Skip to main content

The Camera Comes To The White House

May 2024
2min read

If, like the couple above, you were touring Washington in the mid-1880’s, you could meet President Cleveland and shake his hand by simply walking into the White House. At one o’clock every day, a reporter explained, “The President goes downstairs to lunch, and on his way to the private dining-room passes through the East Room to see the sovereign people congregated there. … The President wastes no time, but goes along the line like an old-fashioned beau dancing the grand right and left figure of a cotillion, and then goes to his luncheon.” Such a zoolike existence was normal for Presidents during most of the nation’s first century; every American felt he had the right to enter the White House unannounced and verify with his own eyes that the President was on the job. Then came high-speed film photography, ushered in by George Eastman’s handborne Kodak camera; one of the first was owned by the White House visitor at right. Thereafter, monitoring presidential activity became the assignment of news photographers, newsreel cameramen, and eventually television crews. From the vast archive of eye- witness history that White House photographers ^ have been building up during the past 115 years, ^ some highlights are presented on the following pages.

The first camera to enter the White House belonged to Mathew Brady, and he used it to make a rather grim portrait of President James K. Polk (left, center). The’date was February 14, 1849; three weeks later Polk would be out of office, and in June of that year he would be dead, his health broken by incessant hard work during the Mexican War. But while he was President he was still pursued by people demanding last-minute favors. In his diary for February 14 he wrote, “The number of persons, male and female, who called this morning was unusually great, and the importunate applications for office were exceedingly annoying.” Almost as an afterthought he added: ’II yielded to the request of an artist named Brady, of New York, by sitting for my daguerreotype likeness today. I sat in the large dining-room.”

Folk’s mood accounts for his grouchy expression, but his frozen pose was due to the limitations of the first photographic process. Even in a well-lighted studio a daguerreotype (a positive print on silver-plated copper) required twenty to forty seconds of exposure, during which any slight movement would ruin the picture. The “wet-plate” collodion-on-glass technique which Brady used later in his Civil War reporting—and which also produced the handsome view of the White House above —was only a little faster. Most of the Civil War battlefield pictures were made with five- or six-second exposures. In the 1870’s the camera finally began to catch up with motion, using dry glass plates and then flexible film coated with highly sensitive emulsions. After 1890 it was no longer necessary to strike a rigid pose.

All during this early period the relations between photographers and Presidents were on a catch-as-catchcan basis. There was no such thing as photo-journalism, since the halftone process for printing photographs was not perfected until the 1890’s. If you wanted to see the camera likeness of a President or First Lady you had to visit the studio of a famous photographer like Brady, where they were on display to attract business, or you could buy a small mounted print to take home. Abigail Fillmore was a popular early seller; women admired her for her White House parties, which featured cultural celebrities like Jenny Lind, Washington Irving, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Some photographers made a great deal of money selling pictures of famous people, and some Presidents objected to this when it invaded their private lives. Grover Cleveland excluded photographers from his 1886 White House wedding, and did his best to prevent circulation of his pretty bride’s picture. McKinley always stiffened in front of a camera—and always hid his cigar.

It was Theodore Roosevelt who set a modern precedent by allowing photographers to follow him around and take unposed pictures of him in action. Teddy was a frank exhibitionist who loved to perform in front of a camera; he was also a keen politician who knew that advances in pictorial journalism were expanding his audience to millions. Most Presidents since Teddy have followed his example, and in recent years they have learned to be television stars as well. Presidents know, better than most people, that the camera is no longer merely a witness of what goes on at the White House. It has become a major factor in deciding who lives there.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.