Pete Souza, former White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, looks at his photographs hanging at the Sordoni Art Gallery at Wilkes University on Tuesday. – Aimee Dilger | Times Leader
Pete Souza, former White House photographer for Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, signs a book for Jean Adams at the Sordoni Art Gallery at Wilkes University on Tuesday. – Aimee Dilger | Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — While Pete Souza’s exhibit and opening lecture is billed “Two Presidents, One Photographer,” it really includes a third president that the former White House photographer never mentioned by name.
Souza shared his images and insights about capturing the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama — during what he said was unfairly labeled as a lecture — Tuesday night at Wilkes University’s Dorothy Dickson Darte Center. About 225 people filled the center’s Darlene Theater, some with copies of Souza’s recent books on the Obama administration for him to sign after the program.
With a mix of seriousness and comedy, Souza showed off some of the pictures that meant to most to him in his role, from the Reagan years in 1983 to 1989 and the Obama years from 2009 to 2017.
But he started by recalling the moment that his time shooting the Oval Office had ended, with President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
“Someone said to me, ‘How are you doing?’” Souza recalled as large projections of his images from that day flicker next to him. “And I said, ‘I’m really depressed, because I watched (Obama) always asking thoughtful questions and making well-informed decisions on very important issues.
“But this other guy (Trump) … I don’t think is capable.”
Souza wasn’t taking jabs at a political party, however. He said he was more concerned about the character that he believed was now occupying the nation’s highest office.
He showed this with his presentation of images of Reagan at work and how similar situations and concerns were found in Reagan and Obama. Souza would project a photo of Reagan as he seriously read paperwork at his desk and followed with one of Obama doing the same thing.
For the Reagan portion, Souza showed the Republican president in candid moments spending time with his wife, Nancy Reagan, enjoying his days at his California retreat and smiling while on Air Force One. And there were somber moments as well, including an image with Reagan staring at a black-and-white TV set receiving the news that the Challenger exploded in 1986.
But one photo that Souza highlighted was not released when it was first taken. No one would see it until the end of Reagan’s presidency. It was of the president playfully launching a paper airplane off a Los Angeles hotel balcony.
“The press people at the Reagan White House were very careful … and they thought this would make fun of him,” Souza said.
Souza explained that he was able to get different pictures of Reagan, including times when scandals like the Iran-Contra crisis unfolded and at some of his most vulnerable moments. However, he also said that there were restrictions to where he could go in the White House.
Souza also shared his photographic techniques with the audience. He used cameras that were mostly silent and created rigs to compose overhead shots in the Oval Office.
Becoming Obama’s chief photographer meant a change of pace for Souza. During the Reagan years, Souza relied on film, but with Obama, he used digital cameras and had a subject that gave him total access. Souza had previously followed Obama when he was U.S. senator from Illinois for four years when the photographer worked for the Chicago Tribune.
“Exactly four years to the day, after I had first met him that I had been asked to become his chief White House photographer,” Souza said
“Now that I had worked at the White House, and I knew this guy, Obama,” Souza said “And I knew how the job should be done, I was determined to create the best photographic archive that had ever been done on a president.”
In those eight years, Souza took 2 million photos of Obama with his cabinet, world leaders and his family. Souza discussed how reentering the White House allowed him to take some of the styles of photograph he wished he captured while covering Reagan. This included loving snapshots of Barack and Michelle Obama holding hands and takes of Malia and Sasha Obama growing up.
But Souza also shared what Obama called the worst day of his presidency, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. Many audience members shed tears as Souza went through frame after frame of what Obama was doing in the time that followed that event.
Souza concluded the night with a return to Trump’s inauguration and a question-and-answer section with the audience.
One person asked if Souza would cover Trump if he were given the chance. He answered by recalling a National Geographic assignment he received to photograph the Piedmont section of North Carolina, which included a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. Souza likened the feeling of that stomach-turning experience to being forced to follow Trump for two weeks.
As people lined up to get books signed, they talked about how funny Souza’s presentation was and the balance he showed toward the two presidents. Karley Stasko of Warrior Run was in the audience and had installed the exhibit that will open at the Sordoni Art Gallery on Oct. 22.
“I was expecting a lecture, but I think he missed his calling in stand-up comedy,” Stasko said. “I laughed. I was sobbing in my seat.”
Drew Salko of Shavertown follows Souza on Instagram, so the lecture gave him a chance to see the photographer in person.
“It’s amazing to see the emotion, feel the emotion of his photography and then see it and hear it in his voice,” Salko said. “I was particularly moved by his photographs from the Sandy Hook massacre.”
Sisters Rose Ann Crisci of Sweet Valley and Michele Carter of Dallas found it to be inspiring.
“I liked seeing both about Reagan and Obama,” Carter said. “And I learned a lot.”