Life throughs his lens: Photographer Dennis Brack spent a half century capturing history in the making

Life throughs his lens: Photographer Dennis Brack spent a half century capturing history in the making
Photo/Dennis Brack

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Dennis Brack has made a career out of being in the right place at the right time.

As a White House news photographer, Brack chronicled the country’s history and changing socio-political landscape in a career that has spanned 10 presidential administrations, five decades and at least four continents.

Brack photographed the Beatles during their first tour in the states and a reluctant Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, during the 1960s. Brack travelled the world alongside presidents for diplomatic missions, captured images of the Highway of Death during the Gulf War and, in one week, had his pictures appear on the front pages of Time magazine, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.

Brack, 80, maintains a sense of humility when looking back on a lifetime of experiences that together comprise a greatest hits collection of 20th century American history. Even when discussing one of his favorite pieces of work – a shot of a crowd of Beijing onlookers during President Ronald Reagan’s trip to China – the most he’ll say is, “It was a good picture.”

But Brack’s tendency toward understatement cannot completely hide a passion that has enthralled the Dallas-born Alexandria resident since he first started playing around with photography in his high school’s camera club.

Former President Richard Nixon waves as he boards the Marine helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 9, 1974. (Photo/Briscoe Center)

Brack has taken a step back from photographing world leaders in recent years, and the nature of photography has changed significantly in the age of the smartphone, but Brack said the “instant gratification” that first drew him to photography in high school has stuck with him.

“You could see something and there it was. You’d go into the little dark room, develop it and then all of a sudden, boom, there it was,” Brack said.

One could easily say the same thing about Brack’s career, which took off quickly after high school. Brack spent three summers interning with the Dallas Morning News and then moved to Virginia to attend Washington and Lee University, graduating with a B.A. in 1962. He went on to receive a law degree from The George Washington University School of Law in 1965.

During his time in law school, Brack continued moonlighting as a news photographer for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine and Newsweek. He had already made a name for himself in the competitive world of D.C. news photographers, and quickly realized he did not have the same level of passion for law that he had for cameras, lenses and photography.

According to Brack, several of his professors at G.W. knew he had a byline in the Post, resulting in some leniency when it came to his unorthodox schedule. Brack recalled times when his beeper would go off in class as his editor attempted to give him an assignment.

“There was only one pay phone – it was out in the hall – and [the professor] said, ‘We’ll all pause while Mr. Brack goes and gets his assignment,’” Brack said.

Jump start

Brack’s work spans an array of topics and beats, but he is best known for his work as a White House news photographer, which, as far as photojournalists go, is a specific breed, according to Brack.

His first brush with the White House came when Dallas Morning News reporter Julian Levine became the paper’s D.C. bureau chief during President John F. Kennedy’s administration. Brack said he reached out to Levine in the off chance his Dallas colleague could get him into the White House – and was shocked when Levine got him in.

“[Levine] said, ‘Oh yeah, no problem.’ He just called up, says, ‘Dennis is coming over. He’s on assignment for us. Let him in.’ Boom. No nothing,” Brack said.

Around the same time, Brack started what would become a long relationship with Life magazine, after publishing photos and a story about Mexico’s baile folklorico in an issue of Life Español.

The Highway of Death during the first Gulf War. (Photo/Dennis Brack)
Photograph by Dennis Brack bb24

Then, in 1963, Brack got one of his big breaks as a news photographer. Brack recalled having lunch with Levine on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. After hearing the news, Levine pushed Brack into Life magazine’s offices and said, “Say you’re available.” Brack was eventually pointed in the direction of Life Washington Bureau Chief Hank Sedan, who sent him out to take photos of the reaction to Kennedy’s assassination in the District.

Soon afterward, Brack found himself number 26 on Life’s roster of staff photographers. One of his first assignments was to go to new President Lyndon Johnson’s house and photograph people entering and leaving. The money he earned from those shots was enough for him to afford new cameras. The job itself was enough to jumpstart Brack’s career.

Throughout the years, Brack has had his photos published in the Washington Post, Newsweek and, for 23 years, Time, but no matter where they land, his work stands out not only for what he captured, but how he captured it.

Presidential treatment

While most presidents have their own staff photographers who document the life of the president for the archives, White House news photographers are employed by various news outlets to chronicle standout moments for the public.

According to Brack, White House news photographers are tenacious, dogged people – President George H.W. Bush referred to them as photodogs – who are always angling for “the moment.” It might be a sideways glance that the president thought no one would notice or a dramatic gesture. Whatever “the moment” is, Brack said news photographers are always on the lookout for images that tell a self-contained story where the action, emotion and resolution are evident in a single image.

President Lyndon B. Johnson shows off a scar from his gallbladder surgery. (Photo/Briscoe Center)

“Composition is one thing, but there’s got to be some peak action or it’s gotta tell you something, even if it’s not peak action. It’s gotta tell you a story,” Brack said. “… If you need a caption, that’s not right.”

Brack’s work as a White House news photographer stretched from JFK to President Barack Obama and the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration. In that time, he learned a lot about each president through their relationship with news photographers and the press.

In his book, “Presidential Picture Stories: Behind the Cameras at the White House,” Brack wrote that JFK “was a great subject for photographs – and he knew it,” however, he also prohibited photographers from taking photos of him with glasses on.

