Compiled by Heidi and Jon Elswick
In 1921, President Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper owner, had just been inaugurated President of the United States, and all of the members of the press were optimistic that they would get more access to the President of the United States and be treated better by his staff and other officials.
Photographers in Washington during President Harding’s predecessor, President Woodrow Wilson, shared stories about not only their treatment, but their access to the president. “You know that I try to give you every break on pictures, but ‘the boss’ said no, so what could I do?,” Dick Jervis, chief of the White House detail of the U.S. Secret Service said to a crowd of angry cameramen. Earlier, Jervis had called the photographers together to explain that a shack near one of the golf course greens was full of knotholes through which pictures could be made. The photographers thanked Jervis, for they had been trying for some time to take photos of President Wilson relaxing on the fairways. The photographers entered the shack only to find there were no vantage points and also no way out, for as soon as they were all inside, Jervis padlocked the door ensuring the president would play his golf game undisturbed with the photographers locked in the shed.
Washington photographers were already trying to educate the president, White House officials and others to the fact that the cameras were here to stay and that the photos and newsreels were the only way for millions, both around the country and world, to see their political representatives at work in the nation’s capital.
While photography had existed for some time, it was difficult at that time for newspapers to print photos with the printing technology available at most newspapers at the time. Newsreels, which became an accepted start ahead of each motion picture in movie theaters, was coming into prominence.
Before World War I, there were not many staff photographers in Washington. President Wilson didn’t like the press. For many, Washington, despite being the seat of the country’s government, was considered a sleepy town that did not produce much news. When an event of national or international importance happened, still photographers and newsreel cameramen would be sent down on trains from New York. There were very few freelancers, or ‘stringers’ at that time in Washington. The technology and processes to distribute the newsreels films and photos existed only in New York.
That all changed with World War I. Americans, most who received their news from newspapers or from newsreels shown in movie theaters ahead of the main feature, were anxious for the latest news about the war. Foreign officials were coming to Washington and the public wanted to see photos of those officials and meetings.
News photographers with view cameras mounted on bulky wooden tripods and newsreel photographers with larger movie cameras on sturdier and heavier tripods waited on the street outside the White House. There was no pressroom.
No White House “hard-pass” that allowed access on the grounds and into a press room. Enduring cold and snowy winters and notoriously hot and humid Washington summers, these pioneering photographers waited outside the White House until they were asked to come inside the gate for an opportunity to take a photo of the president or one of his visitors.
When President Wilson returned from Paris, where he helped draft plans for the peace treaty with Germany and the formation of the League of Nations, he campaigned throughout the western states to gain support for the U.S. to join the League of Nations. It was on this trip he suffered a stroke in Pueblo, Colo., and was partially paralyzed and when he returned to Washington, there was a long stretch where the president was not seen or photographed. It wasn’t until five months later on St. Patrick’s Day 1920, that according to the Washington Evening Star “the police allowed several motion picture operators and photographers to set up their machines at the Southwest gate,” and as the president’s automobile came out of the White House driveway, the chauffeur slowed down. The newspaper reported that Wilson laughed at the photographers when they hurriedly changed their positions to get additional photos.
Not too long after the photos of Wilson in the car, the president began to take walks on the South Lawn. On one of these walks, Secret Service agents noticed that a load of hay on a wagon, intended for the sheep on the White House lawn, didn’t look quite right. Newsreel photographer Harry Van Tine and others were discovered in the hay with their cameras. Naturally, their creative attempt for photos ended up with zero photos of the president.
Photographers throughout Washington continued to have trouble getting photos of news events. Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered photographers away from a reviewing stand during a parade in September 1919. Photographers had been given special passes to get through police lines to photograph Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. Peyton March, along with Vice President Thomas Marshall. The passes did not mean a thing to the military and the photographers were chased “helter-skelter” around the reviewing stand.
Across town at the U.S. Capitol, Speaker of the House of Representatives Frederick Gillett, who was also chairman of the House Office Commission, issued new orders denying photographers entry to the Capitol without written permission of the building superintendent. The photographers thought they were doubly insulted since the same order barred dogs from entry into the Capitol.
The White House had no printed schedule at this time for what the president was doing each day and no list of upcoming public events. Photographers would continue to wait outside the gates of the White House in hopes of seeing someone who might have had an appointment with the president — and then hoping that person would walk past the cameras – and stop. What we refer to today as access and transparency, the photographers thought of it as just doing their job. Writers listen or can even hear the story retold. For visual journalists you must have the access you need to be in that prime front row seat to be the ‘Eyes of History®.’ Whatever the event and wherever it may be.
It was in this restricted climate that the White House News Photographers Association was formed.
Broader access to the White House and all official Washington began for our founding members on June 13, 1921.
Photographers met and formed the WHNPA at the offices of The National Photo Company at 1212 G Street, NW, in downtown Washington. Photographers represented Harris & Ewing, International Newsreel – who had both still photos and movie photographers, National Photo Company, Pacific & Atlantic Photos, Kinograms Weekly, Underwood & Underwood, Keystone View Company, Associated Screen News, Fox News Corporation, Pathe News and the photo staffs of The Washington Post, Washington Times and Washington Evening Star, formed the White House News Photographers Association. The photographers elected Arthur Leonard of Harris & Ewing as president, Harry M. Van Tine of International News Photos as vice president and Fred Joseph Seligman of Harris & Ewing as secretary-treasurer. There were also two members elected for the executive committee – Charles Simons of Kinograms Weekly and Sig G. Boernstein of Fox News Weekly.
