By Cassidy Horn
David Valdez has traveled to over 70 countries on Air Force One. He has crossed paths with the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, George Strait and Chuck Norris, just to name a few dignitaries and celebrities.
Valdez was the White House photographer for George H. W. Bush during his vice presidency and presidency. He recently was a guest speaker on the Tarleton State University campus in Stephenville.
Valdez’s high-profile career started when he wrote a letter to Bush’s press secretary, Shirley Green, after he learned that Bush’s personal photographer had left the job.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years, is to be bold enough just to go ask for the job,” Valdez said. “I went to work for Vice President Bush… the vice president had been in office two years and his photographer left to go be a photographer with TIME magazine. And I thought, well, gee, I could do that job.”
Valdez got his start in photography with a 6 20 film box camera with a picture of Roy Rogers on the front. When Valdez was 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army but instead enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He was handed a camera and told he was going to be a photographer for the military service.
“I didn’t realize that I could make a living out in the civilian world doing that so I didn’t really pursue it too much at the beginning, I was 21 when I got out and started going to college full time,” he said.
Attending the University of Maryland and initially studying criminal justice, Valdez switched his major to journalism. When he took the job as the vice president’s photographer, Valdez was able to merge his military and journalism backgrounds.
George H. W. Bush was sworn into office in January 1989. Valdez recalled he followed the president through every step of his term, spending a minimum of 12 hours a day at the White House.
But that wasn’t the hardest part.
“You walk into a situation where you literally walk around the door and this is the first time you see the room and I have to get a picture, and I have to get it right,” Valdez said. “There’s no second chance to record history. It’s a lot of pressure. There is a lot of praying going on.”
Valdez said he shot over 64,000 rolls of film while in the White House. Some of those negatives never saw the light of day; others were widely published. Valdez’s best known photograph is one he took of the Bushes for LIFE magazine. George and Barbara were in their bedroom with their grandchildren playing on their bed. The photo personalized the president for many viewers, Valdez said.
“I had to learn to never use the word ‘shoot’ around the president or the Secret Service,” he said, referring to concerns for security.
After Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992, Valdez wrote another letter, this time to a place that makes dreams come true — Disney. The company didn’t have a job opening, but created one for him.
Valdez was hired as manager of advertising and publicity photography at Disney World in Orlando. Fla. That was when he made the switch from film to digital imaging, pushing boundaries as a photographer.
“We were creating images that didn’t exist,” Valdez said. “We had to create an image of the Disney cruise line and Animal Kingdom park that was being built, and we had to create an image for a brochure so people could book a vacation that was a year out.”
He currently is director of photography for a new national publication, Popular Hispanics Magazine, based in Austin and will have a photo published in National Geographic Traveler magazine in the February/March issue.
Valdez is still involved with the Bush family as well. He said he keeps in touch with George and Barbara Bush, who live in Houston. The day after he appeared at Tarleton, he was scheduled to photograph George P. Bush, George H.W.’s grandson, who is running for Texas land commissioner.
Valdez has gone from using a box camera to digital Nikon SLRs to the iPhone 5. Photos he has taken with his iPhone can be seen on his Instagram and Flickr pages.
But while the process of taking photos has changed over the years, Valdez’s passion for photography remains strong.
“I didn’t realize it until many years later when my mother, brought this out,” Valdez said, pointing to a photo of his very first photo album, labeled in red crayon. “I’d been doing it all my life, even as a little guy.”
Cassidy Horn is a student journalist at Tarleton State University.