ELECTION 2020

What a million photos can tell you about Joe Biden

Former Gazette intern was official photographer

David Lienemann's #x201c;Biden: The Obama Years and the Battle for the Soul of America#x201d; (Courtesy photo)
David Lienemann’s “Biden: The Obama Years and the Battle for the Soul of America” (Courtesy photo)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — If the past is prologue, David Lienemann’s “Biden: The Obama Years and the Battle for the Soul of America” may help provide insight into Joe Biden and what kind of a president he may be.

“I think that I really wanted to give readers a better sense of who Joe Biden is,” Lienemann said about his 256-page hardcover book chronicling Biden’s eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

Lienemann, 37, who was a photo intern at The Gazette in 2004 while majoring in business and economics at Cornell College, shot nearly a million photo images of Biden in 47 states and 64 countries as the then-vice president’s official photographer.

After 47 years in the U.S. Senate, three presidential campaigns and eight years as vice president, it’s not as if Biden is unknown. However, Lienemann wanted to show him as more than Obama’s vice president.

“Maybe (people) didn’t know a whole lot more about him more than ‘Amtrak Joe’ and a few key buzzwords,” he said. “I really want to give people a little bit more — more of who he is and sort of a feel for his life and his story and how I thought that he would likely continue to speak, to govern.”

The book is rich with the vice president in his official capacity — meeting with staff for daily briefings, with Obama, representing the United States internationally.

Although his job included regular interaction with high-level administration officials, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries, Lienemann also captured Biden in less public moments, such as a Christmas Eve visit with soldiers at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

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The book also includes photos of Biden performing a wedding for White House staffers, at his daughter’s wedding and getting drenched by his wife, Jill Biden, during a “super soaker” fight at an annual picnic for the White House press corps.

Lienemann didn’t set out to be the vice president’s official photographer. After covering the run-up to the Iowa caucuses in 2004 as part of The Gazette’s photo team, he returned for the 2008 campaign as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, New York Times, Agence France-Presse and other organizations.

It was during that time Lienemann met Biden and his staff. In March 2009, after Obama and Biden took office, he was asked if he was interested in being the vice president’s photographer. He flew to Washington the next day for what he thought was an audition. But Lienemann promptly boarded Air Force Two to accompany Biden to Miami for two days and then spent five days in Brussels.

There was a learning curve for both Biden and Lienemann. It took Biden some time to get used to the intense media coverage a vice president receives, Lienemann said.

“There was some getting to know each other and understanding what I was doing and why I was there,” he said. Over time, “I think that comfort level improved. I think I became more invisible the longer I was there. I think he became more comfortable with me, more comfortable with my work.”

In a forward to the book, Jill Biden wrote that “a good photographer goes unnoticed, capturing scenes without being part of them, finding his way into the most intimate of circumstances without disrupting the fragile moment. In eight years that David documented Joe’s work, he met that bar with skill and grace.”

At first, Lienemann said, everything the vice president did seemed important “because it was it was just so new and different.”

The job description for the vice president’s photographer is “to record for history,” Lienemann said. Working with Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza, “we saw that as a mandate to record important moments, good and bad, to make sure that they’re there for future folks who are looking through them.”

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One thing he realized over eight years with Biden and while reviewing his photos while putting together the book was that “pictures that at the time don’t seem important because you’re really tired or because you’re really overworked or because you just don’t have a grasp of the historic meaning, have a very different look going back through them.”

After Biden left office, Lienemann and his wife, Sydney — who he met while photographing Biden at an event — moved to Alaska where she worked in state government.

Now an editorial and lifestyle photographer living in New Mexico with his wife and their daughter, Millie, Lienemann isn’t sure he would want to go back to being Biden’s official photographer. He has kept a hand in the game, doing photography for candidates during the Democratic primary campaign. He also “bookended” Biden’s campaign — photographing the campaign launch in Philadelphia and election night in Wilmington, Del.

However, as official photographer, “you’re at work as many hours a day or longer than the vice president is, and you’re going on all the trips, and you’re covering some things outside of the normal sort of formal events at the White House,” Lienemann said. “So you end up spending 12, 14, 16 hours a day at work, and that can be six or seven days a week. You think you’ve got a holiday off, and then something happens and all of a sudden you’re on the job.

“But I think it was it was an amazing opportunity ... getting to be part of an administration and to make those sort of historic photographs is really important,” he said.

Some of the important work he did wasn’t photography, according to Jill Biden.

“As David seamlessly wove himself into the day-to-day of Joe’s life, he became something more than just a photographer — he became one of Joe’s most honest advisers. Our friend,” she wrote.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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