Other founding members included J.C. Brown, Charles A. “Buck” Becker, Robert Denton, George M. Dorsey, Edward Dowling, Herbert E. “Burt” French, Al Holland, Elmer “Ted” Johnson, Hugo Johnson, Clarence Jackson, Andrew J. “Buck” May, Fred Miller, Hugh Miller, Anthony J. Munz, Lawrence Rubel, Jack F. Stowell, William Strum, Frank H. Thornhill and John “Jack” Wilson. Because early records are incomplete, having been lost in a fire, some photographers, listed as members in a photo page of The Washington Times Herald Gravure Magazine on Oct. 8, 1922, will possibly never be able to be confirmed with certainty to be among the charter members. Those photographers included Robert Denton, Harry J. Coleman, Jack Frank, J. “Tommy” Baltzell, William H. “Vic” Luers, Henry Miller, Jack Miller and P.A. Pellison.
President Warren Harding had taken the oath of office on March 4, 1921. He had been the owner and editor of the Marion (Ohio) Daily Star. Many believe it was this background that helped him sense the difficulties all of the journalists in Washington were experiencing.
Harding’s secretary, George B. Christian, officially recognized the news association of photographers and set aside a press room for photographers to use at the White House. The room was small and cramped, but it was inside. A more traditional press room, as modern history has come to know it, was not established until President Herbert Hoover was in office. With this new found access, and with the White House now providing a list of visitors coming to see the president each day, the photographers were now routinely taking photos of people in the news that the American public wanted to see. These founding members recall that they thought how much easier their jobs had become.
With official recognition by the White House, the whole scene changed for the photographers in Washington. Photographers were allowed at the Capitol again, even being invited to go with Sen. Thomas Coleman DuPont of Delaware on his yacht for a fishing and swimming trip down the Potomac River.
Charter members of the WHNPA recalled Harding as a photogenic president who was photographed playing golf and horseback riding with visiting foreign delegations. He was the first to have a widely photographed White House pet, a dog named Laddie Boy.
However, the members of the newly formed association still needed to convince their main subjects – the president and members of congress and their staffs – of the value of news photos and newsreels.
They were fighting against the way it had always been done when neither the public nor government officials cared about pictures. Too much publicity was vulgar and not polite was the thinking 100 years ago. And not enough mechanical and technical progress had been made to distribute images quickly. Quite often days or weeks passed before the public would see pictures from an event. The news was old by the time pictures reached outside Washington and around the world.
Photos were syndicated at the time, meaning that companies would get the images from their staff photographers and then try to market and sell those images. Newspapers and other clients chose the images they wanted to use and then paid for only those images. Prints from those images shot on glass plates were made and then sent through the mail or via train or plane to distant newspapers. Newsreels had to be duplicated, narrated and then sent to movie theaters across the country by mail and train. There was no sound on the newsreels made in Washington until the early 1930s.
The young photographer’s association was continuing to grow and add new members. On March 1, 1923, they celebrated with the first of the association’s annual dinners. Held at the Arlington Hotel, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Col. Theodore Roosevelt was the guest of honor and speakers included Clifford Berryman of the Washington Evening Star and J. Russell Young, then president of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA). Kirk Miller of the Washington Times served as the toastmaster for the evening. The photographers started to produce a four-page tabloid they named “Fuzzy Focus.” The photographic menu for the dinner – “soft focus” potatoes, “sepia” coffee, “underdeveloped” Mackerel and Roast Chicken a la Denton.
In 1924 the dinner had grown and was moved to the Hamilton Hotel. Sen. Samuel Shortridge of Calif., served as toastmaster, keeping the speeches short. Entertainment became an important part of the dinner and on May 3, 1924, guests listened to the S.S. Leviathan Band. The third annual dinner in 1925 was held at the Mayflower Hotel and President Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend. Gen. John J. Pershing was a guest of honor. And famed singer Kate Smith, who was little known at the time, performed for the guests.
Outside of the increasing competitiveness for news photos, one of the popular events that marked the middle 1920s was the annual baseball game between the WHNPA and the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA). The games were played on the memorial grounds and records show that the correspondent’s won the majority of games – perhaps because the photographers were waiting to take their photos of the most spectacular plays! In the first game on Aug. 8, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge attended and posed for photos with each of the teams. The photographers made what they thought was one of the finest photos of “Silent” Cal on that day.
Still, there continued to be problems for the photographers. In 1923 at a Armistice Day celebration at the home of former President Woodrow Wilson, police barred photographers from a roped enclosure where the ceremonies were taking place. Rough handling of the photographers damaged cameras belonging to Henry Miller of Henry Miller Service, Clarence Jackson of Underwood & Underwood, Andrew May of Harris & Ewing, and Thomas Baltzell of Pathe News. Robert Donohue, also of Pathe News, continued to crank his newsreel camera and recorded the scene.
The situation gained nationwide support for the photographers and Washington Metropolitan Department police chief Daniel Sullivan finally told Wilton Lambert, attorney for the photographers, that he would issue police passes for the photographers and also instruct police officers as to the proper treatment and respect to be given to both photographers and writers on assignment.
Photography was gaining interest among the general public as well, and charter members would talk about being invited to the home of Katherine New, wife of Postmaster General Harry New, for parties she hosted where she would show the professionals her work with her new amateur movie camera. She was made an honorary member of the association as were first ladies Grace Goodhue Coolidge and Lou Henry Hoover who were avid photographers.
The WHNPA also gained recognition when they were asked to handle all of the photographic planning for the return of Charles Lindbergh from Paris.
A large stand was built to handle the many photographers from all over the country who came to Washington to represent their papers. The newsreels were also well represented. Fox Movietone was on hand with the new technology that added a soundtrack to their newsreels for the first time – as before the newsreels were silent and a narrator’s voice was added later. All the newsreels and other photo companies made special arrangements to rush their negatives to New York – where the processing and duplication and printing was still done.
International Newsreel rented a special train for this event, and it broke all speed records of the time, covering the 226 miles from Washington to New York in 3 hours and 1 minute – in the rush to get the newsreel from the homecoming into movie theaters.
Despite the substantial progress in gaining access inside the White House, most photographs and movies were still taken outside. The South Lawn, the Rose Garden, even the Portico were the most popular spots. Cameras that the photographers used, mostly 4×5 view cameras for stills and hand cranked 16 mm newsreels, were bulky and almost impossible to hold steady without large wooden tripods. The film for the cameras had a low ASA, meaning natural daylight was needed to help shorten the long exposures.
