WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – He was tall and stunningly good looking, a guy who could appear pensive and serious one moment and then, with smoke from an unfiltered cigarette swirling around his face, morph into the hippest looking dude this side of James Dean.
Which is why budding photographer Lisa Jack knew the moment she saw Barack Obama walk into the campus snack shop at Los Angeles’ Occidental College in 1980 that she had to get the freshman in front of a camera.
“I was doing portraits of fellow students, the cool people on campus,” Jack, a slender, 49-year-old bundle of energy, recalled this week as she stood in a West Hollywood photo gallery surrounded by framed black-and-white photos of the president as a young man.
“A friend of a friend said there’s this REALLY cool guy, REALLY good looking, you have to get his picture.’ And as he said it, he walked in. He said, ‘Hey Barry, come here.’”
Soon after, they had made arrangements for a photo shoot at Jack’s small off-campus apartment, a nondescript hovel furnished with little more than a worn couch that had been salvaged from the side of the road and an overturned shopping cart that doubled as an end table.
To Jack’s surprise, the future president, dressed in jeans and a shirt with sleeves rolled up, arrived with his own props, including a leather bomber jacket, a wide-brimmed Panama hat and a package of cigarettes.
“He had so much charisma, even back then, it was amazing,” the photographer said, looking at a portrait of Obama, a broad grin on his face, one palm outstretched as though he’s about to welcome a visitor. In another his head is titled back, eyes closed, a grin again fixed on his face.
“Some of these are goofy. He could be a goofball,” Jack said, chuckling as she surveyed them.
Then she moved on to view photos of the future president looking pensive and sometimes lost in thought, still others of him in his classic cool pose, cigarette smoke swirling around his face, others in the bomber jacket, hat off, showing a medium-length Afro.
She shot just one 36-exposure roll of film, going on to earn an A in her photo class. Then Jack buried the images away and moved on to other things.
She had once dreamed of becoming a professional photographer but ended up teaching instead. After earning a doctorate from the University of Southern California, she became a psychology professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where she lives with her family.
Over the years, she has continued to bump into Obama from time to time. Not long after the photo session, she was vacationing in Hawaii when she ran into him at a nightclub. Three years ago, she dropped by his Senate office during a visit to Washington.
“He was a rock star by then,” she laughed, but he still broke away from a group of people to spend a few minutes reminiscing about old times.
As Obama’s political star rose, Jack realized her photos had historical value. But she resisted going public before the election, fearing opponents would try to use the images of a lighthearted, youthful Obama to portray him as immature.
“Can you imagine what somebody might have done with one of these?” she asked as she looked across the spacious M B Gallery in West Hollywood at a picture of Obama appearing slightly arrogant as he takes a long drag off the stumpy remains of an unfiltered cigarette.
“What would have happened, the day they came out, everybody would have went ballistic over that one shot,” she said.
After the election, Jack contacted Time magazine, which used some of the photos to accompany its cover story on Obama’s selection as Person of the Year.
The gallery contacted her and quickly arranged the exhibition, which opened Thursday and runs until July 18. Copies of prints are also available for sale, starting at 1,000.
“We were blown away when we saw them,” said gallery director Shannon Richardson. “There’s so much imagery of Obama out there, but nothing like this, nothing of him in photos like these as a young man.”
Although Jack said she was planning to take “the first plane back to Minneapolis” after an opening night reception, the attention paid her photos has gotten her to thinking about the road not taken.
“I’m a 49-year-old woman who wanted to be a photographer and now I’m getting my big break,” she said with a laugh.
Then, jumping up and down, she shouted, “Maybe it’s time for the middle-aged women who are not babes to get some attention! It’s time, yes, for the non-babe women!”
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