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Press Club Showcases Presidential Photos

Associated Press photographer Ron Edmonds just happened to be a member of the president’s motorcade on March 30, 1981, the day John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

“When the shots first rang out they sounded like firecrackers,” said Edmonds, who is now AP’s senior White House photographer. “I first saw [Reagan] grimace and then duck. … It happened so quickly.”

Edmonds kept his finger on the camera shutter and captured a series of images that brought him a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The famous photographs are now on display at the National Press Club, at the corner of 14th and F streets Northwest, as part of the AP’s new photography exhibit, “The American President.”

The exhibit spans presidencies from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, and it also includes photographs from this year’s presidential campaign. The historical photographs were selected from more than 10 million film and digital images in the AP library, more than 20,000 of which exclusively cover presidents Harry Truman through Bill Clinton and have not been seen since they were first taken or initially published.

“The idea was not to have just another exhibit of pictures of the president,” said Paul Colford, the AP’s director of media relations.

The 80-plus photographs will be on display at the National Press Club through July 12 and will then travel to colleges and museums.

“It has been such an extraordinary year for interest in the candidates,” Colford said. “The presidential campaign as a backdrop has energized universities to bring in the exhibit as a conversational piece. … They saw how unusual the photographs were and that [piqued] their interest.”

The AP has won 49 Pulitzer Prizes, 30 of which were awarded for photography, since its founding in 1846. In addition to Edmonds’ sequence of photographs from the 1981 assassination attempt, the Press Club exhibit features images of Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial from J. Scott Applewhite and other photographers and Paul Vathis’ picture of John F. Kennedy discussing the failed Bay of Pigs invasion with his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, at Camp David in 1961.

Despite modern technology, capturing a series of images comparable to Edmonds’ would be nearly impossible in today’s high-security environment. The afternoon of the attempted assassination, Edmonds was standing right by the driver’s-side door of Reagan’s limousine as a member of the president’s small, two-car motorcade. Now presidential motorcades are so long that photographers can ride anywhere from 15 to 20 cars behind the president. They’re also not allowed to exit their cars, Edmonds said.

White House control over presidential appearances further complicates coverage, said J. David Ake, the AP’s Washington photo editor. “The White House Press Office is more sophisticated now,” Ake noted. “They have a message and they want to get that message out. … They are going to try to manipulate and sculpt the event to their benefit.”

Because official events are so scripted, both Ake and Edmonds stress the importance of taking photographs before and afterward, when the president lets his guard down. “I’ve always gone out there trying to show our readers something they couldn’t [otherwise] see,” Edmonds said. “We don’t try to make the president look bad, but humorous moments make the president look human.”

The exhibit places a special emphasis on such spontaneous images.

“I always like to joke that [the presidents] put their pants on the same way I do,” Edmonds said. “One leg at a time.”

“The American President” is free and open to the public from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

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