I recently watched the documentary on Pete Souza, official White House photographer for presidents, including Reagan and Obama, and I’m stunned. I happen to know a great deal about photography, even though I tend to forget what I know until I’m doing a post-mortem after I’ve ruined a photo.
That’s why my awe of Souza is well-founded. You know how they say Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, except backwards, and in heels? Well, consider this (I do realize the documentary showcased only his best work):
* Souza is a master of selective focus. The documentary showed example after example of his subjects totally isolated by shallow depth-of-field, themselves razor sharp against a heavily defocused background. Even so, the blurry background — sometimes an exquisite composition of out-of-focus presidential observers — often helped tell the story.
* Souza is a master of lighting. Whether he used rim lighting, or backlighting, classical portrait lighting, or any other use of photons, the lighting — which generally was beyond his ability to control — was a beautiful part of the story. And it’s really hard to tell whether some images were totally candid with available lighting, or carefully set up (like the example I’m including with this post.)
* Souza is a master of posing. The arrangement of humans in the images told a story. You could see excitement, humor, fatigue, anguish, and many other emotions just in the way his subjects carried themselves in his photos.
* Souza is a master of composition. Of course his focus was almost always on the president, but every other person in the photo played a part you could see in their attitude and faces. This guy could have told Michaelangelo how to set up Jesus and the Apostles in the Last Supper. And virtually every other object in the frame contributed to the composition.
Now, here’s the Ginger Rogers part. Pete Souza put all these elements together while himself remaining entirely in the background, without a great deal (if any) control over the events he was documenting. He got incredible pictures while walking backwards in high heels. If you want to feel humbled, check out the documentary “The Way I See It.”