While the career of Dennis Brack, a member of Washington and Lee University's Class of 1962, shows you can make a photojournalist out of a history major, his new book, "Presidential Picture Stories: Behind the Cameras at the White House," proves you can't take the history major out of this photojournalist.
Brack has worked as a news photographer in Washington since the Kennedy administration and covered every presidency since. His colleagues have repeatedly elected him president of the White House Photographers' Association and, more recently, given him its Lifetime Achievement Award. Along the way, he's had more than 1,200 photos published in Time magazine alone, while his work has appeared even more widely in other outlets.
So Brack knows whereof he speaks, having lived and listened to the stories, lore and legends of his colleagues in the field for half a century. Out of all this he has compiled a warm, informative and lively survey. We learn that photographers weren't given access equal to their writer colleagues until the early 1920s, when a newspaper publisher—Warren G. Harding—was elected president. He had a wooden shed built for the lensmen near the West Wing, a detached facility that came to be known as the doghouse. (Harding, you may recall, ended up in a very different doghouse, but that's another story.)
We also learn that it was Harry Truman who finally granted the photographers their own permanent, dedicated space inside the president's residence. Brack's chronicle gets more up close and personal from that point on, because he worked alongside colleagues who had been in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt's administration. The warmth of his prose may stem from that camaraderie most prevalent among practitioners of a profession that routinely includes periods of waiting long enough for the delightful banter of stories to be traded as thumbs are collectively twiddled while waiting for carefully arranged events to begin.
History need not be dry, and this is not. There are plenty of wry and insightful glimpses into the carryings-on by the characters of the photographic press corps, told with an affectionate respect, which is not always reverential but is always entertaining and revealing.
The same can be said of Brack's descriptions of presidential administrations and how each one defines and circumscribes that limited space within which the press is allowed to function. Treatment of the press in general, and of the photographers in particular, has varied widely in ways that say a lot about the personalities of the presidents as well as their handlers. Regardless of who is in power, elements of the emperor's new clothes come repeatedly into play, and Brack's skepticism remains healthy across party lines.
The text is amply interspersed with photographs by Brack and his colleagues that well illustrate the arc of his narrative. Some of these will look very familiar, for the work of the White House press corps has long provided us with many of the presidential images that have become the most iconic in our collective memory. A nice lagniappe is his closing chapter on the evolution of camera equipment through the years, from the slow complexities of wet plates in Lincoln's day to the ease and instantaneousness of today's digital gear.
Brack returned to campus in 2012 for a retrospective exhibition of his work, coinciding with his 50th reunion. He told several of the stories in this book—which was then in progress—during remarks at his opening reception, and as senior participant in a panel discussion by W&L grads who have made their living photographing for the media in our national capital's halls of power.
What informed his storytelling on campus then, and informs his writing now, is the filter of his fine grain-of-salt sense of humor in noticing what's going on around him and describing it to the reader in clear language. One can sense Brack's humility within his love for a worthy tradition he feels fortunate to be working in and carrying on, via an eye twinkling behind his camera, wherever it may be.
— Pat Hinely '73, University Photographer