Strobes and electric lights had not yet been invented.
Flash powder had been banned indoors, especially at the White House because of the smoke and fire potential. With one exposure with flash powder, there was so much smoke in the air it would be nearly an hour before the room was clear of smoke. Sometimes, on cloudy days, newsreel photographers would still need to use movie flares to provide additional lighting. Charter members sometimes would say they led a life of “fire and brimstone” since they used the flash powder and flares so often.
At a late afternoon event in 1930, photographers used flashbulbs on their cameras for the first time at the White House. President Herbert Hoover was signing a $45 million drought relief bill and a $116 million public works bill. A story by The Associated Press, later reported that cameramen were using “a flash-lamp shaped like a giant electric light bulb. It blazed vividly, but there was no report, nor did smoke swirl as it did in days not so long ago.”
Picture transmission was also going through a change. Editor & Publisher magazine told the story of research in news transmission and the use of the American Telephone & Telegraph’s machines to transmit pictures. Before this development, photos needed to be printed from the negative and then sent to newspapers or magazines via the mail or couriers. The story pointed out that in 1926 a picture of President Calvin Coolidge was transmitted from Cleveland to New York in the amazing time of 40 minutes!
When the WHNPA celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1946, that process had been speeded up to an inch a minute with an 8×10 inch photo now taking about 10 minutes to transmit over phone lines. The next jump was to electronic darkrooms and today images speed from WiFi enabled digital cameras as the photographer is clicking the shutter.
After successfully handling the details for the Lindbergh arrival in Washington, the WHNPA continued to plan and credential photographers for large events in Washington, including the special committee that was chosen to plan and welcome 300 additional photographers coming who would photograph the inauguration of Herbert Hoover. Planning for such events was eventually taken over by the incoming presidential administrations.
Photographers are quite competitive, but they’re also known to be practical jokers and sometimes, even back in the early days of the association, that could cause troubles for them. When the phone rang at a Christmas eve party in 1930 at Tommy Thompson’s home, and a voice cried, “The White House is on fire, Thompson hung up saying, “sure, sure thanks, got my hat on now,” and turned to guests at his party and said that some wise guy was trying to get funny and spoil the party. However, it wasn’t a joke as the same phone calls were going out to other photographers. There were a lot of embarrassed photographers the next morning when they learned that the White House executive offices had really been gutted by a fire.
The next week when a minor fire broke out in the U.S. Capitol on News Years Eve, they were all quickly out their doors with their cameras! Photographers used movie lighting flares and flash-light powder, and even got the firemen to turn on their lights and sirens to help the photographers and newsreels get images they missed the week before at the White House.
And there was that time in March 1933, when Treasury Secretary William invited the photographers to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to photograph the process of printing the new sized paper money. The photographers kept telling the treasury employees to “move those million dollars into the picture, and throw that million out.” Those WHNPA members were also there when financier J.P. Morgan was a witness at the Senate Banking and Currency committee hearing into the country’s banking system.
Morgan was known to be a problem for photographers elsewhere but was friendly in Washington. He offered no objections as a young lady climbed into his lap for a picture during the hearing. The young lady turned out to be a circus performer. Naturally, the senators felt that senatorial dignity had been injured by the moment and ordered all the photographers barred from future hearings. Morgan, however, found it humorous and laughed along and eventually intercede on behalf of the photographers so that they would continue to have access.
Arthur Scott, a longtime member and for many years the historian of the WHNPA, who chronicled the first 25 years of the association for the 1946 contest and dinner book, gathered many of the early stories. Here, he noted the fire in the late 1920s destroyed the earliest records of the association. Copies of some minutes and other history had to be reassembled. Scott writes in the first 25-years history, “through the first 25 years of the White House news photographers association, the bitter and the sweet ran together.”
WHNPA members were still in bed on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. By nightfall the news had reached Washington and the photographers rushed to the State Department and the White House and wondered what they could shoot to tell the story that the United States was now at war.
Shortly thereafter more than half of the White House photographers would have their answer, they were overseas shooting as war correspondents or as a service member carrying both a camera and a gun. Visual journalists from the WHNPA were in the sands of Africa, the hills of Italy, crossing the channel to France and on into Germany, as well as the fox holes of Guadalcanal and the shores of Saipan and Iwo Jima. Others covered the oceans on cutters and convoys and flew in raids over Rome and Tokyo. Probably every major invasion had at least one member of the WHNPA covering the war action as a member of the services or as a war correspondent.
World War II brought more changes to the White House news photographers. There was increasing competition for the news and that meant more photographers in Washington. Membership in the association grew rapidly. Any photographer hired in Washington became a member — at least if it was a ‘he.’
Jackie Martin first applied for active membership on Aug. 5, 1929. When Martin was 18, she became the women’s sports editor for the Washington Times-Herald and was also society editor of the Underwood & Underwood News Service. She attended Syracuse University. At the paper she became a reporter-photographer before being named as the picture editor. She was the only woman serving as a photo editor at any American newspaper daily at the time. Martin left Washington for a short time in 1940 for a photo project in the South American jungles that was sponsored by the Brazilian government. After returning to Washington, she submitted another application on Dec. 4, 1941. It was finally on Feb. 27, 1942, at a general membership meeting she was granted active membership. At the time Martin was a photographer for the Chicago Sun, based in Washington.
Three years later by the end of 1945, the WHNPA would have five women as active members.Madeline Osborne, Roberta Barrett and Marion Carpenter, all of the International News Photos, and Marie Hansen of Life Magazine. During World War II Martin was going into uniform as the first official war department photographer to record the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. From there she went on to serve overseas as a war correspondent.
