A lens trained on history

White House photog Pete Souza

President Obama is leaving behind a photo album with many a close-up of his White House years -- all thanks to the man our Correspondent Emeritus Bill Plante has been talking with:

Over the past eight years, Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza has taken as many as 2,000 pictures a day of President Obama -- some recording singular events in the nation’s history, and some simply capturing a moment.

One such picture, on Halloween a few years ago, Mr. Obama spotted the son of a staffer and as he was leaving he said: “Zap me into your web.”

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President Obama pretends to be caught in Spider-Man’s web as he greets three-year-old Nicholas Tamarin outside the Oval Office, Oct. 26, 2012. Pete Souza/The White House

“One of the things that I’m just trying to do is show him not just as a president but as a human being. What’s he like as a man?” said Souza.

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Chief White House photographer Pete Souza. CBS News

In 2005, Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune when he began taking pictures of Barack Obama, then a new Senator from Illinois. 

“I loved his pictures,” Mr. Obama said. “Not only does he have an amazing eye, not only are his pictures evocative, accurate, creative, but he’s also become a great friend and somebody I trust.”

Souza photographed Mr. Obama in 2007 as he was about to announce his candidacy for President.

“He’s about to walk out, and his life is never gonna be the same,” Souza said.

And in 2009, the new president offered Souza the job of White House photographer -- a job he’d had before, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

“I never aspired to do this again,” he told Plante. “But the opportunity presented itself.”

That usually meant a long day of shadowing the president, whether at the arrival of the Italian Prime Minister for an official visit; in the Oval Office as Mr. Obama made phone calls; or watching Mr. Obama and his wife pass out treats on Halloween.

“I basically go in whenever I want, and stay as long as I want,” Souza said.

And the President had no problem with that. “He understands how to get his shot without being obtrusive,” Mr. Obama said.

But now, it’s about to end.

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President Barack Obama, in the White House Situation Room, receives an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Pete Souza/The White House

The president said, “It’s been an extraordinary gift, because I have the kind of chronicle of my girls growing up that very few people have.”

And, says Mr. Obama, Souza has also taken some iconic photographs, such as the president in the Situation Room watching to see if the Bin Laden operation was going to be successful. “You could feel the tension in that room,” Souza said. “And my job was to not disturb the moment, yet try to capture visually what was taking place.”

And less solemn moments, such as a little boy touching Mr. Obama’s head.

When staff members brought their children to the White House, there was sometimes a Presidential visit.

“I was in disbelief that the President of the United States was lying down in the Oval Office,” holding a baby, said Souza.

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President Obama lifts up young Ella Rhodes, who was wearing an elephant costume for a Halloween event, at the White House, Oct. 30, 2015. Pete Souza/The White House

Plante asked, “How do you decide when it’s appropriate to intrude on a president?”

“It’s more intuition than it is anything, but there’s certain times when, you know, okay, let’s give him some space.”

But Souza always had to be ready, as when the first couple briefly held hands during the commemoration of the civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.

“When it first happened, I was out of position. So I kind of literally ran to line up my composition and clicked a couple of frames. And then their hands let go.”

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President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., April 18, 2012. Pete Souza/The White House

Or when the president, in a museum, impulsively boarded the bus which had carried Rosa Parks the day she sat in the “whites only” section.

“Just the one frame of him looking out the window, it evokes the past in a lot of ways.”

To preserve the “here and now” meant understanding his subject and anticipating movements. Souza said, “You have to be ready, and I think that’s sort of what keeps you on your toes. Because that was like, boom, it happens and then it’s gone!”

When a friend told Souza that after eight years, he’d made every picture he could possibly make, he almost conceded her point. 

But just a few days later, at the opening of the new African-American Museum, he made two photographs of which he is still proud to this day: one, of Vice President Biden kneeling down, talking to the daughter of a slave; and literally 30 seconds later, “President Bush handed President Obama a smartphone and asked him to take a picture of him with a group of people.”

Plante asked the president, “On January 20, one of the pictures that he takes is going to be the last picture of you as president. What do you hope it captures?”

“I hope he captures my wave as I have a big grin and I say, ‘I’m goin’ on vacation!’” Mr. Obama laughed.

      
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