Photographing the First Lady: Michelle Obama, Up Close and Personal

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the Mirror Room in the Italian Pavilion with Mrs. Agnese Landini at the Milan Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, June 18, 2015. Mrs. Obama led the presidential delegation to the expo, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

By Anne Levin // Photos Courtesy of Amanda Lucidon from Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer (Ten Speed Press). 

This past November, photographer Amanda Lucidon spoke at Princeton Public Library about her new book Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer. The large crowd that turned out was no surprise. Princeton is a very blue town in a blue state, and the evening promised a bit of nostalgia for those who miss the days when Barack and Michelle Obama, Malia, Sasha, and their dogs were in the White House.

Politics aside, Princetonians feel a special affinity with Michelle Obama because she spent four very formative years of her life in the town. Long before she became first lady, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson matriculated at Princeton University. She majored in sociology and minored in African American studies, graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree and a thesis entitled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”

Michelle Robinson followed her brother, basketball player Craig, to Princeton, graduating two years after him in 1985. The Robinsons were raised on the South Side of Chicago. They attended public schools and were the first in their family to graduate from college. According to a 2008 article in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, Michelle Obama’s commitment to public service was nurtured at Princeton’s Third World Center, now known as the Fields Center. She coordinated its after-school program, tutored Princeton children, and was active in the African American and service organizations on campus. She served on the Third World Center’s governing board.

Obama went on to earn a law degree at Harvard, and spent her early legal career working at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, where she met her husband. She subsequently worked as the associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago and the vice president for community and external affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Mrs. Obama harvests kale with students in the White House Kitchen Garden, June 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

By the time Lucidon was hired to follow her in 2013, joining a team of five White House photographers, the Obama administration was into its second term. Mrs. Obama, as Lucidon refers to her, was well established in her efforts to support military families, support LGBT rights, and get children to exercise and eat healthy foods, among other initiatives.

Taking pictures of the first lady around the White House and in more than 20 countries across the globe, Lucidon, a seasoned journalist, was able to capture her in public as well as private moments. The book is made up of 150 photographs, along with stories and personal reflections, from her four years on the job.

“I was always so impressed by how much she took on as first lady,” Lucidon said of Michelle Obama. “She did so much. Even though she had a serious role, there was such a refreshing levity about her. She loved to laugh and have fun. And she always took time for everyone, taking pictures with people and having a kind thing to say to them.”

President Obama, Mrs. Obama, and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton depart a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, August 28, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

It makes sense that many of the photographs in Chasing Light portray Obama, and the people surrounding her, laughing. She appears to have members of her staff in hysterics in one photo; laughing with Oprah Winfrey in another. Additional shots show her making four little girls giggle in the Diplomatic Reception Room, goofing around with Ellen DeGeneres, cracking up her husband and a group of Girl Scouts, doubling over during a prank with LeBron James, and joking around with Meryl Streep.

There are serious photos, too. In a shot from 2014, Obama listens intently to students who have overcome personal challenges to graduate from high school. In another, from 2016, she embraces an emotional young girl at a “Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day” event; still another from 2015 portrays her and the president observing a somber moment of silence during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

There was no typical day in Lucidon’s life as White House photographer. “You had busy days and slow days that could easily become busy days,” she recalled. “We could cover all the official events of the president and first lady. A lot of times there were long photo lines, but there would always be spontaneous moments so you had to be ready.”

Princeton is one of 12 stops Lucidon has made on a promotional book tour that began in October and was scheduled to end in Chicago on February 15. Visiting libraries and schools, she is speaking about the book, her work, and the importance of arts education. Lucidon has also been talking to students at Turnaround Arts schools, part of a program founded by Michelle Obama and the President’s Committee for the Performing Arts and now run by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Lucidon is one of 70 turnaround artists across the country working with students to help them reach their artistic goals.

Amanda Lucidon portrait by Alan Spearman

Raised outside Philadelphia and currently based in Washington, Lucidon has won numerous awards for her work. She has been honored by Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism, and the White House News Photographers Association. She is currently a photographer, filmmaker, and public speaker. She is also the mother of a young daughter.

At the end of the Obama administration, staff were invited to have departure photos taken with the first lady. Lucidon hadn’t seen Michelle Obama since before her baby, Eden, was born. She brought Eden, her husband, and her mother with her to the event.

“Mrs. Obama was excited to meet and hold Eden,” Lucidon writes in the last pages of the book. “She asked my mom if she was enjoying her granddaughter. As I watched Mrs. Obama interact with my mother and daughter, it was clear how much both women had impacted my life. Both had been my mentors, role models, and sources of strength. I thought about the resounding effects they would in turn have on my own daughter and I felt grateful.”

Chasing Light pays tribute to an era, and to a family. “They really are genuine, humble, compassionate, and grounded,” Lucidon said of the Obamas. “I think people see that in the images, and that is exactly who they are.”

The first lady hugs her daughters Sasha and Malia as they visit the Great Wall of China in Mutianyu, China, March 23, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)