The visual journalists in Washington were not idle during this important time in history. Although they had not gone overseas, the war had come home. There were arrivals of foreign rulers whose countries had been overrun by the Nazis, now seeking refuge in the United States. Others came to Washington for conferences along with nearly every world military leader who visited Washington for meetings at least once during the war.
Probably the most tedious assignment was the trial of the eight Nazi saboteurs at the department of justice in the early days of the war. Photographers waited across the street watching each visitor, hoping to guess which were important witnesses. There was a media blackout on coverage. Later they were to spend more unfruitful hours at the district jail where the saboteurs were ultimately executed.
Much of Washington became cloaked with secrecy as the cameras of amateurs and professionals faced censorship bans.
President Roosevelt, probably tiring of the camera by his side on nearly every occasion since he took office in 1933, began taking secret trips to Warm Springs Ga., and Hyde Park, N.Y., without regular White House photographers.
One time he took a 14-day inspection trip of the country’s war plants. This was kept on the ‘secret list’ until the president returned. What bothered the photographers was the fact that they were not with him although reporters had been allowed to go along.
President Roosevelt chose to have military service cameramen record the tour and even though the White House released photos, there were only a few that could be used. It was not possible for an enlisted man to tell a general that he is in the way and must move. Perhaps this was done because the president felt that he should not be traveling with civilians. Later, at the White House, as a group posed with the president, one of the photographers asked for a wave. Franklin Roosevelt smiled and said, “I’ll wave at you when you’re passing by in uniform.”
So, on his next inspection trip through 20 states and Mexico, the president took Hugo Johnson and Alfred O’Eth of Paramount Newsreel, George Skadding of the Associated Press and CPO Arthur Black of the Navy. All were in uniform, Johnson, O’Eth and Skadding were wearing the war correspondence uniform. This also had its drawbacks as Hugo Johnson found on their arrival in Mexico. President Roosevelt was greeting Mexican President Manuel Camacho, just as the bands burst into the Star-Spangled Banner and the Mexican national anthem. Since Johnson was in uniform, he was under military regulations and had to stand at attention while the Mexican cameramen, in civilian clothes did not have to observe the military protocol and kept taking pictures. Luckily, President Roosevelt realized what had occurred, smilingly went through the greeting again as soon as Johnson could again take photos.
Such was life with Franklin Roosevelt. One day he was a cheerful, kidding subject before the cameras and the next he was miles away with not a camera in sight. It is agreed that by all that the White House photographers never had a better subject. He was a born actor whose emotions and expressions changed to fit the mood of the occasion.
The photographers at the time were also busy with their second annual photo exhibit, and Sen. Harry Truman was to act as one of the judges and President Roosevelt was to pick the grand prize winner. Vice President Henry Wallace had presented the awards to the winners at the first contest exhibit in 1943.
On Jan. 20, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first president to take that oath for the fourth time. With the country at war, the crowded conditions of housing and transportation, the inauguration was planned as a simple ceremony on the south portico of the White House. About 7,000 people stood on the snow-covered South Lawn to watch as Chief Justice Harlan Stone administered the oath to President Roosevelt. Outgoing Vice President Henry Wallace administered the oath of office to the new Vice President, Harry Truman.
The ceremony was short and as soon as it was over the still photographers posed for a group picture. They included Maurice Lanigan, Charles Corte and Eddie O’Hare of Acme Newspictures, Herbert White, John Rouss, B. I. Sanders, Guy Bowman, Max Desfor and Robert Clover of The Associated Press, George Skadding and Marie Hansen of Life Magazine, F. Clyde Wilkinson and Nate Fine of the Washington Times, Randolph Routt and Paul Schmick of the Washington Evening Star, Abbie Rowe of the Department of Interior, Jerry Shoemaker, Rex Curtis and C. Ed Allley of Harris and Ewing, Tom Kelly and Harry E. Goodwin of the Washington Post, Roberta Barrett, Robert Brockhurstt, F. I. Thompson and Arthur E. Scott of International News Photos. C.A. “Billy” Walker of International News Photos, a photo messenger, managed to get in the picture while AP messenger Harry Jenkins, took the photo. Other photos at the time showed newsreel photographers and sound operators busy at work. Those included George Dorsey and Andrew Willoner of Pathe Newsreel, James Lyons and George Graham of Universal Newsreel, Hugo Johnson and Alford O’Eth of Paramount and John Tondra and James Martenson of Fox Movietone News.
In early February 1945, President Roosevelt was off again, this time to Yalta for a conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. WHNPA member photographers were again left behind. The photographers felt even at that time that their companies spent thousands of dollars covering the chief executive, a good deal for protection in case of the unexpected, that they should not be left behind on presidential travel.
There was already the use of a pool photographer – a single photographer who would travel or be let into an event – and even though no photographer likes the idea of a pool situation, photographers did not like the idea of these trips without even a pool photographer.
It was only one month later that President Roosevelt returned to Washington and the White House photographers took what turned out to be their last pictures of him as he bid farewell to the governor general of Canada who had been visiting. Roosevelt then left the White House for a secret trip to rest in Georgia. On April 12, 1945, the unexpected happened, President Roosevelt died in his cottage at Warm Springs, Ga.
Because no photographers were with the president, companies rushed photographers to Warm Springs from Atlanta, New York and Washington.
The ceremony started at 7:09 p.m., and for the first time in U.S. history the vice president was photographed as he took the oath of office and succeeded to the presidency.
There was an immediate change in news coverage at the White House.
President Harry S. Truman drove from his apartment the next morning and arrived at the executive offices at 9:00 a.m., only to be greeted by a group of tired photographers who were up very late covering the swearing-in ceremony and events of the previous night.
President Truman moved into Blair House, just across the street from the White House, and the photographers gathered each morning to walk with him across the street to the White House. Soon they realized that walking was the president’s chief means of exercise.
Constant requests for photos of his morning walks were finally permitted, providing that the photographers walked the whole distance with the president. Photographers were also getting their exercise, as demonstrated by the photos they were now able to make.
