People, pictures and Presidents

Bob McNeely spent six years photographing President Clinton and lately he's spent time photographing President Obama. Here he talks to ePHOTOzine about photographing the most powerful men in the world and why he thinks black and white film is still the best format to work in.

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Obama During the six years as Clinton's official photographer, Bob McNeely captured over 25,000 roles of film and spent hours recording the Clinton years in great detail. He's also covered the recent inauguration of President Obama with fellow photographer David Hume Kennerly.

Bob and David spent five days with the Obama's documenting and recording their movements for the history books. "I took a train trip with them that went from Philadelphia to Delaware and eventually it pulled into Washington. I got some nice pictures on the train, it was Michelle's birthday and her children decorated the cart. There were a lot of families travelling with us and I was the only photographer in the cart when they were singing happy birthday."

The Martin Luther King holiday fell on one of the three days Bob was with the Obama's, a day when national service is encouraged and Bob went with Barack Obama to a homeless shelter where plenty of pictures were taken of him painting walls and helping out.

The fourth day his partner took over and Bob spent some time with the crowds on the mall. Something which may sound a little ordinary when you've photographed the man who'll soon be the most powerful man in the world, but getting a chance to shoot a variety of candids was an exciting and special time for Bob as it gave him the opportunity to shoot photographs he wouldn't usually get the chance to take.

Barack ObamaSpending so much time in close proximity to these men gave Bob a chance to get to know how they govern and how best to capture their decisions. "Each President has their own style of governing. Bill Clinton was always busy. He went on yearly trips to Russia, visited the UK to talk to MPs and the Prime Minister. He was always very active and had a lot of advisers while Obama is quieter, he has a solitary style of governing which makes for very different pictures."

The time you have with them also changes the type of pictures you can take. If you only have five minutes with someone who only wants to give you three you have to have an agenda. Whereas if you're with them a long time you can fit into their regime and look for key moments you think should be recorded. "During the Clinton years I often said I have to be like a piece of furniture.  I have to be there but never in the way so they trip over me," explained Bob.

Getting used to having a photographer around is something not everyone finds easy. Even if the photographer acts like a piece of furniture it can take a while to adjust and of course there are times when having a camera in your face can just be irritating. "Bill would say haven't you taken enough pictures already and I would say look this is history in the making, if I get on your nerves tell me and I will back off but I can't stop.  This is the history of the White House that needs to be recorded.

Crowd One man who did love having his photograph taken and who started the whole official photographer business was Lyndon Johnson. He actually paid Yoichi R Okamoto to be with him all day every day.  "Okamoto would lay out all of his pictures on a long table in the oval office where Lyndon would spend time looking over each of the images Okamoto had taken that week. Bill was nothing like this. He only saw my pictures when they were published in the book, he didn't have the time to look at them."

For Bob, the White House photographer has a very important job. The pictures these men are taking are forming and recording a part of history. It's very different to producing a few snaps for the front pages of the newspapers who, at present, may have thousands of images of the President but they wont always be stored.  The images taken by the White House photographer will be kept for years to come. Nothing is ever thrown away and while the current President's photographs grace the walls of the White House the images of those of the past are put into storage in libraries.

Despite the White House now turning to digital Bob started in darkrooms and he can still be found with the dev, stop and fix, taking his time and enjoying the solitary moments his darkroom gives him. "I have two darkrooms at home which have signs that say don't open the darkroom door and when you have two young kids running around it's the perfect place to disappear for a while."

He loves black and white film and always will. It gives images a timeless look perfect for recording these documentary photographs that will always have a place in history. "Photography has existed for 180 years, black and white allows you to connect to this history." It also simplifies pictures, they're not as distracting and when it's a portrait there's a real sense of intimacy, like they're looking directly at you.

His love for black and white photography fits his desire to produce more street style photography perfectly. The ability to wander anywhere and at any time with just a camera, snapping unsuspecting passers by and producing images with a lot of meaning is perfect for his chosen format. "I like to wander round a city and wonder what's happening down a street, so I go down and take a look - I just love that. These pictures have meaning, you don't get much money from them though. They're the images that bring pleasure and go into your archive until you retire when eventually you can make a book out of them!"


To see more pictures by Bob or to upload your own pictures for a chance to be featured in the Official Inaugural Photo Book visit Kodak's inauguration site.

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