"Personal Photographer to the President" is the title printed on Michael Evans' gold-eagle-emblazoned business card. The name of his recently released book of photographs denotes a more expansive view of exclusivity: "People and Power: Portraits From the Federal Village."
The book (Abrams: $17.95) contains 293 black-and-white portraits selected from 600 of people related to the Reagan White House--from Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and United States Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick, to assorted journalists and a couple of entertainers who have supported the Administration. A January-February exhibition introduced Evans' portraits at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. Last week, the 40-year-old photographer was stumping the country's major book markets on behalf of his publication.
"I wanted to fill in the blanks about the first four years of the Reagan Administration," Evans told The Times when asked why he didn't use his off hours to photograph sports, nature--or anything other than the ubiquitous men in suits that dominate his working days and his book's pages.
"After being at the White House for a while, I became aware of a whole stream of people whose hands were on the levers of power. The operation seemed like a giant Rube Goldberg machine on the banks of the Potomac. I just wanted a record of the era."
His record is not as complete an account as he would like, but it includes 40 senators, about 100 congressmen, a couple of Supreme Court justices, the White House social secretary and the executive vice president of the National Rifle Assn., as well as actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and singer Pat Boone--slipped into the book "for shock value."
Evans also admits to a thirst for challenge, one that was met by bird-dogging extraordinarily busy people and enticing them to add a photo appointment to already crammed schedules. "I know Ronald Reagan so well and my work had become so easy that I wanted to flex my creative muscles," he said. "Working down in the basement (on routine jobs, in cramped quarters once used as the White House safe), I used to wish the Russians would invade Poland so that there would be an honest-to-God crisis."
The crises that came with photographing the nation's ruling class were trivial compared to that fantasy, but they still were memorable. Henry Kissinger, for example, arrived late for his 7:30 a.m. appointment after his driver got lost on the way to Evans' studio. Kissinger was fuming and in no state to have his picture taken because the session would make him tardy to an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting. "He looked like Mt. St. Helens about to go off," recalls Evans, "so I said to him, 'You and I have something in common: We both work best under pressure.' " Kissinger cooled off, and three minutes later Evans had his picture.
The people in Evans' book all stare straight out from the center of plain backgrounds and--except for some photographers with camera bags slung over their shoulders--they are accompanied by no identifying props or distracting elements. The subjects may fuss with their hands, smile easily, affect a casual air or maintain poker-faced sobriety, but their similarities suggest that nearly everyone who goes off to Washington--particularly those deeply involved in government--gets homogenized into the collective face of bureaucracy.
Evans insists that he tried neither to be kind nor to expose foibles. "I wanted to let people speak for themselves" and "not to hold up a lens, but to hold up a mirror." He says he tried to "minimize the effect of the observer (himself) on what was being observed," thus avoiding the "kind of collusion" that marks the work of his good friends Yousuf Karsh and Arnold Newman.
"What they do is not wrong. I'm a great admirer of their work, but mine is different," he said. "I'll readily admit that some of my portraits don't rise above workmanlike documents, while others stand alone as photographs."
His stark format was consciously conceived through Evans' preference for a "severe style," his desire for a repetitive connection in the project and the necessity for efficiency. "I wanted to get rid of the variables. People were in and out in 15 minutes, which meant about 10 minutes of shooting time. I usually shot three or four rolls, about 30 to 40 images, until I thought I had something I could use. Everyone was equal."
Does that make his a democratic project? "Yes, but with a small d ." Evans, who calls himself "more a conservative than a Republican," says he has never had a political discussion with Ronald Reagan. "Mike Evans the photographer is only interested in matters of style, in how things look. Mike Evans the person has to like the person he works for and have a general sympathy for his political stance, or he would have psychological problems."
The personal photographer to the President will soon retire his business card as he goes back to being a "starving free-lance photographer" and figuring out how to send his three children to college. Now on "terminal leave" from the White House, he has a few things lined up: a contract position with Time magazine (one of his former employers), some corporate annual reports and a project to photograph "the top 200 to 300 people in Canada" for a private company's anniversary celebration.
"People and Power: Portraits From the Federal Village" will become an impressive calling card as he leaves the White House, but it will yield him no financial profit. When he embarked upon the project, with the blessing of Reagan, he set it up as a nonprofit corporation to avoid "any hint of scandal" regarding private enterprise undertaken while drawing a salary from the government.
Half the proceeds from book sales will go to the corporation. The other half will be equally divided among columnist George Will, Corcoran Gallery Curator Jane Livingston--who wrote essays for the book--and the Smithsonian Institution (the employer of another essayist, Alan Fern, director of the National Portrait Gallery).
"It's nice to be Santa Claus," mused Evans, "but I wish I had a piece of the action."