Presidents all have a passion for photos, but even in the early days of the WHNPA they were sensitive about how the final image looks when seen in newspapers and magazines. President Roosevelt never wanted photos that would show his leg braces that supported his polio-crippled legs, and it was only toward the end of his terms that photographers took photos of him standing that show the leg braces. President Truman, however, was as photographers of the time said, one of the most natural of all presidents. He had a special rapport with them.
Nearly 100 photographers and assistants crowded into the Oval Office as President Truman posed for his first official portrait. On May 8, the president’s birthday, the announcement came of surrender in Europe and then in September the war in Japan reached an atomic end. The president had gone to San Francisco to speak at the world security conference and to the Potsdam Conference with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. The trip to San Francisco was a pool assignment covered by George Skadding of Life Magazine and Charles Mack of MGM News of the Day and the continuation to Potsdam was covered as a pool by F. I. Thompson of International News Photo and Hugo Johnson and Al O’Eth of Paramount.
The president liked to travel by plane to save time, but it did limit the number of people who could travel with him. The White House added extra planes and now each company was able to send their own staff photographers along on the trips.
A few of the trips were still made by train and everyone had more time to relax, except on a train trip to Fulton, Mo., with President Truman and Winston Churchill. George Skadding of Life, G. Bradford Kress of International News Photos, Byron Rollins of the Associated Press and John S. Thompson of Acme had just made themselves comfortable when they heard that the president was in the engine compartment driving the diesel train, they grabbed their cameras and were off again.
That’s the way it is with members of the WHNPA!
One day it’s quiet and there is time to talk over a past assignment, and the next day is filled with covering a major hearing on the hill, a series of White House events, and any other big news stories that happen within Washington.
It is hard to make plans. Missed family events, holidays away from home, vacations disrupted. All common, even in the early years of the association.
The White House News Photographers Association and their President Franics Irving Thompson, made President Truman an honorary member of the ‘one more club’ a title affectionately earned as the photographers were always pleading for “just one more photo.”
President Eisenhower was used to dealing with photographers by the time he became president. Shortly before he became the supreme commander of the North Atlantic in 1952, he gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress. and said, “I did not assume when I came up here that I would have also to play a role that was more fitting to Hollywood. But, as the vice president explained, it seems that the photographer has become often the arbiter of our fate and the dictator of our time, and so I, like any other person, conform.”
The brilliant Eisenhower smile, when captured, was as photographers explained, ‘a real bell-ringer.’ Eisenhower got along with the photographers by giving them what the wanted for their photos – a big smile, a wave. Members remember that Ike would act like he didn’t know everyone’s names, but he did and had his favorites among the still and newsreel photographers.
It was during the administration of President Eisenhower that White House press secretary James Hagerty opened news conferences with the president for photo coverage. It was another example of the WHNPA advocating on behalf of photographers in Washington.
Because of his smile and other expressions, photographers had nicknamed him the ‘man with the rubber face.’ But the photographers loved his high wattage smile that brightened their photos. George Gaylin, photo manager for Acme and then United Press International said one of the best and expressive photos he ever saw was President Eisenhower’s reaction when he was told that Truman had fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The second term of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a popular president to photograph among the WHNPA members, was coming to an end.
Still photographers were in the midst of transitioning to 35mm cameras – though some were still using the 4×5 view cameras and 2 ¼ cameras. These smaller cameras replacing the large cameras of the past, was just another advance in technology.
A letter from President Eisenhower after the 1960 general election to WHNPA President Frank Calcellare and members talked about the last eight years saying, “Mrs. Eisenhower and I send you and the members of the White House News Photographers Association our best wishes and our sincere thanks. Throughout the last eight years both of us have been deeply appreciative of the many courtesies and kindnesses which have been extended by ‘our photographers.’ Likewise, we have been proud of the skill and talent of your members as they covered with their cameras the day-to-day visual history of the Office of the Presidency here in Washington, throughout the Nation, and indeed, in many other areas of the world. “
The presidential election of 1960 saw John F. Kennedy winning in a close election and becoming the new president-elect. For the first time in the 1960 campaign, there was a faster pace on this national campaign. Both Kennedy and Republican candidate then-Vice President Richard Nixon, crisscrossed the country on planes making multiple stops each day and week.
The photographers were already advocating with the incoming Kennedy administration to improve access that WHNPA visual journalists got at the airports for arrival and departure photos. WHNPA leadership suggested meeting with all the involved agencies, the Secret Service, Andrews Air Force Base officials and any others who controlled access and positioning. The WHNPA position – anything worth photographing is worth doing well.
Kennedy knew he was a great subject for photographers. He allowed coverage by several photographers he trusted and gave them great access that showed a young and confident candidate that the public wanted to see. He knew how to pose and not look awkward – though he dictated a no photo rule when he was wearing glasses.
George Gaylin, who was the photo manager for Acme and continued on when UPI Newspictures acquired them said, “The most traumatic story of my life was the assassination of John f. Kennedy. It laid me low. It was the worst thing that ever happened.” Indeed, it was a low point for many WHNPA members but the images they produced were some of the most remarkable and memorable moments.
WHNPA members have always been competitive, be it looking for a unique angle or for access no one else gets. Even today they want a bit more time for just ‘one more’ photo like they did with President Truman. That competitiveness led in part to the creation of the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ competition for the association. The formal start of the contest was in 1943, though there is some history to suggest that in prior years photographers would print several of their favorite photos from the year and have a more informal exhibition. In 1943 Ollie Atkins of the Saturday Evening Post was awarded the grand prize. In the early years of the contest there was simply one photo that was chosen the best of the best and that image received the Grand Award. Other early winners of the grand award included: Byron Rollins of The Associated Press; Stanley Tretick of United Press International; Wally McNamee of the Washington Post Times Herald; George Tames of the New York Times; and James Atherton of United Press International.