Johnson, who was known for his bluntness and Texan wit, was entirely different.

“LBJ loved the combative relationship. He loved it with anybody but especially with photographers,” Brack said. “He would love to razz you, and if you didn’t razz him back, he would lose interest in you.”

According to Brack, President Jimmy Carter was dismissive of photographers altogether, which Brack traces back to Carter’s resentment of an early, and widely circulated, photo that the press got of Carter slipping on a patch of ice.

“[Carter] didn’t have an official photographer. He could care less about photography and photographers,” Brack said. “… They wouldn’t even let any of the official [photographers] do any behind the scenes or anything.”

Photo/Dennis Brack

Brack noted that Reagan was jocular and knew how to create a fun atmosphere, but that he was terrible with names, while Obama was a bit aloof with photographers but opened up when it came to his knowledge of sports.

George H.W. Bush – or Bush 41, as Brack called him – was Brack’s favorite president to photograph because of his friendly demeanor and remarkable memory for the names and details of every news photographer in the press corps. In his book, Brack recalls Bush inviting the photographers to cookouts and facing off against them in horseshoe games.

“He knew everybody, and he knew something about you,” Brack said. “Bush 41 always ducked [into the press room], and he would say, ‘How you guys doing?’ and he would talk about if anybody caught any fish the last time and all that stuff.”

Although they each had their unique relationship with the “photodogs,” Brack said that the job had consistent challenges no matter who was serving as commander in chief. Capturing genuine moments of politicians who have been trained to project specific images is an inherent challenge of the job.

“Anticipation is a big part of our business and being in the right place at the right time,” Brack said. “A lot of it is knowing when to take a picture. Sometimes the best picture is the instant they come into the door.”

Documenting history

A glimpse at Brack’s portfolio might make him seem like the Forrest Gump of photographers, popping up in some of the country’s most important historic moments from the Gulf War to the arrival of Beatlemania.

It is a reputation Brack earned. Alison Beck, director for special projects at the Briscoe Center for American History at University of Texas at Austin, said her organization has collected more than 100 individual archives of photojournalists’ work throughout the years. Brack’s archive is one of the most extensive.

“Dennis was very prolific. He was one of the hardest working news photographers at Time, and [he published] at least one photo per week in Time magazine for more than 20 years,” Beck said.

Brack’s work has helped Beck, her colleagues and the general public better understand history as it happened. If photography is the rough draft of history, Brack spilled a lot of ink filling out chapters about America’s oftentimes tumultuous last half century.

  • President Barack Obama (Photo/Dennis Brack)

“Photographs that may have been taken by the photographer at the time of the event may not necessarily be important at the time, but they gain value over time,” Beck said, pointing to Brack’s work during the civil rights movement.

However, sometimes the historic importance of his photos obscures the hard work and logistical backflips Brack had to do to capture significant moments. Such was the case with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.

At the time, photographers were all jockeying to find a way to capture an elevated shot of the funeral, and with only two cherry picker cranes in Atlanta, Brack said he was faced with a dilemma. He ended up finding Buddy’s Cranes in the Yellow Pages and contacted Buddy with a hope and a prayer.

“He was an old redneck, and he was so sorry that Martin Luther King was assassinated, and he said, ‘I want to do something. I don’t have a cherry picker, but I can rig you up something. What I can do is I got a huge crane. I’ll pull it up and have a wire coming down and four wires to a platform. But you have to kind of be careful with it because you could fall off,’” Brack said.

By the time Brack got to the funeral, about a dozen photographers had caught wind of Brack’s idea and had pitched in $100 each to get a spot on the crane platform, which

towered over the cemetery. It ended up working out, and Brack snapped the shots he needed – even if they got a little too close for comfort.

“We got right over the grave. Harry Belafonte was like [swats the air] at us. We were about to hit him on the head,” Brack laughed.

Adaptability and improvisation are key skills for any news photographer, but Brack said patience is a virtue in his line of work. It is something he had to cultivate over the course of his decades-spanning career. Waiting is a significant part of the job, although Brack said that even after 50 years behind the camera, all the time spent anticipating and watching is worth it once he captures a great shot.

Brack’s favorite photo required all those things – improvisation, patience, and a touch of luck – to capture. While working for Time, Brack accompanied Reagan on the president’s first trip to Beijing. Brack was tasked with photographing “thousands of crowds swarming,” while his fellow Time photographers snapped pictures of Reagan himself.

Photo/Dennis Brack

“That’s a pretty easy assignment in Beijing, isn’t it?” Brack said. “When we got to Tiananmen Square there was no one, not a soul. There [were] two people sweeping. I said, ‘I am screwed.’”

As time slipped through Brack’s fingers, he made his way around the side of the building Reagan was in, anticipating where the motorcade would arrive. Suddenly, about 100 people started gathering in the square, and Brack had a slim window to get what he needed.

“As [Reagan] keyed up, they all kind of got up together and I came in with a long lens,” Brack said. “Then as the motorcade came out and Reagan came, I didn’t care about him, I cared about them, and they pointed and that’s all I needed. … [Time] loved it, but I needed that picture. It was a good picture. I was so happy to see those people.”