George Tames walked into the White House with a 10th grade education, an ego that set him equal to every occasion, a camera and an eye for telling a story.
Working more than 40 years as a Washington, D.C., photographer for the New York Times, Tames photographed 10 presidents, who allowed him access to private moments as well as official encounters. A selection of the images is now on display at the Averitt Center for the Arts. The “Private Presidential Pathways” exhibit opened Friday and will remain through June 15.
Tames' best known photograph, taken of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office in 1961, was later entitled "The Loneliest Job in the World." Martin Sheen, as fictional President Josiah Bartlett, mimicked Kennedy's stance for the opening sequence of "The West Wing," bracing himself on a table top with his back to the camera.
Nearly as famous is Tames' 1957 sequence of four shots of Lyndon Johnson, then Senate majority leader, talking to Sen. Theodore F. Green. Using his Texas stature and moving in very close, Johnson leaned forward and progressively forced the much shorter Greene to lean backward. As this series, entitled "The Johnson Treatment" demonstrates, Tames also covered Congress and knew some presidents before they were presidents.
"George was different," said Jim Mones, director of photo archives for the New York Times. "He was a jokester, big on gossip, telling stories, a great laugh. He would be the life of the party, and he became friends with these senators who became presidents. They all knew him and loved him, and George was able to get up close with people, the politicians, especially the presidents."
Mones did not know Tames personally, having arrived at the Times about a year after his 1986 retirement, which was greeted with a legendary series of 14 retirement parties. But Mones first learned of Tames' legacy while working in the newsroom, and later in filling archival requests for photos, as well as orders placed by photographers, politicians and history buffs.
For example, the Times online store sells a framed copy of "The Johnson Treatment" for $395.
Eye for history
Besides his personal touch, Tames had an eye for history in the making, said Mones, who further researched the man he says set "the gold standard for political photography." Mones spoke about Tames before traveling to Statesboro to take part in Friday’s grand opening of the exhibition.
"Whether it was a visit of Churchill or Khrushchev or the 'Dream' civil rights march, George had a sense of history, that this is going to be big, and he had a tendency to get closer to an event and would size up a situation about where he needed to be," Mones said.
Getting close to history was both a few small steps and one giant one for Tames. The eldest of six children of Greek immigrant parents, Tames grew up during the Great Depression in a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Literally at the base of Capitol Hill, the homes in the area have long since been demolished to make room for government structures such as the Hubert H. Humphrey Building.
Tames dropped out of school to help support the family, and in the late 1930s took a job as an office boy in the Washington office of Time Inc. (later Time-Life), publisher of Time and Life magazines.
Statesboro resident Stephanie Tames relates that her father learned the basics of photography at Time-Life while helping in the dark room and carrying equipment for the established photographers.
New York Times
In the mid 1940s, he went over to the New York Times and remained to photograph every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush.
Stephanie grew up in a household where family pictures were mostly tucked away in boxes, while her father's photos of presidents covered the walls.
"There were so many pictures up at our house that growing up I thought I was a Kennedy," she jokes.
But their father's career made life interesting for the five Tames children.
"It was really exciting having a father who had this kind of access," Stephanie said. "There were several times when he needed to make sure that there were lots of kids in a picture at the White House, and so we would get to go and stand in the crowd and be in the picture."
Tames' political inclinations are not hard to guess. His parents thanked Roosevelt's policies for their family's survival during the Depression, and young George arrived at the White House in time to meet and photograph FDR.
"I would have to say that he probably leaned more Democratic than Republican, but he loved politicians and so it did not matter at all to him," Stephanie said. "He just loved the whole political process and really admired people who led the country and who went into politics."
For years, her father would go directly from their home to the Capitol each morning and eat breakfast at a press table in the Senate dining room, greeting senators as they came in. But he also knew the elevator operators and the people who worked the subway.
‘Eye on Washington’
The title of Tames's book, "Eye on Washington: The Presidents Who've Known Me," published by HarperCollins in 1990, displays as much humor as ego. But his daughter observes that he was "no shrinking violet," and no less an authority on assertiveness than President Johnson affirmed it. Johnson autographed a picture of himself, "To George Tames, who taught me everything I know about modesty."
That gem remains in Stephanie's possession, but 27 of Tames' photos, plus a selection of his many New York Times Magazine Sunday covers shots in miniature, are now on display at the Averitt Center. Her late mother donated some of his photographs to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, but the Averitt now has a larger Tames collection.
Stephanie, a freelance writer and artist, is writing a book about her father with the working title "One Man Show." She guided the selection of photos for the exhibition, which is sponsored by Lori Grice Photography and Dr. Larry Hubbard. The Averitt Center's main gallery in is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
"I'm really just thrilled to be able to share it with the Statesboro community and surrounding area and I'm hoping too that the Averitt Center can use it to go to other galleries and museums," Stephanie said.
Any revenue, she added, will go to benefit the arts center.
Averitt Center officials confirmed that they are seeking to make Private Presidential Pathways a traveling exhibit.
"We're putting together marketing packages now and looking at communities that have arts councils, particularly in Georgia, but we're also looking at the regional market, mostly in the Southeast," said interim gallery coordinator Sheila Stewart-Leach.
They are also testing the interest in places frequented by presidents, such as military bases and FDR's Little White House at Warm Springs.