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Michael Evans: his lens captures `power' people

THE people who sit for Michael Evans's photos don't say cheese. They say power. For Mr. Evans is not only one of the President's men, he is the President's lens. As chief White House photographer, Evans has put together a photo record titled ``People and Power: Portraits from the Federal Village,'' which runs until Feb. 24 at the Corcoran Museum here.

The show is a lucid, eagle's-eye look at 500 people who have held positions of power in Washington during the Reagan presidency. All are photographed in rather stark black and white against a gray backdrop without any of the props of their power.

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The resulting portraits, far from those by Louis Fabian Bachrach or Yousef Karsh, are perhaps closer to the spirit of 19th-century photographer Mathew Brady, whose Lincoln-era portraits inspired Evans. For the most part they are serious, often revealing of character. Wide smiles are scarce. It may be that power people, like Queen Victoria, are ``not amused.''

Or Mike Evans's lens may have something to do with that. ``I don't like smiles particularly, although if they smile, that's OK,'' he says from behind his desk in the White House basement. ``I just don't generally encourage it. I think smiles hide as much as they reveal.'' What he's after, he says, is ``a pleasant picture. I like people with a pleasant expression, a little twinkle in the eye, a little spark.''

Among the twinkles and sparks in the collection are such disparate powers as new White House chief of staff Donald Regan; United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, wearing civvies; Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee; former Senate majority leader Howard Baker; House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.; United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick; and, of course, President Ronald Reagan.

``Ronald Reagan is one of the most unself-conscious people I've ever met,'' says Evans. ``He doesn't spend any time thinking about the fact that these photographs are destined for the archives of the United States. . . .''

Evans keeps a wood-framed copy of the President's daily schedule on his desk, and assigns coverage to the other four full-time staff photographers after choosing the meetings he wants to do himself. He avoids routine Cabinet meetings (``I try to keep as fresh as possible'') and relishes the flash points.

``The only time photographs really jump out at you is when you're having what you call a real-time crisis: A Korean airliner has just been shot down; Anwar Sadat has just been assassinated; you're just about to fire the head of the air traffic controllers; or you've just invaded Grenada -- things like that where there are some real tough things you've got to deal with right away, of a serious nature.''

But doesn't the President mind a photographer clicking away during a crisis?

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``One of the wonderful things about those moments of high tension is that the tension is so high nobody even notices you're there. You're part of the woodwork. He doesn't pay any attention to me at all, which is the way I like it.''

The President is so camera-savvy says Evans that he's impervious to the clicks. ``He's just used to it. He treats me more or less the same way he'd treat, say his steward, the guy who serves him his food and takes care of his clothes and so on. Yes, we have a personal relationship, but we both have a reason to be there and have a job to do.'' Gerald Ford's relationship to his chief photographer David Kennerly has been called fatherly, while Evans suggests Reagan's relationship to him is more like uncle to nephew. He adds that Reagan prefers to be photographed from his right side.

The walls of Evans's small, cherry - wood paneled office are lined with his color magazine covers of Ronald Reagan smiling from the front of Time (where Evans had been a contract photographer), from People magazine, New York magazine, MacLean's, and The New York Times magazine.

``I've been covering him since 1975,'' Evans says. ``I was a familiar face'' when it came time to choose the chief White House photographer.

The choice had as much to do with his personality as his photography, Evans says. ``I knew all the senior staff and was able to get along with them. I'm like the Californians, fairly quiet and laid-back. I fit in well.'' Professional ability is important, he admits, ``but equally important for the President, the senior staff, and the Cabinet is the ability to integrate well . . . the more integrated you are the less notice they'll take of you and the better job you'll do of documenting it.''

While Evans's analysis suggests that unobtrusiveness is all important, he is not one of the ``faceless bureaucrats'' you forget as soon as you've met them. He has one of those paradoxical faces, youthful and open under a thick swatch of pewter gray hair, a face with just a hint of ennui in the mellow blue eyes. He wears a charcoal gray flannel suit, white shirt, maroon, silver, and black striped tie, and White House identification tags.

Across from his desk sit the seven cameras with which he snaps the President and his staff. On the floor is a large brown cardboard box full of copies of his book, ``People and Power,'' which Harry N. Abrams Inc. is publishing in conjunction with the Corcoran show. Reagan's deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, gave him permission to do a study of people in power during the Reagan era, so he formed the Portrait Project, whose negatives will go to the National Archives.

Evans shot 600 portraits in 30 months, had only two refusals out of the 600. He shot his subjects in black and white in his studio at home, taking an average of 10 minutes for each; the longest took 20 minutes. The result is a series of candid portraits. You would recognize these people if you ran into them in the supermarket.

The rows of 500 portraits seen together, all done in the same candid style, have a cumulative power of their own. But some Washington insiders would quarrel with whether these are the 500 most powerful people in the Reagan era. Evans points out that he originally wanted to call the show simply ``Portraits from the Federal Village,'' but publicists felt ``People and Power'' had more punch. The show is sponsored by American Express and CBS Magazines Inc.

Some faces are remarkable for their presence, like that of Pat Boone and film director Robert Arthur, who are hardly Washington power wielders. Some are remarkable for their absence, like Democratic power-broker Robert Strauss and columnist Carl Rowan. And some are riveting because Evans, regardless of the subject, has captured an emotion: either some private shyness (journalist Sarah McClendon); personal anguish (Sen. Mark Hatfield); candid ambition (US Information Agency director Charles Wick); or ambiguity (Central Intelligence Agency director William Casey; one eye smiles, the other assesses).

So Michael Evans, now at the focus of power, has not done badly for a kid whose career was launched at 11 when his grandmother gave him a Kodak Duaflex II.

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