A Zimbel in the White House ?

Posted by George on January 6th, 2009 in Opinion

the-goose-bronx-1958.jpg

“The Goose, Bronx 1958″     Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The world has been focusing  attention on  the swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States.  Me too.   But I have  also been reminiscing  about a letter I  received from the White House, dated the last day of Lyndon Johnson’s  presidency   January 20, 1969.

It was  from my friend, Yoichi R. Okamoto, Johnson’s official photographer. Oke was a  career civil  servant, a second or third generation American from Bronxville New York. He became the director of still photography for the U.S. Information Agency under John Kennedy when  that job was not highly politicised.  He knew good photography because he was a good photographer and wanted the world to see the U.S. through the eyes of good photographers.

At one point in his USIA tenure he was requested to  photograph Vice-President  Johnson at some official function, and Mr. Johnson was very impressed with the work…for good reason. When he became president, he requested Okamoto  as  his official photographer. There were rumblings from the Republicans about  Johnson’s ego, but a very distinguished group of U.S. photographers contacted the White House in behalf of Oke and he was confirmed for the job.

I’ll digress here because I want you to know about this guy. You could be standing next to him, camera ready as we always were those days.  You would see something worth shooting and you would. Oke would shoot too. That was a game we used to play….shoot the same scene at the same time and vive la difference when you finally got to look at the prints.  Oke  may have been third generation U.S., but his esthetic was very Japanese and the design of his work was  impeccable. I was in awe.

As you can see from my bio, I was very much opposed to the Vietnam war and this soured my relationship with  him until I realized what he was doing from his unique position as Johnson’s personal photographer. Here was an exceptional documentary photographer  with credentials  that included  the highest security clearance. He could be anywhere the president was and document events from the inside. That’s what he did  with incredible consistency and flare. What he produced is  a  unique  visual history of a president. Most of the work is at the Lyndon Johnson Library. Someday I would love to curate an exhibition of that work in Washington D.C.

At the end of the Johnson Administration I wrote to congratulate him on this unique project and wish him well once he left the White House. That’s when I got the letter of thanks dated  Jan 20,1969. He wrote it his last day in the White House.   Later when we talked on  the phone, he told me that his favorite  Zimbel photograph, “The Goose, Bronx 1958″  had hung in his office directly downstairs from the Oval Office during his tenure. I hadn’t known about this. That  photo had been banned by his wife from Yoichi’s  home, but found a home downstairs from the President!

All of which makes me hope that President Obama  will find a  very talented photographer whom he will  permit  to  seriously document of one of the most important periods in American history. No more photo-ops!

george

ps: I’m a little slow. Congratulations to Pete Souza who has been appointed as Obama’s  official photographer.


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