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Photographer Diana Walker: An Eye for History

For two decades, Diana Walker was the White House photographer for Time magazine. She clicked her camera through five administrations, capturing moments of history for readers to peruse. Walker's new book, The Bigger Picture, is filled with portraits that go far beyond the usual "photo ops."

Covering John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, Walker was invited to come to the front of the candidate's plane. She caught the Democratic senator and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry in a private moment. Mrs. Kerry was reading a newspaper and wanted to show something to her husband.

"And he went across and sat down next to her, and he looked at the pictures and whatever it was she wanted to show him," Walker says. "And then slowly, he kind of fell asleep, right there leaning against her back."

The black-and-white photo shows just what a campaign takes out of a candidate. It's also a picture of a marriage. And it's Walker's definition of shooting behind the scenes.

"A whole group of photographers couldn't possibly take a picture like this," she says. "It had to be one camera, not more than that."

In an NPR interview at the time, Mrs. Kerry spoke about what it was like to be on the road — and in the public eye.

"You have to be very careful that, yes, it's wonderful but you owe them one," she said. "And what you owe them is your honesty and your vulnerability and your thoughts. Otherwise you're nothing."

And Walker says she was also mindful of her role as a photographer.

"In doing behind-the-scenes pictures, I always would think, 'I get to be here and the public doesn't. I'm here and it is a privilege and I've got to do absolutely the best I possibly can to show you what was going on,'" Walker says.

In another presidential campaign, in 1984, Walker's camera caught Democratic candidate Walter Mondale facing a barrage of reporters at a nighttime airport. The candidate was framed by a thicket of microphone poles, aimed like rifles. And Mondale is a smart, thoughtful deer in headlights.

"I found myself down on my knees right in the middle of this melee," Walker says. She doesn't remember the exact circumstances, but "I can imagine my coming a little late to this event. I stayed on the plane for something, went around the group, couldn't get in, because they were all so close to the candidate, that I went between their legs down on the ground and got below and shot up. That used to happen to me quite a lot."

In 1990, Walker photographed actress Katharine Hepburn receiving a Kennedy Center Honor. In the photo, the great actress sits with the other honorees in a box at the Opera House, wiping away a tear.

"This picture was taken with a very long lens from my perch in the Opera House. The tribute was over and they were honoring her with applause and she just began to cry ... She was unprepared for this picture. This picture was taken from miles away."

Walker is asked whether by taking the photo from so far away, without Hepburn realizing it, that she violated the actress' privacy.

"The only way I'm able to take that picture is when the lights are on her," Walker says. "Otherwise, she'd be in the dark. So she, the actress, is prepared to acknowledge the crowd. And whether she knew I was taking the picture or didn't know I was taking the picture, I'm so glad I was taking the picture, because to me, this is the Katharine Hepburn of my mind."

Walker gave her long lens a real workout when she had to — taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures without ever having direct contact with her subject. But her book includes lots of close portraits, too. For those, and to get a more informal image, the photographer chats up her subject and pretends to be listening as she fusses with her equipment.

"I find what is the most effective thing to do is to start them talking and move around," Walker says. "And I also found often that when I said I was finished, I got the best picture ... because they relaxed. And so I used to kind of say I was finished before I was. And it was good!"

In one of her first assignments, Walker photographed designer Bill Blass. Near the end of the shoot, "I thought, well, I've done all I can do ... And so I said, 'Well, thank you so much, it's been terrific.' And he said, 'Uh! Thank God!'

"And he leaned back and he threw his leg up on the couch and there was the picture. All of a sudden, there it was! And luckily, I had film still in my camera. So I always kept film in my camera when I was ready to leave."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.