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Up close and personal with a president named Obama, his wife and kids and their cute dogs in 'Uncommon Grace'

Up close and personal with a president named Obama, his wife and kids and their cute dogs in 'Uncommon Grace'

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CHICAGO — The members of the Obama family include two Portuguese Water Dogs who lived in the White House. Those dogs — as you may have forgotten or never known or never cared — were named Bo, a male, and Sunny, a female.

For all the things about the Obamas that you remember, you get to know them intimately in a new book that is nothing short of a family album for the ages. "Barack Obama: Uncommon Grace" (CityFiles, August 2020) is a marvel. Given access to virtually every moment of every day during the eight years of Obama's presidency — from the dark to the playful to the heartbreaking — a group of seven photographers produced images that will amuse, inspire, delight and perhaps stay with you forever. Only a few have ever been seen before.

This book is the work of Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, the founders of CityFiles Press, a local firm that is itself something of a wonder. In an era when the conventional book publishing has been battered and transformed, CityFiles has held a steady course, turning out a stream of spectacular books, all filled with photographs and many with a strong Chicago focus.

"Our first books are firmly Chicago books and some on our great photographers like Vivian Maier and Richard Nickel," says Cahan. "But in time we began to explore issues that we felt were important to America, such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, slavery and the civil rights movement."

Cahan, a former photo editor of the Sun-Times and the photo chief of the memorable CITY 2000 project, and Williams, a writer and designer, have been working together for two decades. They claim to have never had any arguments "except on the basketball court" and they often involve themselves with non-book but photo-related projects.

Most recently they curated the eye-grabbing "Millions of Moments," an exhibition at the Chicago History Museum that features some of the five million photographs taken between the 1940s and early 2000s by the agile and artful photo staff of the Chicago Sun-Times.

This new book is neatly and thoughtfully divided into 17 chapters, modestly and judiciously embellished with previous spoken words by Obama and others. It is, as Cahan and Williams write in an informative introduction, the first book "that takes a comprehensive look at the Obama White House years through the photographs from all seven photographers who worked in the White House Press Office."

These are their names: Pete Souza, Lawrence Jackson, Chuck Kennedy, Samantha Appleton, Sonya Hebert, Amanda Lucidon and David Lienmann.

Together, they took something in the mind-boggling neighborhood of 4.3 million photographs, roughly 1,500 a day, day in and day out.

Souza was the chief photographer, a veteran of the Chicago Tribune who had previously served as a White House photographer during the Ronald Reagan administration and who had known Obama since his first day in the U.S. Senate in 2005. His visual coverage resulted in the fine 2008 book, "The Rise of Barack Obama" (Triumph Books Entertainment). He has also published other books and is something of a Twitter thorn in the side of the current occupant of the White House.

He knows the former president as well as most and one reason for the book's potency, even beyond astonishing access given the photographers, is that, as Souza puts it, Obama is "just so comfortable in his own skin."

Williams and Cahan had long been fans of Souza's and the idea for this book occurred to them soon after Obama left office. But they waited. "The time just wasn't right," says Cahan. "And we wanted to see how the new presidency would work out. This, in a sense, became our pandemic project and we worked on it every day, 12 hours a day for months. We thought it a good idea to remind America what a president looked like."

"This project was for me restorative and therapeutic," says Williams.

They were able to choose from the book's 300 or so images from 15,000 made available by the White House online during Obama's presidency. Now those are stored at the National Archives, along with those other millions and will be made available — not all at once — starting in 2020. We, the American people, own these images as we do the smaller collections of previous presidents.

But back to the book and Obama looking so very young, as does his wife Michelle. Their daughters are little girls. There he is holding and playing with babies and saying, "One of the best perks about being president is anybody will hand you their baby." There he is playing basketball, standing on the Great Wall of China greeting school kids and soldiers and visiting cemeteries; readying to meet such varied celebrities as Shaquille O'Neal, Bill Murray, Willie Nelson and Elie Wiesel, hugging Congressman John Lewis, and dancing with Michelle.

As for those dogs, they get their own chapter, "A Dog's Life." Bo came first, the fulfillment of a promise to his girls on his first election victory. Sunny came a few years later.

Bo posed challenges for photographer Chuck Kennedy who said, "It's hard to see his eyeballs because his fur is so curly around his eyes."

He met that challenge as did the others in less gentle circumstances.

The most famous of the book's photos was taken by Souza on May 1, 2011. It shows Obama in polo shirt and windbreaker, surrounded by members of the national security team when they were receiving updates on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House. This image is but one of about 100 Souza shot during his 45 minutes in that room at that time.

You won't find this book at you neighborhood bookstore, for it is City Files first venture into the ebook realm. "This was never intended to be a traditional book," says Cahan. "We are thrilled with this process. The photos look terrific and this is the way in which people read and consume books these days. The world is changing, and this is an important and powerful way of communicating. Within seconds you can sample the book and download it and it will not set you back a fortune."

He's right about the photos, they snap off the screen. And he is also right about the price: the book is $9.99.

"White House photographers have been taking pictures of presidents since John F. Kennedy," Cahan and Williams write. "But many of their photos — of official acts and staged photo opportunities — grow stale over years. Obama's photographers ... have created an archive that will last."

There is one memorable photo near the book's end: Obama meeting with a few dozen White House staffers in the Oval Office the morning after Donald's Trump's 2016 election victory. He is saying, "We are Americans first. We are patriots first. We all want what's best for this country."

In this era of divisive and contentious politics, you can't argue with that.

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