In 1968, Wally McNamee was awarded top honors as the Photographer of the Year, after the contest changed the format and for the first time the winner was based on a portfolio of their images. This is the same format that is used today to select the photographer of the year. In 1985 Jodi Cobb of National Geographic became the first woman photographer to win the WHNPA Photographer of the Year. She was quickly followed by Margaret Thomas of The Washington Post. In 1990 Cathaleen Curtiss of The Washington Times became the third woman to win top honors. And in 1991, Carol Guzy of The Washington Post received her first of a total of 8 wins as the WHNPA’s Photographer of the Year. Nancy Andrews of the Washington Post won in 1999 before Andrea Bruce, also with The Washington Post, became a four-time photographer of the year winner. Independent photographer Astrid Riecken was honored for her work with the top honor in 2014.
Guzy is also the journalist with the most Pulitzer Prize wins in history and was named the recipient of the WHNPA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021. Guzy still serves on the board of the WHNPA and has served on numerous committees including the 100 years project for the association. Some of the other women who have had an impact on photojournalism in Washington include WHNPA members Diana Walker of TIME Magazine, Susan Biddle of The Washington Post and Susan Walsh of The Associated Press.
Sixty years after the WHNPA was formed in 1981, the executive board created a Lifetime Achievement recognition that would be presented each year at the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ awards gala. The award was created to honor the career and achievements of both still and video photographers. Andrew J. “Buck” May of Harris & Ewing received the first Lifetime Achievement Award. May was a founding member of the WHNPA and a four-time president of the association. He served on the inaugural and multiple exhibit committees.
The list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients throughout the years reads like a who’s-who of visual journalists in Washington. In 2008, Holly K. Fine of CBS News became the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award alongside her work and life partner Paul R. Fine
In 2010, Pege’ Gilgannon, WJLA-TV, ABC Channel 7, received her Lifetime Achievement at the annual awards gala and the evening was topped with a high energy performance by the Ballou High School Marching Band. Gilgannon mentors students at the high school and they wanted to give thanks for her dedication to them. It was a sight to see ladies and gentlemen in their finest gowns and tuxedos standing on their chairs in a Washington ballroom. Despite retiring, Gilgannon continues to serve as the co-chair of the video division of the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ contest.
Margaret Thomas, who was the first woman photographer hired by The Washington Post, was the 2019 recipient.
The video photography contest made its debut in the late 1960s. While the stills contest began in 1943, it took technology and advancements in video 24 more years for the video contest to become a reality. In 1967, Ralph Santos of NBC News became the first WHNPA Video Photographer of the Year. Ben Martin of ITN Channel 4 News began his six-time winning streak in 2009. In 2010, Bethany Swain of CNN, was the first woman to win the Video Photographer of the Year award. Swain remains the only woman in the history of the association as the winner of this award. She also serves as the chair for the student video contest.
As noted, 1967 marked the beginning of the video photography contest, it would take an additional 33 years, until 2000, for video editors to be recognized for their editing work. That was the year that a separate award category was created for Video Editor of the Year. Chris Shlemon of ITN Channel 4 News was the first winner and in 2018 he celebrated his sixth win as the WHNPA Video Editor of the Year. In 2001, Beverly Bryan of WJLA-TV, became the first woman to win Video Editor of the Year and Alexandra Garcia of The Washington Post won in 2011.
Recognizing how news imagery is being presented and consumed by the public, the board in 2008 created what was first called a multimedia contest. This contest allowed visual journalists creating work that was being presented in new formats due to advances in technology. Consumers were increasingly accessing their news from personal phones, laptops and tablet computers. And WHNPA members were now creating the content for these modern platforms for news. Pierre Kattar recognized these changes and was the ideal member to volunteer and grow and evolve the contest. The categories changed almost yearly to keep pace with this changing visual journalism. The contest, now known as Digital Storytelling, created in 2016 the Multimedia Visual Journalist of the Year award with Spencer Millsap of National Geographic magazine as the first recipient.
Alice Li of The Washington Post was the first woman to win in 2018, followed by Whitney Shefte of The Washington Post and Drea Cornejo, also of The Washington Post in 2021.
In 2018, Drea Cornejo was the WHNPA Student Video Photographer of the Year when she was a student at The University of Florida.
At the same time the multimedia contest division was created in 2008, the WHNPA board also created a national WHNPA Student Photographer of the Year contest, which was chaired by Jamie Rose to recognize outstanding work produced by student photographers to help them gain additional recognition, exposure and mentoring within the professional photojournalism community.
The first student winner of the contest was Michael Mullady of San Francisco State University and in 2009 he was a repeat winner. Meg Roussos of Ohio University was the first woman student to win in 2013 followed by Western Kentucky’s Jabin Botsford in 2014.
Botsford became a staff photographer for The Washington Post after graduation and in 2017 and 2019 he was named as WHNPA Photographer of the Year. In 2015, Al Drago of Elon University took the top honors in the student stills contest. He is now an independent photojournalist in Washington and chairs the WHNPA student stills contest.
The student contest division was expanded in 2014 to include a student video photography contest. In the eight years of the student video contest, there have been six women who have won the WHNPA Student Video Photographer of the Year award. They include 2015’s Ora DeKornfeld, 2016’s Isabella Bertolucci, 2017’s Sophia Nahli Allison, all of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and 2018’s Drea Cornejo; 2019’s Skyler Ballard of Western Kentucky University and 2020’s MacKenzie Behm of the University of Florida.
Always a night to celebrate the winning images and photographers in the annual contests were the annual awards galas. Early dinners celebrated the comradery that the photographers shared and was an evening to listen to speeches from the president and other dignitaries and to be entertained by some of the top entertainers of the day. When the annual contest began in 1943, the gala was always centered around the opening of the annual exhibit of the winning images. Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Chet Atkins, Lucille Ball, Liberace, etc…. came to the galas to help celebrate with the photographers. Recent galas have focused more on the work of the photographers in all formats and include highly produced segments featuring the top winners and their work. It’s a night to celebrate all visual journalists.
