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President Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s 1981 Official Portrait Nearly His Last Photographer Harry Langdon Reminisces About the Session

Los Angeles  - Famous Hollywood photographer Harry Langdon adds his condolences to the family on the passing of President Ronald Reagan and recalls the time he spent with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. 

One month after the Presidential election of 1981, Langdon was commissioned to shoot the official White House portraits of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.  Twenty days after the session, John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate Reagan, nearly making Langdon’s portraits the last official photos of the President.

Two weeks before the shoot, three Secret Service agents arrived at the studio for the appropriate security checks.  “I didn’t understand why they would use the studio back entrance adjacent to the greasy parking lot for the President’s arrival,” says Langdon.  However, he soon learned about their concerns for the vulnerability of the front door.

Langdon’s staff of five were preparing for the shoot when they began to hear the wailing of sirens in the distance.  Since Langdon’s Wilshire Boulevard studio is near Cedars-Sinai Hospital, ambulances are frequently heard in the vicinity.  The sirens were getting closer, when suddenly the streets were filled with black SUV gun cars.  They screeched around the corner in advance of the Presidential limousine.  Then the President’s car turned up the street and headed for the back entrance.

“Out of nowhere, the front door was covered by mobs of news crews, with reporters’ noses pressed against the windows of the studio.  Flashes and cameras going, they were trying to get shots of the interior,” says Langdon

“Normally, we are prepared for a certain amount of excitement associated with the arrival of our famous clientele, but the press crunch surrounding the President was disconcerting to my staff and me. We had to re-group.”

The security personnel and media relations staff for the President filled the studio.  The assigned press secretary took Langdon aside and told him he should prompt the President as to how Langdon wanted him to address the camera.

“I glanced around the room and found the President sitting comfortably in a high director’s chair, intently reading The Hollywood Reporter.  He was obviously enjoying the news about his former neighborhood in the Trades,” says Langdon.

The President greeted Langdon cordially and he explained to Reagan how he wanted to capture presidential confidence.

“His campaign pledge of 1980 was ‘to restore the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism,” remembers Langdon.

“I want you to be a fatherly and compassionate figure, “ Langdon recalls. “Your perspective should convey that you know what the concerns of the nation are and that you are strong enough to meet the challenge.”

“The press secretary looked happy so I posed the President, and then a voice came from behind the dressing room door.”

“Harry,” Nancy Reagan instructed, “please use light colored background so that Ronnie can write his signature in black on the photo.”

Thus, with a light-colored background in place, Langdon began clicking the camera. A secret service agent shadowed every move he made.  The agent was close, very close, in case Langdon turned out to be someone who might use the long lens of a Hasselblad camera to do harm to the President.  He watched every camera change, every film change.  If Langdon stood, he stood. Squatted, he squatted.

“He anticipated my moves better than my assistants did.”

With the security, the number of people involved, the press, etc, the logistics of the shoot were difficult.  Creatively, Langdon was very pleased with the images he got.  The photos were now part of the legacy of “The Great Communicator.” Approximately twenty days later John W. Hinckley, Jr attempted to assassinate President Reagan.

Harry Langdon is among the top commercial and glamour photographers in the world. The son of a famous silent screen comedian, Harry Langdon, he apprenticed with many fashion photographers and his first commercial clients were Max Factor and Ann-Margret.  Langdon credits his ever-fresh creativity for his success and searches the limits of what is happening today, not only in the photography realm but also in fashion, music and film.  By going to the theatre, art galleries, museums and movies to do research and get new inspiration, there is a constant turnover of creativity and ideas.  Over the years, Langdon has photographed countless famous (and infamous) cultural icons including Halle Berry, Cher, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, Diana Ross, Kirk Douglas, Venus and Serena Williams, and many more.

The subject of numerous feature articles and television shows, Langdon’s work has been lauded internationally for many years. His work is compared to such classic photography masters as Scavullo, Ritts, Newton, Avedon and Hurrell and with modern artists like Leibovitz.

© 2004 Harry Langdon and Sheryl Turner.
All Rights Reserved

President Ronald Reagan (1981)

I didn’t understand why they would use the studio back entrance adjacent to the greasy parking lot for the President’s arrival

I thought about what I would say to the new leader of the free world

The secret service agent anticipated my moves better than my assistants did.

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