A new display opened in the Beach Museum of Art on Tuesday: “Pete Souza: Two Presidents, One Photographer,” an exhibition of photojournalist and Kansas State University alumnus Pete Souza’s work as the official White House photographer for former presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
After its initial premier at K-State, the exhibition will travel to multiple American cities, beginning its migration in late April and lasting until 2021. For now, the 56-photo exhibition is starting its journey across the country on the same campus where Souza completed his master’s degree in journalism.
The collection includes photographs from throughout Souza’s career as a White House photographer, capturing pictures of Reagan, Obama and significant moments in U.S. history.
During his time at K-State, Souza worked as a photographer for the Collegian and the Royal Purple. He went on to work for the Chicago Tribune and freelance for magazines like National Geographic and Life.
Linda Duke, director of the Beach Museum, said the concept for the exhibition was born following Souza’s return to K-State to receive the K-State Alumni Association’s inaugural Alumni Excellence Award. Duke said she introduced herself to Souza, and when he found out she worked at the museum, he expressed an interest in doing an exhibition.
Each photograph in the exhibit includes a summary — in Souza’s own words — describing the context of the photo. Duke said Souza’s exhibit offers parallels between the two presidents through juxtaposition of their photos.
“He was very, very deliberate in pairing the photographs of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, simply because they represent very different political philosophies,” Duke said, “but he felt like both of them were examples of leaders that were respected and respected others.”
Elizabeth Seaton, curator of the Beach Museum, said it was Souza’s goal to have the exhibition tour preceding the 2020 election. The goal of the exhibition is to promote civility in politics and conversations about what we admire in a president or we expect from a president in anticipation of the election, she said.
“I think … one of the things that Souza wanted to emphasize was his admiration of each of these men in terms of their respect for the office and the way in which they could connect with people from all walks of life,” Seaton said.
Many of the photographs are relatively similar, showing Reagan and Obama in identical places and poses.
“I think Souza is interested in, because these presidents were on different places of the political spectrum, he wants us to sort of realize the ways in which they had to perform the same duties, and that they were people we could admire,” Seaton said.
Duke said similar things about Souza’s goals with the exhibit.
“My impression is that Pete Souza was incredibly present in the lives of both presidents during his time there, and really was able to capture both of them in ways that went way, way beyond formally documenting things for history and really documented them as people, as human beings,” Duke said.
Obama has praised Souza’s efforts as a White House photographer in the past.
“What makes Pete such an extraordinary photographer, I think, is something more than his ability to frame an interesting moment. It’s his capacity to capture the mood, the atmosphere and the meaning of that moment,” Obama wrote in his foreword to Souza’s book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.”
Souza will visit K-State once again to talk about his work on Tuesday, March 5 at McCain Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be obtained through the McCain box office starting on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
The Souza exhibit will remain on display at the Beach Museum until April 27, 2019.