about people at podiums.”

Shell described how a public figure gets accustomed to being followed by a photographer, to the point where they almost forget the photographer is there and reveal their true emotions. Shell said during her tenure she saw the impacts that the president’s difficult decisions through the emotion in his face.

“It’s strange that it’s such a lonely job when you never have a moment alone,” Shell said. “We want someone to fix our problems, and they can’t, but they can bleed.”

“Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe” includes more than 60 color and black and white photographs, nine wall cases displaying 11 magazines of Lowe’s photographs of Kennedy and interactive features with presidential photography.

During his career, Kennedy’s photographer Jacques Lowe stored his more than 40,000 photographs of the president and his family in a bank vault in the World Trade Center. Months after Lowe died, the photographs were destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Newseum worked alongside the Lowe Estate to recover and restore the images that remained.

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