Rails Against WH Use of Stock Photography and More…..
Dennis Brack is one of those people whose work you’ve seen maybe more times than you can count, even though you’ve probably never heard of him. Ditto his more than 400 colleagues.
Brack is president of the White House News Photographers Association, the camera-bug counterpart to the White House Correspondents Association. Ever since Lyndon B. Johnson laid claim to the Oval Office back in the 1960s, Brack has been snapping pics of presidents and pretty much anyone else of importance at the White House — with notable success.
In Time magazine alone, Brack averaged one published photo a week for 23 years.
Not bad for a kid from Dallas who trained on his high school and college newspapers while working summers for the Dallas Morning News before moving to Washington more than four decades ago.
“I’ve always been interested in photography,” Brack says. “And yeah, once you get to this town, this is the place to be. So, no surprise I’ve been here so long.”
He got himself a law degree, just in case photography didn’t pan out. But Brack joined the Black Star photo agency when he first started working professionally, and he remains a member today. Through contracts with Black Star, he has shot for the Washington Post (where his son now works as deputy assistant managing editor for news art) and other publications as well as Time. In addition to presidents, he has photographed heads of state and key moments of the civil rights movement and the first Persian Gulf War.
Awards? He’s won a few: The National Newspaper Photographers Association, the World Press Association and the WHNPA, which sponsors an annual contest, have all honored his work.
But he’s still crazy for the beat after all these years. “Every time I go through the White House gate, I think how lucky I am,” Brack says. “It’s never been a routine, it’s always been one of the greatest things to do. There’s no other job like it!”
Indeed. “The thing about this town is that everything can go ballistic in a minute,” he says. “One minute things are completely dull, and then chaos.”
Sometimes the chaos can be funny. “Back during the Clinton administration, there was a rumor one day that [Clinton adviser] James Carville and [his wife, the GOP consultant] Mary Matalin had a fight and one of them shot the other. They had a house in West Virginia, and every bureau said, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ Everybody started driving out [Interstate] 66 but nobody knew where they were going. Then word gets out that there’s no story, come back to the White House. All these TV vans are trying to make U-turns.”
And sometimes it can be confusing. When the story of Russian-spy Aldrich Ames broke with his arrest in 1994, “everybody was wondering who the hell is he?” says Brack. All the photographers and TV crews raced over to the Alexandria court house, where Ames was appearing before a judge. “It was a rainy afternoon,” Brack recalls. “One of the TV technicians was next to his panel truck, with that big telescope on the truck way up high. It didn’t hit a nearby electrical wire, but electricity arced really badly from the wire.”
The bolt struck the telescope, traveled down to the truck and killed the technician.
“Ames starts to come out of the building when the arc happens, and someone’s dead on the ground. The big question was, ‘Who do you cover, Ames or the dead guy??'”
Ask which particular presidents he’s enjoyed photographing, and Brack replies:
“The most interesting was LBJ. I never enjoyed doing it, but I thought he was most interesting because he was so volatile, the times were so interesting and he was such a commanding figure. The most likable were Jerry Ford and Bush 41. Reagan was probably the best subject.”
As head of the WHNPA, which has about 450 members, Brack concerns himself with issues such as attempts by White House staff to hand out stock photos instead of allowing photographers to shoot. “We stand up and say it’s not good practice,” Brack notes. “It happened a lot under Bush  and we stood up to it, and they cut a lot of it out. Obama has only done it a couple times — so far.”
Essentially, the WHNPA looks out for member interests and advocates on their behalf. It also, like the WHCA, has an annual dinner (May 30, this year). In fact, there was a time when the correspondents dinner and the news photographers dinner were the two Main Events of Washington.
“We don’t have the celebrities coming to our dinner,” Brack says. “We used to, but not now. Competition for high-level guests is a lot greater than it was when there was just two dinners. There are lots of dinners now.”
About 1,000 people attend the WHNPA dinner, including the President, and during the proceedings awards are presented for the WHNPA’s annual photo contests.
While the White House photographers don’t have the high profile of the White House correspondents and their dinner, they certainly provide living history of the power of the presidency.
Check out Dennis Brack’s photos here.