Obama photographer Pete Souza paints ‘Intimate Portrait’ of president, from fist bumps to phone calls – Chicago Tribune
It’s been a rough year for Democrats and other Trump skeptics. Have you passed through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of (political) grief, from denial and anger to acceptance? Pete Souza’s beautiful photographic portrait of Barack Obama’s presidency will induct you into the sixth stage: nostalgia.
As chief official White House photographer, Souza, who also held that post during the Reagan administration and is the Chicago Tribune’s former national photographer, had formidable access to Obama and his family. This well-edited visual history reflects the good use he made of it.
In his foreword to “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” the former president describes Souza as a constant shadowy presence with a “remarkable talent for making himself invisible” and an ability “to capture the mood, the atmosphere, and the meaning” of a moment. In a witty juxtaposition, the facing page shows Obama peering through the lens of a Canon camera.
Encountering Obama as a newly minted U.S. senator from Illinois, Souza remembers wondering if he might be observing a future president. The relationship blossomed as Souza covered Obama for the Tribune, and later for a 2008 book, “The Rise of Barack Obama.” For the White House post, Souza requested unfettered access to the president and produced almost 2 million photographs, from which these images were culled.
So we first see Obama in his unadorned, fluorescent-lit basement Senate office, casually propping a foot on his desk — and then, more formally, behind the Oval Office’s ornate Resolute desk. In both portraits, made almost eight years apart, he is immersed in the task at hand: reading a document, and, in the later photograph, also talking on the phone. In the presidential photo, he is surrounded by flags and photographs, and bathed in glorious light from the garden behind him. We’re witness to an apotheosis.
Chronologically organized, with commentary by Souza, the book could be titled “The Many Moods of Barack Obama.” The caricature of the president as a stiff, cerebral character has always been undercut by his improvisational charm. Souza records his full emotional range — from the pensive president-elect contemplating his reflection on the eve of his first inaugural to the playful husband butting heads with Michelle Obama in a freight elevator en route to an inaugural ball.
The many images of historical import include Obama’s first (and last) moments in the Oval Office, a meeting with Vladimir Putin at his dacha, the celebration over passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the famous shot of Obama and his national security team watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. We observe him in his role as consoler in chief, touring the scenes of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, praying with injured veterans of America’s wars, comforting parents after the Sandy Hook massacre.
Backstage we see Obama moving a sofa, dancing and joking with his wife, playing basketball, tossing a football, luxuriating in the Rose Garden sun, bodysurfing in Hawaii, coaching daughter Sasha’s school basketball team and (in particularly radiant images) frolicking with his two daughters in the snow. Children bring out the best in him.
In a now-iconic image, “Hair Like Mine,” the president bends over to permit an inquisitive 5-year-old African-American boy to touch his hair. As cogently as photographs of Obama beside the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, it reminds us of the symbolic heft of this breakthrough presidency.
Other photographs are as much landscapes as portraits, showing off Souza’s eye for geometric compositions as well as color and light. We see only Obama’s back in a panoramic pastel image of the Grand Canyon and another of a majestically curving section of the Great Wall of China. The president seems both dwarfed and isolated by the verdant expanse of Hawaii’s Luana Hills golf course. Seen from the rear, he and his family are silhouetted in night and fog as they confront the imposing white statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro.
Souza frequently depicts the president through paneled windows; he frames him between Egyptian pyramids and against the colonnaded White House portico. He finds him engrossed in a cellphone call beside a rectangle-pocked parking garage wall resembling a minimalist sculpture.
Charting the fervent reactions Obama inspired, Souza catches a Czech admirer touching his cheek, clergymen’s hands grasping his back, an Irishwoman embracing him and an excited Kenyan crowd threatening to engulf him. The president exchanges a fist-bump with a favela boy in Rio and addresses West Point cadets about the escalating war in Afghanistan, their anxious faces gazing up at him.
For all its exuberant glimpses of the president at play, the predominant mood of this “intimate portrait” remains earnest. In conveying both the weight of the office and President Obama’s full engagement with its demands, Souza fuels our admiration — and stokes our regret.
Julia M. Klein was a finalist this year for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
‘Obama: An Intimate Portrait’
By Pete Souza, Little, Brown; 352 pages; $50