Senate’s First Official Photo

The noted Rule IV of the Senate wing of the Capitol forbids “taking of pictures of any kind” in the Senate Chamber and surrounding rooms. It was a recent rule, dating from the 1950s. (On June 20, 1938, Life published the first ever photo of the U.S. Senate in session, secretly taken from the gallery.) On September 24, 1963, the Senate suspended the rule to take its first official photograph. Senator Richard Russell (for whom the Russell Senate Office Building was named) was cynical: “All senators like to have their pictures taken! When I look around and see some of my colleagues and then view my own physiognomy in the mirror, I sometimes wonder why. But that is a weakness of mankind.”

The photo-session, for the National Geographic Society’s illustrated book on Congress, We the People, was scheduled before the historic vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Ninety-eight members took their seats at 10:15 a.m. Photographer George Mobley set up three giant reflectors containing 21 large flashbulbs. Following each of six exposures, the burned-out bulbs had to be replaced for the next shot. During one exposure, a bulb exploded and showered glass onto spectating Representative Fred Schwengel, founder of Capitol Historical Society which sponsored We the People.

The Geographic’s photographers next captured the Senate in 1971 and again in 1975. The 1963 image shows senators sitting stiffly at their desks facing the presiding officer. In the 1971 picture, some members were slyly observing the photographer. By 1975, the entire Senate, perhaps more media-savvy, had turned to embrace the camera straight on.

— “Senate Sits for its First Photograph,” Washington Post, Times Herald, September 25, 1963

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