On shooting President Bush for the second time for the cover of Parade Magazine.
There are celebrity shoots, and then there are celebrity shoots. Most involve tense publicists and tense famous people not thrilled to be photographed, as well as very tense crews full of stylists, assistants, etc., not to mention the very tense photographer upon whose shoulders the final result will rest. When the celebrity in question is the former President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, and his wife, Barbara Bush, for the cover of Parade magazine with a circulation of approximately, oh, 1 billion or so, one might expect a double dose of all of the above.
But with Bush 41, it was nothing but relaxing ocean breezes, Kennebunkport casual hospitality, and zero tense anything. The Bushes are very much a down-to-earth semi-retired power couple—what you see is literally what you get. (read more below)
This is not to say I wasn’t terrified anyway and working at a fever pitch despite the calm setting. And I had been warned by the incredibly kind Bush family publicist, Jean Becker, that President Bush would be in a wheelchair and had great difficulty walking. And I had only one assistant—just like on a news assignment—and no stylists, and we did have a very tight time frame to work within given the state of President Bush’s health, which is stable but certainly declining with his advancing age and a form of Parkinson’s that limits his ability to walk.
Everyone at Parade—photo director Miriam White-Lorentzen, editor-in-chief Maggie Murphy, creative director Richard Baker, and writer, reporter and LBJ Library Director Mark K. Updegrove—was extremely supportive and counting on me to not only nail a candid portrait for the cover but also somehow make something happen that might yield inside images, as well. I expected I would have 10 minutes. In the end, I had that and maybe 5 minutes more after the interview.
I shot what I could during the interview over Mark’s shoulder, and when my time came I got the cover shot quickly, with the Bushes on the couch where they had been sitting. Listening to them talk, I was taken back to a different political era, when despite the passions of the left and right, laws were passed, compromises were made. A lifelong Democrat, I leave my politics at the door when I’m shooting journalism. But I love history and the people who make it, so I bring an open mind and a level of respect even to those I might disagree with.
Knowing that movement would be a huge challenge, Jean encouraged me to simply ask President Bush for whatever I needed. And from my past cover shoot with him, I knew that he loved getting outdoors and to the sea in particular. I thought somehow getting him over to the window would make sense and would give me some opportunity to make a more lasting image of an American President toward the end of his life. I decided to take the risk and made my pitch.
While I was suggesting that he and Barbara come over to the French doors overlooking the sea, I quickly moved a wingback chair and lamp. I came close to the President and looked him in the eye and said I’d like to shoot him looking out at the sea that he loves so much. “Getting all arts and crafty, aren’t you, Doug?” said the President. “Exactly,” I admitted. “But I think it’s worth a try.” “Great. Let’s do it,” he said and began to rise.
Immediately, it was obvious he couldn’t really walk at all. He made a half step and held position while Barbara had one elbow and I grabbed the other. At one point, I let Jean and others help him move while I moved the chair to the best angle for him to slide in. It was excruciating to watch this man struggle step by step. At one point, someone loudly said, “Mr. President, you don’t have to do this!” He smiled, turned, and forcefully said, “I’m gonna make it!” and “We’re gonna do this picture!”
He was determined and slowly but surely made it into the chair, which I rotated back to the sea. There, I made a quick shot of him looking out the windows and then jumped outside and closed the door behind me. My quick-thinking assistant, Josh Dick, who specializes in mind-reading photographers, was ready to help as he realized the reflections would be cool on the glass but would also obscure their faces due to the lighting conditions. He held up his jacket to flag their faces, and I gestured for them to come close together.
I made a couple of portraits that worked, both of them fairly radiant and looking in tremendous health despite all their earlier talk about being old and their imminent demise. I called a wrap. Then in an instant, Barbara leaned over and kissed the President on the head. I barely fired one shot. This is my favorite image from the shoot and the picture I will take away as an authentic reflection of their relationship but also kind of interesting as it was shot through the glass. It’s intimate and real, and I’m proud of it. A bit of directing on my part, but even with something conceptual there happen to be real moments that are gifts, and I was lucky enough to press the shutter just in time. Within the context of a celebrity shoot where there is a lot of pressure, I think these little moments are the greatest gifts. This is what I always strive to bring back—something more than expected.
I did push beyond what I might normally do given his high station and health, but nothing great ever happens without risk. I also sensed in him a desire to make it happen and the grit to get to that window.