President Bush with his photgrapher, David Valdez, from the Colonnade of the White House. 17 April 1990

Behind the Camera with a Presidential Photographer

On an ordinary day at the White House, David Valdez stepped into the Oval Office, 35mm Nikon film cameras around his neck, another hanging from his shoulder. In the room stood President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Vice President Dan Quayle. Valdez studied the light from the window and quietly positioned himself for the best shot. He waited for certain moments as President Bush made phone calls to world leaders, planning how the coalition would remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Although David was aware of the conversation, he focused on the task at hand. He thought to himself, “How will this one look?” and “Oh, he’s about to look this way—there it is!” With each snap of the shutter, David recorded what he soon realized were the moments before the launch of Desert Storm.

From 1983 to 1993, David Valdez shadowed George H. W. Bush during his vice presidency and presidency and photographed almost every move he made. David’s photographs, from nearly sixty-five thousand rolls of film, tell stories of family, legacy, war, determination, compassion, victory, and defeat. They’ve appeared on stamps, in magazines, and in films, and are known around the world.

What’s a Photographer?

In 1967, after high school graduation, David got his draft notice and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He joined the Air Force. “The Air Force told me I was going to be a photographer. I literally turned to the guy next to me and asked, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t even know,” David says.

After photography training, David was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, in 1967. There, he worked for the base newspaper and photographed generals during the Vietnam War at Strike Command headquarters. “I remember my sergeant instructed me to ask the generals to move if they weren’t standing in a good light. So I, a one-stripe airman, 18 eighteen years old, am telling a three- or four-star general to move,” David says with a laugh.

After four years in the Air Force, David earned his degree in journalism and radio and television production from the University of Maryland. “When I looked for jobs, the only thing I knew was photography. So I got a job as a photographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he says, and worked as photographer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and as chief photographer for Nation’s Business magazine.

“In 1983, I noticed an opening for Vice President Bush’s photographer, so I sent a cold letter to his press secretary,” David says. He landed an interview. “I met with the press secretary, the chief of staff, and the vice president of the United States!” During the interview, Vice President Bush explained how much time David would spend with him in public, in private, and behind the scenes. “He began talking to me like I’d been hired. I finally asked him, ‘Do you know what the salary is?’ Bush said he had no idea, but they called up the chief of staff and figured it out. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”

Twenty-Four/Seven

David continued to photograph Vice President Bush and was promoted to director of the White House photo office after Bush was elected president in 1989. “One person couldn’t physically do the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” David explains, “so I hired more photographers. We worked in shifts, 24 on and 24 off, midnight to midnight.”

The press corps travels everywhere with the president—with President Bush, that meant even when he spent vacation time in Kennebunkport, Maine. On a typical day, David says, “President Bush would jog at 6:00 a.m. What if something happened to him when he was jogging? So the press corps would follow.” If President Bush went fishing after his jog, David went out on the boat, too. “There was the president’s boat, a press boat, the secret service boat, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Navy,” David says, counting off fingers, “After fishing for a couple of hours, he’d maybe have lunch and then play tennis in the afternoon. Maybe a celebrity would go to dinner with them. That evening they would have guests over for drinks. After they went to bed, I was still on duty until midnight. At midnight I knew [my relief] would take over and I’d say, ‘Ah!’” But even in the middle of the night, the president remains on call, along with the president’s photographer. “If something happened in the world, they woke up the President, the national security advisor, the photographer, and the press secretary. At 3:00 a.m. we could be back on duty,” David says.

How to Photograph a President

Documenting the daily activities of the President of the United States can be a delicate matter. “You had to be discreet about it,” David says. He never directed the president to move into more favorable lighting. “You were documenting what was happening. If you interjected yourself into it, that wasn’t what was actually happening. There were scheduled photo ops, but nothing else was ever staged. If you look at some of the historic photos—like President Kennedy silhouetted in the window—images like that just happen. It’s better to just let it happen,” he explains. Maybe the president would smile, look up, or reach out to shake a hand. “I spent my day looking at one person—the president of the United States. I learned all his mannerisms and learned to anticipate what he was going to say or do.”

