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TCA Press Tour: PBS to air the first documentary about presidential photographers

August 5, 2010 |  5:06 pm

We agree with director and producer John Bredar: How is it possible that the story of what it's like to be a presidential photographer has never been told?

Not for much longer, though.

PBS will premiere a National Geographic special, "The President's Photographer," on Nov. 24. The film features interviews with prominent photographers and tells the stories of how they captured historical moments. Among the iconic national events covered are the Nixon resignation, Sept. 11 and President Barack Obama's inauguration.


Introducing the panel session Thursday with former presidential photographers Eric Draper, who followed President George W. Bush for his entire two terms, and David Kennerly, who tracked President Gerald Ford for nearly three years, Bredar said that "history is my crystal meth, and presidential photographers are the consummate dealers. They've pretty much seen it all."

In a clip shown before the session, Obama discusses his relationship with his photographer Pete Souza. 

"Pete and I are like an old couple," he said. "We certainly know each other, and we're family."

On the panel, Draper and Kennerly talked about having similar relationships with Bush and Ford, respectively. Draper had met and covered Bush when he was a photographer for Associated Press but says he got to know him on a different level when he worked for him in the White House.

"To see him on a personal level and how he interacted  personally with people and to capture that, his ability to connect on a personal level was something," he said. "He truly was a very generous person. I was invited to Camp David every Christmas to photograph the family, and I had a seat at the dinner table every Thanksiving. I found a lot about President Bush. I did develop an attachment as far as knowing him as a friend."

Kennerly, who said that Ford offered him "total access" and never criticized or complained about his photographs, recalled a moment in the Oval Office with his boss. The two men were waiting for an appointment, and President Ford, hands in his pockets, looked up at the presidential seal on the ceiling. 

"He told me all he ever wanted was to be speaker of the House," Kennerly said. "Then he said, 'I've never asked you, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Don't answer that!' "

Draper said he shot 1 million images of Bush during his two terms, all of which are now archived and public record. Kennerly's time in the White House obviously occurred before the Digital Age, so he says he took fewer photographs than Draper.

"To the best of my ability, I took document photos that could be easily interpreted later," Draper said. "I would think about injecting artistic style, but people need to understand what's happening here. I kept my feelings to myself. It wasn't my job to say, 'Hey, Mr. President, let me tell you what I think."

Kennerly said he approached his job as a journalist, though "many pictures were taken through tears."

— Maria Elena Fernandez

Photo: David Hume Kennerly answers a question in the documentary. Credit: J.J. Kelley/National Geographic.