Remembering Marion Carpenter, the first White House female photographer

March 6, 2014 /Photography News/ Born 94 years ago today, on March 6, 1920, Marion A. Carpenter was the first female National Press Photographer to cover Washington, D.C., the White House and to travel with a US President.

After studying photography in St. Paul when was in her 20s, she moved to Washington to take a job at the Times-Herald before setting her sights on the White House job. Soon she became one of President Harry S. Truman's favorite photographers, being the only woman among a handful of photographers who traveled with Truman.

Her unique status made critics of some of her male colleagues, such as Washington Times-Herald columnist Tris Coffin, who complained in print that she used her feminine charms -- "smiled and teased" -- to persuade politicians to pose for her. Later, when Carpenter saw Coffin in the Senate restaurant, she sloshed a bowl of navy bean soup over his face, then stalked out. A photograph of the incident was published with the headline "Carpenter Nails Coffin."

An undated photo from Acme Telephoto: "Free-lance photographer Marion Carpenter demonstrates how she threw a bowl of Senate bean soup at columnist Tris Coffin in the Senate Dining room today. She objected to some remarks he made about her in his copyright column. Her aim was good and she scored a direct hit."
According to what she told her friends late in life, a love affair with a married man may have helped end her career prematurely.

Carpenter's marriage to a Navy officer who abused her ended in divorce. In Washington, she fell in love with a Capitol journalist. When the affair ended, Carpenter remarried. Her new husband, a radio announcer, took her to Denver, where they had a son. By 1951, the marriage -- and her career -- were over. She was 31.

Back in St. Paul, Carpenter ran a wedding photo business and worked as a nurse to support her mother and child. Her later life is not well known.

Marion Carpenter died on October 29, 2002, at the age of 82 in the house on Margaret Street, nearly destitute, and alone except for her Rottweiler, Karl.

Among Carpenter's prized belongings is a book about Harry Truman, marked at a page where a photograph shows the president smelling a cherry blossom. Also in her belongings when she died were photos she took of Truman, which the president inscribed to "Miss Carpenter." One of those photos, which showed Truman striding uphill toward the Washington Monument, bears the message: "It's good exercise if you keep it up, but not for high-heeled shoes, Miss Carpenter." Even when she climbed a ladder to the top of the Capitol dome to take a picture almost 300 feet above ground in a skirt, newsmen found it hard to just be nice. A front-page photo of her, high on the ladder, was captioned: "This picture ought to prove you never can tell what a woman photographer will do next."

Detail of a Christmas card (Photograph 58-649) sent to President Truman in 1949 from Marion Carpenter
The White House Correspondents' Association which Carpenter belonged to, has a picture of her with other members of the WHCA who covered President Truman taken at the White House. Even though she was a member of the Association, because she was a woman she was not allowed to attend the annual WHCA dinners, which 14 Presidents had attended since 1924. It was not until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy stated he would not attend the annual dinner, that the ban on women members was lifted.

Several of Carpenter's cameras auctioned with her estate are now considered historic items. Her first camera was a Seneca Competitor View. Other cameras were the 'Rolleicord III' produced in late 1949 by the Rollei-Werke Franke and Heidecke Corporation, and the Iloca Rapid B, a German rangefinder camera from the 1950s.

A book first published in 2003 by Ramona Rush, Seeking Equity for Women in Journalism and Mass Communication Education: A 30-Year Update, describes Carpenter in the preface as a "newly found pioneer White House news photographer" and provides several pages on her life. A book published in 2007 by Anne Commire, Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, has an article on Marion Carpenter. The St. Paul Camera Club issues an annual "Marion Carpenter Award" in her honor for the best monochrome photojournalism print, also known as the "Annual Monochrome Photojournalism Print Award."

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