Lauren Davis likes best the emotional photos, images filled with laughter, sorrow and quiet reflection. Those are the Diana Walker photographs that look past the presidency and into the man.
Some 50 of Walker’s photos of American presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter, fill Louisiana’s Old State Capitol’s main galleries through Aug. 27 in “Diana Walker Photography Exhibit: Work by the Former White House Photojournalist.”
“When you look at the photos of them laughing, you see them as a person,” Davis says. “This is the hardest job in the world, and who would really want it? You see how it ages them while they’re in office. Look at what they’re dealing with.
“And it’s those moments with laughter, and those quiet moments, that Diana Walker caught that make these photos special.”
Davis began work on booking this show two years ago, long before presumptive presidential party nominees were chosen.
“We didn’t realize how important this show was going to be,” she says. “We didn’t know just how much the conversation was going to change, how the discussion is what it means to be president and how presidents are supposed to conduct themselves.”
Some answers can be found in Walker’s photos.
“She was so trusted that she was sometimes the only reporter allowed in the room,” Davis says. “Imagine being the only person there to capture these historical moments.”
And some were key moments in history, such as when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the White House’s Red Room in 1996.
The scene is candid, a pleasant exchange between the embattled leaders.
“There’s also the photo of Reagan and his staff doubled over in laughter,” Davis says. “Diana Walker says in her book that she was so focused on taking the picture that she missed the joke that made them laugh so hard. She said they would never tell her the joke afterward.”
But the photo exquisitely captures the reactions of legendary newsman Walter Conkrite, press secretary James Brady and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who would be elected president after Reagan left office.
“She covered a lot of presidents, but I would say the bulk of the photos in this show are of Reagan, the first Bush and Clinton,” Davis says. “We’ve also enhanced the show with items from our museum collection. It’s an interesting mix.”
Fittingly, Walker is a native of Washington, D.C., who began her professional career in the 1970s, when newspapers and magazine editors were actively recruiting female photographers.
“Walker possessed not only superb camera skills, but also confidence and the diplomacy needed to gain the trust of her subjects,” according to the exhibit. “She is a pioneering woman in what has been a predominantly male profession. Her work documents key events in American history over the last 25 years.”
People magazine hired Walker, then Time gave her a contract. Two decades later, she retired as one of Time’s White House photographers. Walker, 74, has continued to work as a contract photographer for Time since her retirement, while also working on her own projects.
The exhibit began as a traveling show for the Smithsonian. Walker has since donated her collection to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which put its own show together, dividing into sections Walker’s work in the White House Press Room, Campaigns and Conventions, First Ladies, Public and Private Moments, Travel with the President, Presidents in Private and Clinton’s Last Week.
“Working in the White House intimidated Walker in her early days,” the exhibit text states. “Learning a special kind of photography and the ways of the White House coverage at the same time, she followed her colleagues’ leads.”
Walker learned to negotiate with the Secret Service and learned where to stand to get the best photos.
“Walker eventually established her own style of working in the Oval Office and the first family’s private quarters,” the text continues. “She did not interact or speak with the president. She moved swiftly and quietly to capture important and personal moments without intruding.”
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