Skip Content
U.S. Flag

Smile: Photographing the Senate in Session

September 24, 1963

1963 Senate Photo

In September 1963, an irritated Senator Richard Russell exclaimed, "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," he said, "that is a weakness of mankind."

Rule IV of the rules regulating the Senate wing of the Capitol forbids "the taking of pictures of any kind" in the Senate Chamber and surrounding rooms. The Senate's suspension of this rule on September 24, 1963, for the purpose of taking the Senate's first official photograph provoked Russell's scorn.

The Senate did not formally adopt a rule limiting photography in its Chamber until the 1950s, but a very strict precedent had enforced the ban prior to that. That decade's introduction of high-speed film led to a proliferation of easily concealed pocket cameras. Adventurous photographers, both amateur and professional, found the Chamber a most inviting target. Several decades earlier, on June 20, 1938, Life magazine had published a Chamber photo, which it headlined as the "first picture ever taken on the floor of the U.S. Senate in session." The magazine proudly noted, "The only previous photographs of the Senate at work have been sneak shots taken with smuggled cameras from the gallery."

In 1963 the National Geographic Society requested permission to take the first formal portrait of the Senate in session. That organization was preparing the first edition of We, the People, an illustrated book on Congress. The book's editors insisted on photos of the Senate and House in session.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield scheduled the picture-taking session to occur just before a historic vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Ninety-eight members took their seats at 10:15 a.m. Concerned about adequate lighting, cameraman George Mobley had set up three giant reflectors containing 21 large flashbulbs. Following each of six exposures, technicians hurriedly replaced the burned-out bulbs for the next shot. During one exposure, a bulb exploded and showered glass onto Representative Fred Schwengel, whose Capitol Historical Society had sponsored the We, the People publication project.

The Geographic Society's photographers next captured the Senate in 1971 and again in 1975. These three photos, taken from the rear of the Chamber, document the evolving face of the Senate. The 1963 image shows senators sitting stiffly at their desks facing the presiding officer. In the 1971 picture, some members are slyly observing the photographer. By 1975, the entire Senate, perhaps more media-savvy, had turned to embrace the camera straight on.

Return to About the Senate Chamber