September 24, 1963: The First Official Photograph of the United States Senate in Session

Fifty years ago, on September 24, 1963, photographers from the National Geographic Society took the first official photograph of the United States Senate in session. The photograph was taken for publication in the first edition of We the People: The Story of the United States Capitol by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The story of how the photograph came to be taken is as interesting as the image itself.

September 24, 1963: The First Official Photograph of the United States Senate in Session

For the first official Senate in session photograph, Senators posed with their backs to the camera. In subsequent official portraits the members turned to face the cameras

Life magazine published a photograph of the Senate chamber in session in 1938, noting that “the only previous photographs of the Senate at work have been sneak shots taken with smuggled cameras from the gallery.” However, no formal portrait of the Senate in session had ever been taken. The proliferation of high speed cameras, and their easy concealment, according to the Senate Historical Office, led the Senate to adopt a rule in the 1950s forbidding the taking of photographs in the Senate chamber and surrounding rooms. Permission to take the photograph of the Senate in session for We the People would therefore require the Senate to suspend its rule against photography.

Representative Fred Schwengel, the founding president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, reminisced years later in an oral history interview about how the recently established organization went about securing permission to take the photograph:

Senator B. Everett Jordan of North Carolina, whom we had placed on our board, was chairman of the Rules Committee, which would have to approve a resolution like this to get a picture of the Senate in session. After several hearings, the Rules Committee, by unanimous vote, voted to give us the authority, and we hired the National Geographic, to take the picture of the Senate in session. Jordan said, “That will have to carry by unanimous vote (of the full Senate); anything like this, breaking tradition. They have never allowed this before, ever for anybody.” They had told us that two weeks before we had made our request, Lifemagazine people had come there and they’d turned them down. Jordan said, “Only one man will give you real trouble on this project and that’s Russell.” (Sen. Richard Russell, D-GA). Jordan said, “Schwengel, you ought to talk to him, yourself.”

Well, I called Senator Russell and told him what I wanted, and I wanted to see him before he could say no. “Well,” he said, “you’re a member of Congress. I’ll give you ten minutes.” He told me the time. So I went over with Mel Payne and Robert Breeden of the National Geographic. Breeden became the overall supervisor and Lonnelle Aikman the principal editor of this publication. We also brought over the dummy of the kind of publication we planned. Then I made my pitch for this picture of the Senate in session, with the senators on the floor. I told him all the reasons why this was necessary. Russell asked a lot of questions. He was particularly interested in one: Could we satisfy requests of publications that might want copies of whatever picture we took? We gave him assurances that anyone producing a book, magazine or newspaper article, a legitimate publication, of course, we would give them the negatives at cost. Finally, he quit asking questions, swiveled around in his swivel chair and looked out the window, for the longest time. Then he turned around and said, “Schwengel, did you work your way through college?” I said, “I sure did, that was the only way I had a chance to get there.” He said, “If you didn’t, you should have been selling Bibles.” Then he said, “I’m still against your project, but, if you’ll tell Lyndon (Vice President Lyndon Johnson) and Hubert (Sen. Hubert Humphrey) when they’re going to call up the resolution for approval, I’ll arrange to be off the floor.” So that’s what happened.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield scheduled the photograph to be taken on September 24, 1963 just before the Senate voted on ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which assured that most of the members would be present. Ninety-eight Senators took their seats at 10:15 a.m. for the photograph. The Senate Historical Office reports that: “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.”

The photograph was published in the first edition of We the People later that year. The publication was delayed in order that another historic photograph could be included—of the casket of President John F. Kennedy as it lay in state in the Capitol rotunda.