Air Force One

As a kid, David always had an interest in travel. “If you’re going to travel, going on Air Force One isn’t a bad way to do it,” he says. He flew two million miles on Air Force One and traveled to 75 countries and all 50 states with President Bush.

During a trip with Vice President Bush in central Africa, where it was summer, one of the Soviet leaders passed away. “We were asked to go to Moscow for the funeral,” David recalls. “We had planned on going back to the United States for a few days before our next trip, to South America.” No one had packed winter clothes, and David hadn’t planned his film supply to include Russia. “So we flew to Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Germany first and got winter clothes, and I went to the base exchange and bought every roll of film they had.”

After working all week, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for David to accompany the president on a weekend trip. “One time I drove out to Andrews Air Force Base on a Friday and flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Air Force One with the president. We met with the king on Saturday, flew back Sunday, and on Monday at 6:00 a.m. I was back at the office,” David recalls. “People would ask, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ I’d say, ‘We went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia!’”

David Valdez’s camera showed the world many sides of George H. W. Bush: a leader, a human being, and the 41st president of the United States. Valdez made sure his photos were set in the best light, whether it was the light shining through the window of the Oval Office, or the bright sunshine on a fishing boat, or the slightest ray peeking through a cloud on a rainy day hours before the beginning of the Gulf War. When he thinks about all the moments he captured and about seeing them play out through his camera lens, David says, “Every once in a while you would just say, ‘Wow.’”

The End of an Era

On January 20, 1993, at 12:00 noon, David’s job as photographer of George H. W. Bush ended as President Bill Clinton took office.

David went on to head up photography for The Walt Disney Company for eight exciting years during the dawn of digital photography. After his time with Disney, David served as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs during George W. Bush’s presidency. David and his wife, Sarah Jane, then came to Georgetown, where they live with their two dogs.

But the Bush family called on their old friend David once again to photograph George P. Bush, George H. W. Bush’s grandson, during his successful campaign for Texas Land Commissioner. “I’ve worked for three generations of the Bush family. That’s kind of neat,” David says.

On an ordinary day at the White House, David Valdez stepped into the Oval Office, 35mm Nikon film cameras around his neck, another hanging from his shoulder. In the room stood President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Vice President Dan Quayle. Valdez studied the light from the window and quietly positioned himself for the best shot. He waited for certain moments as President Bush made phone calls to world leaders, planning how the coalition would remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Although David was aware of the conversation, he focused on the task at hand. He thought to himself, “How will this one look?” and “Oh, he’s about to look this way—there it is!” With each snap of the shutter, David recorded what he soon realized were the moments before the launch of Desert Storm.

From 1983 to 1993, David Valdez shadowed George H. W. Bush during his vice presidency and presidency and photographed almost every move he made. David’s photographs, from nearly sixty-five thousand rolls of film, tell stories of family, legacy, war, determination, compassion, victory, and defeat. They’ve appeared on stamps, in magazines, and in films, and are known around the world.

What’s a Photographer?

In 1967, after high school graduation, David got his draft notice and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He joined the Air Force. “The Air Force told me I was going to be a photographer. I literally turned to the guy next to me and asked, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t even know,” David says.

After photography training, David was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, in 1967. There, he worked for the base newspaper and photographed generals during the Vietnam War at Strike Command headquarters. “I remember my sergeant instructed me to ask the generals to move if they weren’t standing in a good light. So I, a one-stripe airman, 18 eighteen years old, am telling a three- or four-star general to move,” David says with a laugh.

After four years in the Air Force, David earned his degree in journalism and radio and television production from the University of Maryland. “When I looked for jobs, the only thing I knew was photography. So I got a job as a photographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he says, and worked as photographer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and as chief photographer for Nation’s Business magazine.

