Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Amanda Lucidon, White House photographer from 2013 to 2017 and author of Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer. Lucidon gives a talk and book-signing at Harold Washington Library today at 6 p.m.
You followed Michelle Obama for four years. How’d you you land such an incredible gig?
I was a newspaper photographer in California for a long time. In 2008, I took a buyout and moved to D.C., not realizing it was a really competitive market. I had a rough time getting into the flow of things. Eventually, I started to get enough freelance assignments to pay the bills. I met [former Chief White House Photographer] Pete Souza at a National Geographic photo seminar and had lunch with him and a mutual friend. I spent the whole time trying not to say anything stupid. I thought I made a pretty unremarkable impression, but my phone rang a couple years later: “Pete Souza here.” I thought, “Does he have the wrong Amanda?”
What was a typical workday like?
There was no typical day. We worked when [the Obamas] worked—which was a lot. It was not a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 job. For four years, I was always a “maybe” when I RSVP’d and then never showed up to anything. Even on slow days, we were ready to document what was happening.
The stops on your book tour are mostly public libraries. Why those venues?
When I think of Michelle Obama, I think of accessibility. She said that arts education should be for everyone. When I started working on the book, I didn’t want to create a coffee table book at an unaffordable price point. I wanted everyone to be able to see these photos. And for people who can’t afford the book, I wanted them to be able to check it out at the library.
The traveling gallery of ten images is part of that too. They’re 20- by 30–inch prints framed in black, the exact way we printed photos at the White House. Each week, we’d choose our best photos and display them in hallways, to remind the staff who were working so hard of what they’d done the week before. For the traveling gallery, the idea was to bring the White House to the people. A portion of the proceeds will go to [arts education program] Turnaround Arts, which was started under the Obama Administration.
In the book you write that the key to photographing the First Lady was focusing not on her, but on what’s going on in the edges of the frame. What do you mean?
I always go back to my reaction meeting her for the first time: “Oh my gosh, that’s the First Lady! Wow, she’s so tall, she’s so smart, I’m smiling so big I can’t see out of my eyes, what am I even saying?” I know other people have that reaction too, and it’s fun to capture. One example in the book is a photo of a group of Moroccan and Liberian schoolgirls. You just see the back of [Mrs. Obama’s] head and a sea of girls with these amazing facial expressions. If I focused on her all the time, I would miss those reactions.
What was the most memorable part of the job?
There’s so many. I completely changed because of it, as a photographer and as a person. I got to watch Mrs. Obama through the lens of my camera every day. She taught me about the life I wanted to create for myself and the person I wanted to be. Listening to her messages to girls and young women across the world affected me too. That’s why the title of the book is Chasing Light. She was a source of inspiration and light in my life.