The work of White House photographer Pete Souza, below right, had caught… (Pete Souza -- White House )
No time to check lighting. Forget about fiddling with the lens, lining up the composition.
Reflexes take over.
The photographic image snared by Pete Souza tickles the synapses, a behind-the-scenes moment of the most delightful and surprising kind. There is President Obama -- the leader of the bloomin' free world, for goodness' sake -- moving the sofa back into place after a routine photo op in the Oval Office!
Doesn't the prez have people to do that sort of thing? Don't his people have people who have people who could have handled that little chore?
Even Souza -- an "old warhorse" of political photography, as former Time photographer Dirck Halstead describes him -- can't believe it.
"I was not expecting that," says Souza, who became the Obama White House's official photographer in January, two decades after handling those duties for another photogenic Oval Office occupant, Ronald Reagan. "The president of the United States doesn't move furniture back in place!"
Ah, but he does. Souza's picture tells us so.
Souza is the photographer who gets to stay in the room when all the other photogs are shooed away -- when just about everyone is shooed away. In the pressurized atmosphere of the presidential bubble, Souza gets to disappear into the molecules, hoovering moments the rest of us could only dream of seeing.
"I don't know if 'fly on the wall' is too much of a cliche," says Souza, a 54-year-old with dark eyes, a prominent nose and thick features.
So, on inauguration night, Obama shows off his party tux in a White House hallway for the first kids, Sasha and Malia. Souza's there.
The president nuzzles the first lady in a service elevator between inauguration balls.
POTUS gives the touchdown sign while watching the Super Bowl in the White House.
Slouching in the Oval.
Click. Click. Click.
The momentous and the numbingly dull. It's all there in Souza's eye, all there in his Canon 5D Mark II camera. Five hundred photos in one day? That's a light day. Sometimes, it's 1,000 or 1,500, so many photos that Souza can only guess at the exact tallies.
How many different ways can you photograph the same man talking on the same phone? Souza knows. He shoots nearly all phone calls the president makes to other world leaders, just in case one of those calls is the call. A moment that shapes history.
"You need to be there," Souza says, "all the time."
As long as there have been cameras, we have craved images of our leaders. James K. Polk in the late 1840s was the first president to be photographed in office, according to the White House. (Others have asserted that William Henry Harrison was first.) The famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady preserved every deepening furrow of Abraham Lincoln's face. And Teddy Roosevelt is often called the first president to be photographed "in action," allowing guys with cameras to trail him while he worked.
But it wasn't until the 1960s that the White House formalized the rite of presidential photography. Cecil Stoughton, an officer in the Army Signal Corps, became the White House photographer during the administration of John F. Kennedy. His images commingled with photographs taken by several others to create Kennedy's Camelot mystique.
But Stoughton's most famous photograph -- perhaps the most enduring image captured by an official White House photographer -- is the cramped, harrowing scene of Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, a shattered Jackie Kennedy at his side, on the day of Kennedy's assassination. Historians credit the photograph with conveying a sense of reassurance and continuity to a startled nation. If there'd been any doubt about having an official White House photographer, it surely ended that day.
Official White House photographers are not journalists. They work for the president, and the White House press office decides which of their images will be released to the public. It follows that there would be a temptation to lean toward distributing photos that show the president in the best light. Eventually, though, all the photographs make their way to the National Archives and to presidential libraries.
Souza considers himself a documentarian, a collector of moments that will form the historical record. In "Images of Greatness," Souza's compilation of photos from more than five years as an official photographer in the Reagan White House, he describes himself as one of the president's "shadows."
Souza, who also served as the official photographer for Reagan's funeral, writes that his "personal political philosophies didn't necessarily mesh with Reagan's" but that he was "glad fate and good luck put me inside his White House." Souza didn't respond to a question about whether his political views align with Obama's.