- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

During the last several weeks of the Bush presidency, White House chief photographer Eric Draper hung some of his favorite photos on a wall inside the West Wing, several feet from the Oval Office.

The 10 pictures were arranged to represent Mr. Bush’s two terms, and the last shot of the president’s first term shows him walking alone on the White House South Lawn minutes after ordering U.S. troops into Iraq on March 19, 2003.

“He just walked through the Oval and walked around, and I knew he was emotional, so I tried to back off,” Mr. Draper said recently, standing in front of the photo inside the West Wing with a Washington Times reporter.

“And I waited. He walked the entire circle of the South Lawn, and so I waited for him to walk right at me, and the expression on his face is pretty telling,” Mr. Draper said.

“I was just trying to get a sharp picture and didn’t really know what his expression looked like until I looked at the film. He walked all the way around. The dogs kind of followed him, like Barney followed him the whole way.”

Mr. Draper’s approach to shooting the president that day is indicative of the way the tall, soft-spoken and reserved former wire photographer has handled his unique role inside the Bush White House for the past eight years.

The Los Angeles native, who is returning to his former home base of Albuquerque, N.M., to begin work on a book of Bush photos, got the job after covering then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas for the Associated Press during the 2000 campaign.

He approached the president-elect at a Christmas party in Texasshortly after Mr. Bush’s victory was confirmed by the Supreme Court’s ruling that stopped the Florida recount wars.

A week later, Mr. Draper got a call and was offered the job, and then he came to work in Washington for the first time in his career, after 15 years in the news business, including eight years at AP.

During the two Bush terms, Mr. Draper has been an eyewitness to many of the most significant moments of the presidency, capturing it all in a series of roughly 3.5 million images, each of which has been saved and placed in a searchable database.

He has not tried to develop a relationship with Mr. Bush, he said, for fear that it would hinder his ability to remain “a piece of furniture.”

“My method is to really step back and fade into the background. There could be days where I don’t talk to [the president] at all. I’m just standing there staring at him all day. It’s kind of weird,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal. Because of the intensity of the situations, sometimes it feels like I’m almost watching a play.”

“Then occasionally he will speak to me, and still, even eight years later, I’m kind of jolted when all of a sudden he’s talking to me directly. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not supposed to do that.’”

Yet, this being Washington, even the White House photographer has come under fire for his approach. The harshest critic has been David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who has photographed eight presidents and was President Ford’s personal photographer.

“The current White House photographer doesn’t have the relationship with the president that I did and has not lifted a finger to help his colleagues. That has been to the detriment of his boss, I think,”Mr. Kennerly wrote in an October article in Photo District News in which several former presidential photographers offered advice to the next administration’s chief picture-taker

“By the way, Eric Draper is a … good photographer,” Mr. Kennerly said. “I’m not taking away from his ability as a photographer, I’m just criticizing his reluctance to help his colleagues.”

Mr. Kennerly said the Bush White House press office has put out a “confetti machine of handout” photos to “supplant outside photography.”

Mr. Draper said Mr. Kennerly’s criticism was “baseless.”

“Yes, we have released more photos than any other administration because we were more advanced technically,” said Mr. Draper, who oversaw the transition of the White House photo office from the old film process to digital printmaking.

“When I first started here, the White House was kind of behind the times, like way behind the times,” he said. “It was a film process, and it took four years to finally switch to digital. It was a huge job because the volume is huge.”

Mr. Draper said he brought in a staff of more than 12, with four other photographers, four editors, a database editor and a few others.

“There was no Web site, really, to speak of, before. I brought in a staff that could actually do it, folks that worked in the newspaper industry and wire-service industry,” he said. “To use that as an excuse for lack of access just doesn’t add up.”

The main obstacle to shooting digital during the first term was that no computer storage system was set up to archive all the photos because of the massive capacity needed. Mr. Draper made the shift gradually, then began shooting all-digital for good on the day of Mr. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005.

He also had staff digitally scan all of the negatives from Mr. Bush’s first term to create the “first White House archive to be 100 percent digital from start to finish.”

As for Mr. Draper’s personal approach, other former White House photographers defended his method.

“Kennerly is very proud of the fact that he was part of the [Ford] family. I never, ever wanted to be part of the family,” said former Clinton photographer Robert McNeely.

“Clinton and I would go all day with no more than a ‘Good morning’ and a ‘Good evening. See you tomorrow,’” Mr. McNeely said. “Kennerly and Ford would have cocktails together at the end of the day. That’s great: That relationship provided a look at President Ford. But that tends to impinge on history looking at the photos as an impartial document.”

Pete Souza, who was President Reagan’s photographer and has been chosen as chief photographer for President-elect Barack Obama, said the president “doesn’t have to be friends with the photographer.”

“But they certainly have to trust and know him or her well enough to give that person essentially unfettered access to the Oval Office,” he said.

Mr. Draper confesses that he is “still learning” how he will go about the process of compiling his book.

He does not own the pictures he took. Instead, the images are owned by Mr. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas, he said.

“I really haven’t had time to think about it because finishing this job has just been really consuming, just like the very beginning. It was this flurry of nonstop work and shooting, and it’s ending the same way,” Mr. Draper said.

“I have so many stories to tell through those photos.”

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