Photojournalist captures presidential history


Appearing in publications from Time magazine to Vanity Fair and portraying figures including President Gerald Ford and President Bush, Diana Walker’s photographs have been some of the most popular political images to hit news stands.

Walker lectured on her experiences as a photojournalist and White House insider for nearly 20 years during a lecture Wednesday at the Briscoe Center for American History. She then played a slideshow as she explained some of her most successful published work, such as presidential and dignitary portraits.

The center’s director, Don Carleton, introduced Walker’s exhibited archive collection, which she originally donated to the University in 1997. The audience of about 50 people included Walker’s photojournalist colleagues, political diplomats and University officials.

“[Walker] was a part of a tiny handful of women that broke into photography when it was very much a man’s world,” Carleton said. “The very best photojournalists are also outstanding journalists, and that is why Walker has been so successful.”

Her career began in Washington, D.C. shooting amateur black-and-white photographs of the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial and President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Almost a decade later, Walker obtained White House and Congress credentials through freelancing for Washington Monthly, and by 1979, she was a contract photographer for Time magazine.

Walker opened her lecture with a light-hearted story from the beginning of her career involving President George H. W. Bush and photographer David Valdez, who worked for Bush as director of the White House Photo Office and as his personal photographer during his four-year term.

“The president said, ‘Diana, what do you want from me today?’ And I looked at David with wide eyes, not sure what to say, in which he said ‘Mr. President, just forget she is here. In which President Bush said, ‘Okay that’s easy,” she said.

Valdez, who attended the event, said his role differed from Walker’s because he accompanied the president every day and was on
call 24/7.

“I saw myself documenting history,” he said. “I was during there during hard times like when Bush Sr., called [Bill] Clinton to congratulate his victory but also during happy times like when Bush’s grandchildren were born.”

Walker discussed the highlights of covering the White House for Time, which she said was a lot of fun but extremely stressful. She traveled abroad with presidents on Air Force One, photographed foreign dignitaries as they visited the States and was one of the only photojournalists who was allowed access to presidents behind the scenes.

Her exclusive photographs with the presidents later became part of a book, titled “Public and Private: Twenty Years Photographing
the Presidency.”

“To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality,” Walker said as she quoted former photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. “It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a physical and intellectual joy.”