The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Inaugurations in View: A Conversation with Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Photographer
When people look back at this year’s inauguration ceremonies, they will remember an iconic image of that day. These images help us remember what happened, but also try to convey the mood and emotions that witnesses to the historical event feel. These images help tell our history. But what about the photographers behind the lens? How do they interpret the day and decide on what stories to tell?
Recently, I sat down with Smithsonian Institution Archives photographer Michael Barnes to find out. This year he will be photographing his fourth inauguration and has learned the best way to score the shot he wants.
Bellizzi: What inaugurals have you photographed?
Barnes: Both of President George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s first.
Bellizzi: What was your experience photographing your first inauguration?
Barnes: For the first [George W.] Bush Inauguration, I was stationed on 14th street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was cold and rainy, and I had to get there super early. I made the mistake of not taking my gear home, and had to try and get to the Smithsonian to get the equipment. This was a good lesson to learn; now I always have my gear the night before. The roads get blocked off and it is difficult to get where you need to go. You have to get there early. At this inauguration I missed the swearing-in, because I was stationed for the motorcade shot. At this Inauguration the Smithsonian had about seven or eight photographers at the event and we had official stations and you could not leave your spot for hours. So, you could only take images from that spot. I tried to capture the general feel of the day, but stood there for hours to get the few seconds of the President passing by. I was told by secret service to leave, but showed credentials so I was allowed to stay. But, standing on marble for a few hours, it gets really cold.
Bellizzi: What was your second inauguration like?
Barnes: For the second one I was able to float in the crowd. I was just looking for people shots. People shots show the different reactions to the event and the day. I like to try and capture the joy of the moment.
Bellizzi: What was the most recent inauguration experience like?
Barnes: For Obama’s Inauguration I was on the National Mall. I wanted to capture the [Smithsonian] buildings to record them as the historical witnesses to the event. The Smithsonian is connected to historical events. I worked with Ken Rahaim that day. He wanted to get on to the top of one of the buildings, but anything on top of buildings has to be cleared. So he worked with Smithsonian security and secret service to get all of the permissions cleared. One of the challenges of the Inauguration is dealing with secret service and security. Security teams were in the towers of the Castle, and Ken had the clearance, but at the last minute the security team would not let him go, so he had to figure out an alternative location. I decided to take photographs on the [National] Mall between the Castle and National Museum of Natural History.
We spent the night before at the National Museum of American History. I had learned from previous inaugurations to spend the night. So I went and took shots of the Mall that night.
On Inauguration day, people were very nice. They did not stand in the gravel so I could still get around. It was cold that day. I wanted to show the people photographs again. Show the story of mother and kids trying to stay warm. She had the kids wrapped up, but got them up for the actual swearing in. The expressions on people’s faces were great. I wanted to capture people during specific moments of the speeches and their reactions to it.
Bellizzi: Was the cold a challenge from a photographer’s point of view?
Barnes: Dealing with the cold, equipment can get changed. When you go from inside the building to the outside, things can fog up. You need to adapt the camera to the element. Even though it was cold, things were fine that day, because I kept moving and was well prepared with lots of layers.
Bellizzi: Are there any other challenges to photographing an inauguration?
Barnes: Getting to where you need to be for the shot. Too many people, too many check points. The challenge is to get to the shot that you want to capture in time. But I like the challenge of roaming around and I will do it again this year.
Bellizzi: Do you work with other photographers to capture the event?
Barnes: We work out beforehand who will cover what area. But we work independently during the event. Photographers have different viewpoints. We have a plan of certain ideas of the types of images that we want to get. We try to get those, but the event also presents the opportunities for the images.
Bellizzi: Why do you think it is important for the Smithsonian to have these types of events covered?
Barnes: Because it is right at your doorstep. The events tell history, and we are about history. Anything that happens near the buildings, these images tell the story of the buildings’ history and the events that help shape it. The buildings set the scene and witness the event. For example there are so many marches for different causes. Whether you agree or not, it is important to know what the story is and capture the event so that there is some type of record.