Last Friday, as President Trump was making another weekend pilgrimage to his private club in Florida, press photographers captured his red necktie flapping in the breeze, revealing on its backside what appeared to be three small pieces of scotch tape. It wasn’t the first time that the American public was privy to this odd sartorial habit (on Inauguration Day, he employed the same trick), but this latest appearance garnered especially spirited mockery online: Was this perhaps a metaphor for the early public struggles of his Administration, a Presidency so far held together with, if not spit and glue, then spit and scotch tape? The photos, providing only an accidental glimpse at the underside of Trump’s tie, also provide a serviceable metaphor for the new President’s relationship to being photographed. Trump is the most radically accessible President in American history: we have, via Twitter, a direct connection to what seems to be the animal portions of his brain. Yet, in the first months of his Presidency, the Trump we’ve seen in images is almost exclusively the official, public-facing Trump, and his Administration’s use of photography has been much more limited than that of his immediate predecessor.
In press photos taken in the first two months of the Presidency, we’ve followed Trump on the most cursory of daily routes: sitting at the Resolute desk, speaking behind lecterns, saluting as he gets on a helicopter or airplane. Photographers are barred from taking pictures in his happy place, the golf course, where he spends hours on the weekends; when he played a round with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in February, the press was corralled in a room with garbage bags taped over the windows. (Trump later posted a photo that showed him striding across the tee box to high-five Abe, which looked a bit like a golfing version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”) In the pictures at the White House, when the press has been let in the room, Trump knows where the cameras are, and often he is seen posing stiffly and looking right at them, occasionally flashing a thumbs-up sign.
Barack Obama’s White House, by contrast, was the first to regularly update social-media feeds with candid, behind-the-scenes pictures of the President. These images, taken by the official White House photographer Pete Souza, became a running visual diary of the Administration, starting right from its very first days. The photographs captured the vibrancy of the young President and his family: the image of Barack and Michelle sharing a joking, romantic moment in a service elevator on the way to one of the Inauguration balls; President Obama running the halls of the White House with his dog Bo; the Obama girls playing in the Oval Office. Many of Souza’s most famous Obama photographs feature children, including the image of a young African-American boy touching the President’s hair, and noting that it felt just like his. The White House carefully curated the photographs that it shared with the public, but not all of them showed the President looking his best. In all, Souza took more than two million photographs during his eight years following Obama, and many showed the President looking tired, frustrated, or concerned—revealing other dimensions beneath the veneer of cool that Obama projected in public.
These kinds of behind-the-scenes photographs have shaped the way we think about the American Presidency for the better part of a century. Lyndon Johnson became the first President to name an official White House photographer when he hired Yoichi Okamoto, and set a precedent by giving him wide and unfettered access to his life. That access helped Okamoto to make images that not only added to the historical record but, as in a famous image of Johnson in a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., told a story of the strong personalities of the people who made that history. In the decades since, each President (save for Jimmy Carter) has employed official photographers, and each of them (save for Richard Nixon) has given his chosen photographers remarkable access. Before he worked for Obama, Souza worked as an official photographer in Ronald Reagan’s White House, from 1983 to 1989, travelling around the world with the President and adding emotional context to Reagan’s relationships with world leaders such as Thatcher and Gorbachev, and chronicling his love affair with his wife, Nancy.
In January, the White House announced that Shealah Craighead, who worked in the George W. Bush Administration and was the official campaign photographer for Sarah Palin, in 2008, had been named Trump’s official photographer. But Craighead’s work, to this point, has been infrequently shared with the public. Trump’s Instagram feed is an odd assortment of the occasional professional-looking photo, mixed in with screenshots of his tweets, videos of him glad-handing with well-wishers, and reposts of content from his daughter Ivanka’s account. Very little of this feed contains anything that could be called candid. The official Web site of the White House does not include the kinds of blogs or slide shows that were constantly refreshed with new content during the Obama Administration. The White House Flickr page, which during the Obama years was regularly updated, passed to the new Administration on the day of Trump’s Inauguration. It has been blank ever since.
Lacking visual information about Trump’s daily life, the imagination runs wild, fuelled by the few press reports of the President’s new life in the White House that have come out, always on background or via unnamed sources. In February, the Times reported that Trump spent his nights alone, watching television in his bathrobe in a mostly darkened White House. Trump’s image is clearly dear to him. In November, during a meeting with television executives, he reportedly complained about unflattering photographs, showing a double chin, that NBC had used in stories about him. After the Timesstory was published, it was not the suggestion that Trump was isolated, or spending his evenings consumed in a Nixon-like state of solitary stewing, that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, pushed back against; it was, rather, the bathrobe—“I don’t think the President wears a bathrobe, and definitely doesn’t own one.” In response, Twitter users unearthed a cache of old photos of Trump in robes.
Photographs, from the beginning of his term, have given Trump trouble. There were those aerial images that revealed the size of his Inauguration crowd to be smaller than that of Obama’s first Inauguration, and clearly smaller than the numbers that Trump himself had insisted were in attendance. And there was, last week, the picture of the White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway sitting casually, with her feet underneath her, on a couch in the Oval Office while the President met with representatives of America’s historically black colleges and universities, a posture that drew criticism for being disrespectful. Since Trump’s Inauguration, Souza has been posting on Instagram photos from the Obama years that subtly tweak the new Administration: when Trump’s meeting with Enrique Peña Nieto, the President of Mexico, was abruptly cancelled, Souza posted a photo, from 2013, of Obama and Peña Nieto sipping tequila.
One might think that Trump would recognize the propaganda value, at least, of using social media to share more congenial photographs of his own Administration at work. Or perhaps Trump realizes that the job of the White House photographer is not simply to communicate a public-relations message for the President but also to puncture the mystery of the Presidency. The photographer works, as does the President himself, for the public and, as such, functions as an official observer for the people. The camera’s presence in the rooms of power becomes our presence, and its lens our eye. Candid images help to reveal a President’s bearing and character, to communicate the way he works and how he manages relationships, the things that cause him to express concern, or delight, or fear, or joy. They are a tool through which a distant and unrelatable figure, an official cloistered in the White House, becomes someone his constituents can, in some small but significant way, come to know.
What Obama understood, and Trump perhaps doesn’t, is that seeing a President unguarded need not necessarily diminish the respect he commands as a leader. It is not incidental that the most evocative photograph from the President’s first months in office is one of the few candid shots from Inauguration Day. In it, Trump, his face set in a near frown, his eyes cast downward, waits to walk out on the dais at the Capitol to take the oath of office. He appears, for a rare instant, to be absorbing the gravity and daunting nature of the office he had been elected to hold. It is, in its way, a comforting image. In that moment, Trump is finally a person we might begin to understand.