“The Goose, Bronx 1958″ Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The world has been focusing attention on the swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States. Me too. But I have also been reminiscing about a letter I received from the White House, dated the last day of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency January 20, 1969.
It was from my friend, Yoichi R. Okamoto, Johnson’s official photographer. Oke was a career civil servant, a second or third generation American from Bronxville New York. He became the director of still photography for the U.S. Information Agency under John Kennedy when that job was not highly politicised. He knew good photography because he was a good photographer and wanted the world to see the U.S. through the eyes of good photographers.
At one point in his USIA tenure he was requested to photograph Vice-President Johnson at some official function, and Mr. Johnson was very impressed with the work…for good reason. When he became president, he requested Okamoto as his official photographer. There were rumblings from the Republicans about Johnson’s ego, but a very distinguished group of U.S. photographers contacted the White House in behalf of Oke and he was confirmed for the job.
I’ll digress here because I want you to know about this guy. You could be standing next to him, camera ready as we always were those days. You would see something worth shooting and you would. Oke would shoot too. That was a game we used to play….shoot the same scene at the same time and vive la difference when you finally got to look at the prints. Oke may have been third generation U.S., but his esthetic was very Japanese and the design of his work was impeccable. I was in awe.
As you can see from my bio, I was very much opposed to the Vietnam war and this soured my relationship with him until I realized what he was doing from his unique position as Johnson’s personal photographer. Here was an exceptional documentary photographer with credentials that included the highest security clearance. He could be anywhere the president was and document events from the inside. That’s what he did with incredible consistency and flare. What he produced is a unique visual history of a president. Most of the work is at the Lyndon Johnson Library. Someday I would love to curate an exhibition of that work in Washington D.C.
At the end of the Johnson Administration I wrote to congratulate him on this unique project and wish him well once he left the White House. That’s when I got the letter of thanks dated Jan 20,1969. He wrote it his last day in the White House. Later when we talked on the phone, he told me that his favorite Zimbel photograph, “The Goose, Bronx 1958” had hung in his office directly downstairs from the Oval Office during his tenure. I hadn’t known about this. That photo had been banned by his wife from Yoichi’s home, but found a home downstairs from the President!
All of which makes me hope that President Obama will find a very talented photographer whom he will permit to seriously document of one of the most important periods in American history. No more photo-ops!
ps: I’m a little slow. Congratulations to Pete Souza who has been appointed as Obama’s official photographer.