The role as White House photographer comes with a heavy responsibility. It is the job of the photographer to document and represent the presidency through the good and the bad, to create an archive that will ultimately become the visual legacy of that administration. Eric Draper assumed that responsibility as the official White House Photographer for two full terms under the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush. A visual legacy that can now be found in “Front Row Seat: A Photographic Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush,” by Eric Draper and University of Texas Press, that revisits the Bush administration through those eight dramatic years that changed America.
Draper, prior to working for the White House, had a well-established career as a photojournalist, a resume including the Associated Press and staff positions at numerous papers including the Seattle Times. “I used every skill there is in being a photojournalist,” Draper said during a phone call from Dallas. Skills that Draper feels allowed him to catch the less obvious moments and show an emotional human side to the presidency through the tried-and-true “fly on the wall” photojournalistic technique.
The book is organized into eight themes that drive the narrative of the book. The themes range in seriousness and subject matter, like the sometimes lighthearted and tranquil images found within “Family” and “The Western White House,” to the images one would expect to see within the more complex themes of “9/11” and “War President.”
“These themes just always came to mind while shooting…they had already taken shape, “Draper said. “These themes and events defined him [former president Bush] as a president and were very important to him, which became fascinating for myself.”
The non-chronological arrangement of the book works well to showcase the range of Draper’s talents as a photographer while also to paint a picture of the relationship between himself and the president. A relationship that Draper said grew alongside this body of work as the two became more comfortable and trusting with one another. An intimacy the book ultimately depends on to deliver that “front row seat” the title suggests.
With the remarkable access to the president, the book paints a rather soft portrait of the former president. Not quite as charged and dramatic as the cover image depicting the president walking across the White House colonnade to the Oval Office, a contemplative look on his face while basking in a golden light may suggest at least.
Lighter moments flow easily into the more complex and less flattering depictions of the presidency. Images like President Bush reacting during a Christmas Day family bowling match at Camp David or the president hitting a tennis ball to Barney, his Scottish Terrier, on a foggy day, really work to humanize and place an emotional element that may not first be seen. This isn’t to suggest that Draper attempts to gloss over the harder moments of the Bush administration though.
Images such as President Bush addressing the nation from the Treaty Room of the White House that U.S air strikes were underway in Afghanistan, portrays Bush not as the war time leader one may think but rather in a light of smallness, as he is seemingly engulfed by the teleprompters text.
Even at times alienation and otherworldliness can seep through the images, as seen in one particular image of Condoleezza Rice playing the piano as Bush stands atop a lavish staircase during a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dacha. It’s truly a surreal scene to behold and one with an almost endless amount of interpretation dependent on an individual’s own idea toward the Bush administration.
“Preconceived ideas will always be there, I personally had my own idea before going to work, but before you know him, you don’t know a person,” Draper said. “I kept focus on taking pictures of history, how it is presented was a thought process for after.”
Placing politics aside may prove harder for some then others, but if given the chance, the book presents a body of work that can’t be found anywhere else. Draper seems comfortable to let others tip the scale one way or another in how the Bush legacy will be remembered. Instead, he presents a man that history is just starting to contextualize and allows for his images to speak for themselves.
Published April 25, 2013 - for The Washington Post