Hail to the chiefs

Diana Walker: Photojournalist at the Carter Center

Those hoping for fly-on-the-wall views of inappropriate commander-in-chief scratching or eyes rolled at another Netanyahu man-walks-into-a bar joke may feel shortchanged by the Carter Center's current exhibition devoted to candid presidential photography by Diana Walker. Walker worked as a photojournalist, most often for Time magazine. And her career was marked by a singularly intimate access to the American presidents she has documented, from Gerald R. Ford in 1976 to Bill Clinton in 2001.

But with access comes its silent handmaiden, restraint, and Diana Walker: Photojournalist reveals Walker as a documentarian on a leash. She is constrained by the usual demands of packaging images for a mainstream magazine like Time. But her access also is qualified by remaining in her presidents' and first ladies' good graces.

Many of Walker's images are not humorous or freakish by design, but by nature — the result of the odd collision in affairs of the state between pomp, protocol, cultural barriers and elderly statesmen. Particularly priceless is a photo from 1983 of Queen Elizabeth looking like a prom wallflower in a hideous ruffled butter-cream dress and bulky eyeglasses "toasting" President Reagan. Her poker face at the microphone, however, contrasts deliciously with Reagan's expression; head thrown back in mid-guffaw, reflexively spasming like a corporate underling over some queenly bon mot.

And Walker's images are not without some insights into the personalities of the presidents she documents. For starters, Bill Clinton may have been the most unself-conscious and unrestrained president in recent memory. Like some squirrely, irreverent uncle whose charms only reveal themselves in later years, Clinton is delightful in images like one prior to a debate where he assumes a gesture of "The Scream" distress. In an equally telling image, Clinton leans affectionately into Hillary like the high school football captain canoodling with the head cheerleader.

But such naturalism — save the impromptu laughs Walker often captures in her presidential quarry — is the exception. Instead, Walker's images are revealing in an important regard. They are a reminder of the enormous, nearly inhumane demands we place on presidents to be ever camera-ready, composed and stoic.

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