For the 75th anniversary, Ann Compton of ABC News wrote about the rivalry between reporters and photographers saying, “the president always liked you best. George [H.W.] Bush beamed when he saw you coming. He petted your fuzzy microphones in photo ops with foreign leaders. What greater compliment could you ask than to have President Clinton show up at your annual black-tie dinner wearing the full working vest and equipment look?”
Maurice Sorrell was born in Washington in 1914. He developed an interest in photography and by the time he was in his early 30’s he was using his Speed Graphic to take photos at weddings and other events in the district. He received additional training as a photographer through a program at the Agriculture Department before working at the Pentagon as a darkroom technician. He also was freelancing as a photographer in Washington where he covered the end of the administration of President Eisenhower and the beginning of President Kennedy’s administration for the Washington Afro-American newspaper. On Feb. 1, 1961, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger approved permanent White House press credentials for Sorrell.
WHNPA president Frank Cancellare knew that President Kennedy would not attend the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ awards gala on May 19, 1961, if this was not changed. There was a pending application from Maurice Sorrell and at the next general membership meeting his application was reviewed. At the time, to be accepted for membership into the association, all the current active members voted to either accept or reject an application. An applicant would be denied membership if even one other current member voted no. The vote to accept Sorrell, who was still on staff at the Washington Afro-American, was unanimous. Sorrell, who would become a staff photographer at Johnson Publications in June 1962, became a longtime association member. The editor at the newspaper, C. Sumner Stone, Jr., wrote a telegram to President Kennedy on April 28, 1961, after the vote and telling Kennedy how pleased he was that Sorrell was now a member of the WHNPA. On May 2, 1961, Kennedy wrote back saying, “I am indeed pleased that Mr. Maurice Sorrell has been made a member of the White House News Photographers Association.”
Since the beginning of the association, technical advances changed how the public saw and understood the news. Network news departments came of age in the 1950s. The live broadcast of the McCarthy hearings took television from a passive entertainment medium to an active newsgathering force with polished broadcasts.
Through this technology the public was brought closer and closer to the events that shaped their lives through the middle of the 20th century.
Henry Burroughs of The Associated Press said in 1971, “I peeked into the old pressroom [at the White House] the other day, and it ain’t the same. There was no room for cameras in the old room we used to keep our speed graphics on the large round mahogany table in the main reception hall of the press wing. Movie men kept their gear in the ‘doghouse,’ a tiny room tacked onto the end of FDR‘s swimming pool.” Nor were there any so-called ‘photo opportunities’ in those days. Our job seemed easier. We simply took pictures! Period.”
When Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of President Kennedy, he already knew how he wanted to be photographed. He’d had photos made in Hollywood for publicity purposes and he studied those images. He thought his left side photographed better, so he had his press people make sure the photographers were on that side. He tolerated the camera flashes. He disliked the sound of the motor drives on the camera and tried to limit photographers to taking photos only for the first minute of news conferences. That did not go over well nor was it really enforced.
The end of the Johnson presidency was marked by the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, along with the Vietnam War and the large protests. President Johnson’s own management style and combative nature also didn’t help.
It was during the Nixon administration that the first networks began using video tape instead of 16mm film. The equipment was large, bulky and sometimes in remote locations, also took car batteries to provide the power to operate.
Also, during this time the press room was enlarged and moved to its current location. The first area that was set aside for the press – since only reporters were allowed to wait inside – was during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. One day President Roosevelt noticed reporters standing outside the northwest gate to ask visitors about what they had talked about with the chief executive. They were cold and wet when the president noticed them, and he announced that he wanted a room set aside for the reporters in the West Wing.
The room was the West Lobby, and the oversized couches and chairs were mainly for official visitors, but the reporters, and later photographers, used every available space, first for typewriters and later for cameras. The reporters’ workroom was a small room to the right of the lobby door, down a small hall behind the reception desk. When you entered the lobby, there was a room behind the reception desk used for press briefings when those started.
The room most used for important announcements became known as the ‘fishroom’ since President Roosevelt kept fishing trophies there. This room was just off of the Oval Office and today is called the Roosevelt Room. Nixon had the new press room constructed over FDR’s swimming pool. The new press work area, behind the main press room, was once the laundry for President Theodore Roosevelt and his family.
Since President Gerald Ford had been a congressman from Michigan since 1949, he had gotten to know WHNPA members over the years. Ford was comfortable around photographers and that showed in the photos. He was gracious with the request for the photographers to show him swimming in the White House swimming pool – so much so, there was a photo op to show him swimming.
And while some of his clumsy mishaps made for embarrassing photos, President Ford knew the photographers were just doing their jobs documenting the news of his presidency. He even asked WHNPA member, Associated Press photographer Charles Tasnadi to ski with him – Tasnadi had been an Olympic skier in his native Hungary.
President Jimmy Carter never acknowledged the existence of photographers and cameramen and that attitude carried over to his staff. This continued right until the end of his presidency. The hostages that were held in Iran for more than a year had been freed. Carter was to go to Germany to greet them and photos were envisioned of grateful former hostages greeting the president who had worked so hard to free them did not happen – except in a closed event out of the view of the cameras.
President Ronald Reagan’s background in movies and television prepared him to be a great subject for WHNPA members. President Reagan’s advance staff was also willing to listen to the photographers about positioning that they would want to be in for events. Video and stills knew they were going to be able to make significant images because of the good working relationships they had with the staff.
If you talk to photographers who have been long-time members of the WHNPA about who their favorite president was to photograph most will say President George H.W. Bush. Bush got to know many of the photographers from his time on the Hill and when he was running as Reagan’s vice-presidential choice, got to know many more WHNPA members on the campaign trail.
Bush had a knack for remembering photographers’ names and asking about their families. He was the president who coined the ‘photodogs’ term for the pool of the visual journalists who always covered him. Some of his favorites were Larry Downing, Dirck Halstead and Scott Applewhite. Bush even hosted an annual barbeque for photographers on the South Lawn of the White House.
