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How Did White House Photographer Job Begin?

May 6, 2016

Interesting read.

It might be said that official White House photography began with a very unofficial photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt.

As the story goes, Roosevelt was out riding her horse when she was spotted by Abbie Rowe, who was then working for the public roads bureau. According to some he was doing manual labor, a tough job for anyone, but particularly for Rowe, whose legs had been damaged by polio; other versions hold that he was already at work as a photographer, documenting the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Either way, when Rowe saw the First Lady, he took her picture, and she was charmed enough that they began a relationship.

Soon, Rowe was working as photographer for the National Park Service, and in 1941, he was given a new assignment. His job would be to photograph the president.

The first president ever to be photographed was John Quincy Adams, who sat for a daguerreotype in his 70s.The first president to sit for a photograph during his presidency was William Henry Harrison, who was photographed at his inauguration in 1841. But that photo’s been lost. The oldest surviving photograph of a sitting president, taken in 1849, is of James K. Polk.

But Rowe was the first photographer to regularly document a president’s activities. At first, his assignment had him covering President Roosevelt’s most official public work—ceremonies, major announcements, visits from foreign ambassadors and leaders. At the time, the White House press corps, was strongly, sometimes forcibly discouraged from taking photos of the president in his wheelchair or getting in and out of cars, and Rowe’s official photos followed suit. It’s easy to imagine, though, that Rowe, who suffered a more mild disability from polio, would be sympathetic to the president’s desire to emphasize his strength rather than focus on his weaknesses. After a few years, Rowe did start to get a closer view of the president, too. His photos still covered the “pomp and symbolism” of the president’s work, but the situations were more intimate meetings, with kids or artists or recently pardoned turkeys.


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