Our fascination with the private lives of the presidents and their kin is fairly insatiable, a point recently hammered home by the debacle of Monicagate. But it’s an obsession that goes beyond mere celebrity fetishism. For one thing, we want to feel good about the basic humanity of our elected CEO.
That curiosity is both sated and teased by the fascinating exhibition of Harry Benson’s photography now at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Benson has been photographing presidents since the JFK era, often focusing on the first families instead of just the man in charge. Here, he has gathered a sizable collection of images that walk a fine line between candid and canned.
As might be expected, Benson hasn’t earned a trusted position by the White House residents for baring all or catching his subjects off guard. Although many shots convey an engaging intimacy, they also often play into the inherent romanticism of a photographer on an inside job. But along the way, craft and art rear their heads.
Benson writes that “my main challenge is to take a photograph that shows an intimacy, not something the press secretary thought up.” And he does that, with kid gloves, in such images as Hillary and Chelsea Clinton sitting against a tree in Little Rock, far from the madding crowd, and of Lady Bird Johnson gesturing proudly toward an expansive ranch property.
Signs of mundane human enterprise abound. There are Gerald Ford, washing his breakfast dishes; Nancy Reagan snarfing down a sandwich in the back of a limousine; and Bill Clinton, in jeans and tennis shoes, mustering energy for a debate in his hotel room. In one, the Clinton family plays cards, impeachment proceedings the furthest thing from their minds, we assume.
Naturally, this being the Reagan library, Benson’s images of the Reagans are prominent, right up to a shoot for Vanity Fair last year.
These color photos, self-consciously posed, aren’t the most impressive in the show. In a couple of setup shots, for example, the Reagans stand in a prim garden. Fill light mixes with sunlight, removing any naturalism and making the couple look like wax figures.
A portrait of Ronald Reagan shows him standing on the balcony of his Century City office, peering skyward, cutting the image of a matinee idol who would be king, or vice versa.
The contrasts of public life’s stresses and private life’s trivial pleasures is a running theme. Jimmy Carter, that most open and respectable of recent presidents, is seen in the heat of 1979’s Iran crisis looking frazzled aboard his jet. The photographer aids the impression of agitation with soft focus. Another shot from ’79 shows Carter looking a bit lost in the Oval Office, as seen, voyeuristically, from outside the window.
On more innocent turf, the former president is viewed hosing down his tennis court in ’95.
Eccentricity in the family wings has always been a source of public fascination. One of the quirkiest portraits shows Miss Lillian and Billy Carter, the matriarch in a lavish Native American headdress and Billy looking aloof in a leather vest, thinking nothing of his mother’s goofy get-up.
Some of the best images are of Richard Nixon, perhaps partly because of our perverse interest in his mythic, Shakespearean story, his rise and fall, his public undoing and remaking. A ’72 image of Nixon on the campaign trail on the streets of Laredo, Texas, is nearly a perfect example of artful photojournalism.
There is a neat and satisfying orchestration of elements in this shot, with Nixon’s manic, vote-for-me grin at the center of the bustling composition contrasting with his Secret Service agents’ anxious expressions. A Woolworth sign beams overhead, a mantle of Americana hovering over the exultant faces of the onlookers, oblivious to the doom in this man’s near future.
By contrast, a portrait of the post-Watergate Nixon at home in San Clemente in 1978 finds him the picture of introspective calm after the storm. It’s a richly colored image in a large print. He sits in his lush, ocean-view backyard, contemplating the sea in a tacky green checkered coat that blends into the vegetation.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to read the image as a portrait of a flawed leader, slowly melting back into the nature whence he came. Clearly, it’s nothing a press secretary would have dreamed up.
“First Families: An Intimate Portrait From the Kennedys to the Clintons,” photographs by Harry Benson, through July 31 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley. Monday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 general admission, $3 students and seniors; (800) 410-8354.
Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.