In 1951, Associated Press photographer Charlie Tasnadi had fled Communist Hungary. Thirty-eight years after he fled the country, Tasnadi returned as the AP photographer on Air Force One with President Bush. Everyone, including the president knew Charlie’s story and invited him to the front of Air Force One during the arrival to Hungary. Bush told Tasnadi that it was most fitting and proper that he returned to his native country in this way.
For visual journalists access for early photos of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who had announced his run for the presidency, was exactly what WHNPA members hoped for with a candidate who would go one to win the presidency. However, that access didn’t last – as Clinton’s national popularity grew, the access began to shrink. President Bill Clinton’s administration was also the first to realize the public relations value of releasing photographs made by the president’s official photographer. These photo releases became a way for the administration to craft the story they wanted instead of what they hoped would happen when visual coverage was planned for events.
These releases became more and more popular during the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. The press offices embraced new technologies that allowed these carefully curated images to directly reach the public. In many cases these releases also meant that there were less events for WHNPA members to document.
The WHNPA then formed an advocacy committee in order to work directly with the administration to overcome this issue. Several formal complaints were filed by the WHNPA asking for open access to events. Protocol was established and none of the wire services would use these handout photos unless it was an event or in a location that was truly restricted to press.
In 1995, President Clinton attended the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ gala. As was pretty much usual for his administration, the president was running late, as he had attended another event earlier that evening. The gala was being held at the Washington Hilton hotel and when Clinton arrived, he asked WHNPA president Ken Blaylock, what he could do to make up for his late arrival and without being properly attired for the black-tie event.
President Clinton’s official photographer, Bob McNeeley, took off his safari-like photo vest which was popular among photographers because of all the extra pockets and had Clinton put it on. After the ‘Voice of God’ announced the president, it was only WHNPA president Blaylock who walked onto stage. A group of photographers was walking backwards taking his photo. The gala attendees soon realized that President Clinton was among the pack of photographers, complete with photo vest and camera.
President George W. Bush continued the tradition of presidents attending the annual ‘Eyes of History®’ awards gala, celebrating the year’s contest winners along with all visual journalists. In 2005 when President Bush attended the annual gala, the WHNPA was honoring Chick Harrity as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award,
The power of a story-telling image was on full display that evening. In 1973 when Chick was assigned to cover the Vietnam War, he took a photo of Tran Thie Het Nhanny lying in a cardboard box next to her brother who was begging on a street in Saigon. This image was referred to as the baby in the box. It was a moving moment when Nhanny, who was adopted by an American couple and lives in Ohio, presented Chick with his Lifetime Achievement award.
President Bush had also grown up around photographers and like others running for presidency, access for coverage was quite open at the start, but gradually became more managed and restricted. The photographers had a friendship with President Bush, just not the kind they’d had with his father. These visual journalists were treated more like reporters – kept at arm’s length.
President Bush started his day early and finished early – giving what’s called a lid – a signal that the president will not have any more travel or make any additional appearances. President Bush also was always on time. A much different schedule than the past couple of administrations.
But there were always days that no schedule could prepare for. It was a routine presidential trip to Florida. President Bush was appearing for an event with children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla.
The normalcy of the event quickly ended when White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered in the president’s ear as he was reading to children. Terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center buildings in New York. The Pentagon was a target too, and a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. A traditional pool of 13 journalists always travel with the president on Air Force One. That number was quickly reduced as the president departed on AF1 and Doug Mills, then with the Associated Press, was the sole still photographer allowed due to the added security. Mills accompanied the president to Nebraska where he was further briefed on the situation before returning to Washington late in the day and then speaking to the nation from the Oval Office in a prime-time address.
By now, visual journalists in Washington were used to the grueling schedule for presidential candidates. It starts with appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire a full two years before the presidential election, so candidates and photographers get to know – or in the case the candidates, start to recognize the WHNPA members who will be covering them.
When President Barack Obama took office, it had been 40 years since children had lived in the White House. As the nation’s first Black president, there was intense interest in everything about Obama, the first lady and their children. From past administrations photographers and their companies agreed that unless the children were with their parents, they would be left alone. There were many early morning pool call times to accompany the president and first lady to a meeting at their daughter’s school – Sidwell Friends School – for early morning parent-teacher conferences.
Technology had now reached the point that the Obama administration was able to utilize Flickr to provide a steady stream of curated photos of President Obama and his administration. Photographers agreed that because of this, access was more limited and there were not as many events that were open to the press.
One thing that visual journalists can agree on is that during the administration of President Donald Trump they were kept very busy.
President Trump loved to have his photo taken. The visual journalist pool that covered his every movement had to be ready to go literally at a second’s notice. An event might be starting which had been initially closed to press coverage, but then President Trump would ask where the photographers were and press aides scrambled to get them into the room.
The emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020 dramatically changed, at least for some, the way the campaigns were handled. Gone were the huge press contingents at every stop and a more measured approach with a small group of visual journalists that were constantly tested for the coronavirus. The Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, for a time, had no in person events and those he had were held virtually. Socially distanced events became the norm, at least for Biden, with a small pool of visual journalists, traveling on a separate plane instead of on the plane with the candidate. This small cadre consisted, at most times, exclusively of WHNPA members.
From the original trail blazing photographers who founded the WHNPA 100 years ago, members in all formats, be it still photographers, video photographers, photo editor, video editors, digital storytellers, web producers, remain committed to the duty of upholding the first amendment.
In a letter dated May 14, 1987, to the WHNPA, President Reagan offered advice to WHNPA members saying, “Keep telling the story of freedom your work so vividly portrays.”
President George W. Bush said when talking about photojournalism in his address to members and guests at the 2005 WHNPA awards gala, “You might not remember what you read, but you will always remember what you saw.”
At its core, and regardless of the format — our mission continues to be the ‘Eyes of History®’.