On Seeing: A Journal – #246

A book review of
“OBAMA, An Intimate Portrait,”
by Pete Souza.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Nicholas Tamarin, aka Spider-Man (age three) had been trick or treating with his father, White House aide Nate Tamarin, during an early Halloween celebration in the Eisenhower Executive Office building. The President’s secretary told Nate to bring his son by the Oval office. After spending a few minutes with father and son, POTUS turned toward Nicholas and said, “Zap me one more time.“

I was moved to tears as I studied the 300 or so photographs that make up the extraordinary book of photographs by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer during the Obama administration.

The joyous, revealing, warm and admiring images Souza made during the eight years he spent almost every day with the president and his family brought into stark contrast the current reality of chaos, upheaval, and conflict that, day by day, can seem to threaten the very institution of the presidency.

Souza’s images, made when Barack Obama performed his presidential duties in the Oval Office and elsewhere, and his behind the scenes photographs in the private quarters and in family moments are powerful evidence of what was and what is, the difference between elegance and intelligence and what now has been put in place by the failure of our country’s electoral college to match the votes of a majority of Americans.

I spoke with Pete Souza in preparation for this review. He told me he’d met Barack Obama a few years prior to his election to the presidency and the two had developed a trusting relationship. After the election, Souza was chosen to head up the photography section of the White House press office, a demanding job he held for the eight years of the Obama administration. During those years, he had phenomenal access and took almost two million photographs. Soon after Obama left office, Souza was granted permission to use any of the photographs he chose for his book.

The images in this book depict Barak Obama as a thoughtful, considerate,
joyful man, serious and affectionate, in touch with his humanity and respectful of those around him. In my opinion, the contrast between him and the current occupant of the White House produces a powerful and depressing sense of loss and makes me (and probably millions of others) feel that we are on a ship at sea, walking a plank blindfolded.

Souza allowed me to choose images I personally wished to use for this review. You may be moved to tears too. Take a look.

Our 44th president read books, carefully studied the problems we face as a nation, and was thoughtful, patient and mindful. Dubbed “No Drama Obama,” he gave a sense of confidence based on calmness and understanding.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Reading at the Resolute Desk. October 14, 2016

Despite the weight of responsibilities, he was able to laugh and enjoy the mutual trust and friendship of his staff.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
On “Air Force One,” flying to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore in 2009, aide Robert Gibbs pulled up photographs of the colorful batik shirts that previous presidents had worn to the event in past years. November 14, 2009

Souza made numerous photos with Obama genuinely enjoying the company/presence of children.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Maelin Axelrod, granddaughter of former aide David Axelrod, looking at the President after she crawled up on the Vice President’s chair.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Posing with a boy who had fallen asleep during the Father’s Day ice cream social in the state dining room of the White House in 2013.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
With a young Syrian refugee at a Dignity for Children Foundation classroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Making time for his own children.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Reacting from the bench during one of Sasha’s basketball games in 2011.
Obama and Reggie Love were filling in for the team’s coaches, who couldn’t make it to the game. A good pick-up game player himself, the President must have found the straightforward competition of basketball a welcome relief from dealing with an obstinate congress.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Smooching the First Lady for the “kiss cam” during a 2012 basketball game between the U.S. men’s Olympic team and Brazil at the Verizon center in Washington.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
Running into daughter Sasha in the elevator to the private residence as she
returned home from school in May of 2009, Obama instantly switches from the leader of the free world to a caring father little different from fathers all across the world.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
The President goes over his remarks before the memorial service in a classroom at Newtown High School on December 16, 2012

And, here it is, a moment marking America’s remarkable, stark change of direction.

Photograph, Pete Souza.
At the door of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, Barack and Michelle say a formal good-bye to the current occupants of the White House after the inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capital. In this single image, made from a unique vantage point, Souza captures the drama of the end of an era.