“In 1983, I noticed an opening for Vice President Bush’s photographer, so I sent a cold letter to his press secretary,” David says. He landed an interview. “I met with the press secretary, the chief of staff, and the vice president of the United States!” During the interview, Vice President Bush explained how much time David would spend with him in public, in private, and behind the scenes. “He began talking to me like I’d been hired. I finally asked him, ‘Do you know what the salary is?’ Bush said he had no idea, but they called up the chief of staff and figured it out. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”

Twenty-Four/Seven

David continued to photograph Vice President Bush and was promoted to director of the White House photo office after Bush was elected president in 1989. “One person couldn’t physically do the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” David explains, “so I hired more photographers. We worked in shifts, 24 on and 24 off, midnight to midnight.”

The press corps travels everywhere with the president—with President Bush, that meant even when he spent vacation time in Kennebunkport, Maine. On a typical day, David says, “President Bush would jog at 6:00 a.m. What if something happened to him when he was jogging? So the press corps would follow.” If President Bush went fishing after his jog, David went out on the boat, too. “There was the president’s boat, a press boat, the secret service boat, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Navy,” David says, counting off fingers, “After fishing for a couple of hours, he’d maybe have lunch and then play tennis in the afternoon. Maybe a celebrity would go to dinner with them. That evening they would have guests over for drinks. After they went to bed, I was still on duty until midnight. At midnight I knew [my relief] would take over and I’d say, ‘Ah!’” But even in the middle of the night, the president remains on call, along with the president’s photographer. “If something happened in the world, they woke up the President, the national security advisor, the photographer, and the press secretary. At 3:00 a.m. we could be back on duty,” David says.

How to Photograph a President

Documenting the daily activities of the President of the United States can be a delicate matter. “You had to be discreet about it,” David says. He never directed the president to move into more favorable lighting. “You were documenting what was happening. If you interjected yourself into it, that wasn’t what was actually happening. There were scheduled photo ops, but nothing else was ever staged. If you look at some of the historic photos—like President Kennedy silhouetted in the window—images like that just happen. It’s better to just let it happen,” he explains. Maybe the president would smile, look up, or reach out to shake a hand. “I spent my day looking at one person—the president of the United States. I learned all his mannerisms and learned to anticipate what he was going to say or do.”

Air Force One

As a kid, David always had an interest in travel. “If you’re going to travel, going on Air Force One isn’t a bad way to do it,” he says. He flew two million miles on Air Force One and traveled to 75 countries and all 50 states with President Bush.

During a trip with Vice President Bush in central Africa, where it was summer, one of the Soviet leaders passed away. “We were asked to go to Moscow for the funeral,” David recalls. “We had planned on going back to the United States for a few days before our next trip, to South America.” No one had packed winter clothes, and David hadn’t planned his film supply to include Russia. “So we flew to Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Germany first and got winter clothes, and I went to the base exchange and bought every roll of film they had.”

After working all week, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for David to accompany the president on a weekend trip. “One time I drove out to Andrews Air Force Base on a Friday and flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Air Force One with the president. We met with the king on Saturday, flew back Sunday, and on Monday at 6:00 a.m. I was back at the office,” David recalls. “People would ask, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ I’d say, ‘We went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia!’”

David Valdez’s camera showed the world many sides of George H. W. Bush: a leader, a human being, and the 41st president of the United States. Valdez made sure his photos were set in the best light, whether it was the light shining through the window of the Oval Office, or the bright sunshine on a fishing boat, or the slightest ray peeking through a cloud on a rainy day hours before the beginning of the Gulf War. When he thinks about all the moments he captured and about seeing them play out through his camera lens, David says, “Every once in a while you would just say, ‘Wow.’”

The End of an Era

On January 20, 1993, at 12:00 noon, David’s job as photographer of George H. W. Bush ended as President Bill Clinton took office.

David went on to head up photography for The Walt Disney Company for eight exciting years during the dawn of digital photography. After his time with Disney, David served as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs during George W. Bush’s presidency. David and his wife, Sarah Jane, then came to Georgetown, where they live with their two dogs.

But the Bush family called on their old friend David once again to photograph George P. Bush, George H. W. Bush’s grandson, during his successful campaign for Texas Land Commissioner. “I’ve worked for three generations of the Bush family. That’s kind of neat,” David says.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This