National Press Club

Pulitzer Photog Describes Getting the "Lucky" Shot

January 5, 2009 | By Sylvia Smith

Last month Scott Applewhite donated one of his Pulitzer Prize-winning photos to the Club, one that depicts then-President Clinton as he headed to make a statement about the impeachment inquiry and to apologize for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The photo is visually striking, showing Clinton emerging from the colonnade at the White House. We're most grateful for the gift, and it will hang with our other Pulitzer photos. I was at the presentation ceremony and told Scott how much we appreciated his gift. He then gave the most interesting talk about how the photo was created. Alas, I didn't have a tape recorder with me, so I later asked Scott if he could send his notes.
Sylvia Smith

I'm here at the National Press Club almost every week. Some of you, especially the officers who sit at the dais during the speaker's luncheons, may not recognize me because, like most shooters, I'm usually crawling on the floor with my cameras looking for a good angle.
The photo (that Applewhite donated) was Bill Clinton at one of his lowest moments. He not only survived but is seen today by many as a statesman who continues to thrive as one of the world's most popular and enduring political figures. So, things change. Bill Clinton, and I, will now hang at the National Press Club.

About the photo:
We've all heard the term THE DECISIVE MOMENT. It's the essence of what a photojournalist aspires to. A thousandth of a second the photographer takes for himself. And I mean take. Many of my best images are STOLEN MOMENTS. The Clinton photo is a real example of that.

My mission is to somehow snatch a "moment of reality" from an otherwise scripted and controlled event.

It seems like in Washington, all the news events and especially presidential encounters, are so controlled and choreographed, designed so you only see what they want you to see. Thwarting that is a full time job. And as a result, many of my best images involve, if you will, a bit of larceny: sneaking into a forbidden vantage point, lingering beyond the "lights out" command, shooting through windows.... well every photographer here knows exactly what I'm talking about!

That was the case with this photo of Bill Clinton on one of his worst days as president, husband, father.

I wasn't assigned to the White House that Friday. I was on the Hill monitoring the House impeachment action.

At 4 pm I got the call to rush to White House. AP already had 3 photographers ready in the over-packed Rose Garden.

The doors to the colonnade were just closing when I managed to slide thru at the last possible moment. As all eyes were fixed on the oval office door, I was able to linger on the colonnade walkway far away from the other press. At best I though I might be able to sneak a shot or two of Clinton's staff or lawyers watching there on the sidelines... a little something to add to the report.

Greg Gibson, Pablo Martinez and other AP shooters were head-on in the Rose Garden and had the angle. Frankly, I knew I didn't have a chance at getting anything in the papers. Anyway, my mind was geared towards getting out fast because I was leaving in a few hours with Clinton for Israel.

In 1998 AP was already leading the way with digital cameras that weren't quite a good as today's cell phone cameras! Digital photography was in the "cave painting" stage back then -- low-res, magenta-tinged photos. But that's what I had with me.

Suddenly I saw a figure start to emerge between the columns. It wasn't Clinton, but it was Ralph Alswang, the official White House photographer rushing past the podium. I instinctively targeted him before realizing it wasn't Clinton. I then heard a chorus of motor drives and knew the president was walking toward me but out of sight, blocked by the row of columns. I saw a hand start to move into the frame and I fired at an incredible 1 point 7 frames per second and prayed my buffer wouldn't freeze after the 6 frames per burst. That's far slower than today's modern cameras and high speed motor drives.

Photographers always hate it when people admire your photos and say, "hey that's a lucky shot!" Well, I'd always rather be lucky that good... and this one was a gift!

I didn't even wait for the end of Clinton's statement. I ran back to the bureau and the editor at first picked a different frame. We finally agreed on the frame of Clinton emerging from the columns to make his statement.

The next morning I saw it in print for the first time in a newspaper on Air Force One as we headed to Israel and on to the next assignment. I didn't think about it again until months later in the Spring of 1999 when my boss called on my day off tell me to "come to the AP bureau and enjoy some champagne. The Pulitzer Committee just gave us some news you'll want to hear."