It may just seem a little too endearing that Michelle Obama describes herself as a "dog lover" in addition to "former First Lady" in her Instagram bio. Let Amanda Lucidon—her former official White House photographer—assure you, however, that the descriptor is far from simply an attempt to appear relatable: "Everybody knows that there are two things that Mrs. Obama absolutely adores: kids and puppies," she writes in Chasing Light, her new book of photographs documenting the first lady during the Obamas's second term, which came out earlier this month and hit the New York Times best seller list this weekend.
The photos, for example, include the moment that Obama, having learned that the wife of Japan's prime minister loves dogs, introduced Akie Abe to the family's pets, Bo and Sunny, at which point they all sat on the White House floor together, formal attire forgotten. There's also the time Obama went on Animal Planet to tape a segment of its annual Puppy Bowl, and the occasion, one of many, when Obama passed out cookies frosted and shaped to look like Bo and Sunny on a visit to a children's hospital.
Lucidon spent her fair share of time running into Bo and Sunny padding down the halls of the White House while at work in between assignments, but the job often took her to far off locations. Over the course of four years, she traveled to more than 20 countries with the first lady, including jaunts to countries like Morocco for Obama's Let Girls Learn initiative, accompanied by none other than Meryl Streep. Those trips first began with China, where Lucidon was the only photographer—and therefore the only one present to capture Obama embracing Sasha and Malia on the Great Wall—and ended with Obama sliding down a toboggan.
"I think at some point, my husband’s going to wake me up and tell me I’ve just been dreaming," Lucidon said at a certain point after recalling those moments and more from her home nearby Washington, D.C., where she moved to eight years ago after leaving her job as a newspaper photographer in California to try to make it on the East coast as a freelancer. As it turned out, that was just in time for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and she promptly spent hours in the freezing cold trying to take the best photos she could of the historic moment without a press pass.
Four years later, Lucidon found herself almost too close to the Obamas—to the point that to this day, she doesn't remember what she said in her flustered first encounter with the first lady. That was thanks to an unexpected call from Pete Souza—then the chief White House photographer and now known as a master of throwing shade at the hapless Trump administration—who wanted to know if she was interested in joining him on the job. Pretty soon, Lucidon realized that if she “didn’t ground myself, I might not be able to do my job effectively." By watching the four other official White House photographers on staff get to work, she eventually she got so close to Obama that it wasn't just Souza who became her mentor, but the first lady, too.
Obama, however, wasn't Lucidon's only assignment: in addition to larger events like state arrivals that required the efforts of all five photographers, “because when you’re documenting history, you want to make sure you have all your angles covered,” she also spent a decent amount of her time documenting the president, which is how she ended up capturing the image that he tweeted for Valentine’s Day earlier this year, a post that's since gotten over a million likes. (Before her editor’s intervention, Lucidon had in fact planned on cutting the image: "The moment was there, but I just thought it was one of those that was almost there because the background seemed a little messy," she recalled with a laugh.)
Moments like that were normal between the Obamas, whom Lucidon also captured reading aloud Where the Wild Things Are to children on the White House lawn, but there were definitely some surprises in store for the photographer while she was working with the family.
She may have been the only one assigned to the first lady, but she'd heard no talk of practice or anything particularly special about her appearance on The Ellen Show to promote Let's Move, Obama's public health initiative, in 2015. For the occasion, Ellen Degeneres had assembled the cast of So You Think You Can Dance to perform a routine to "Uptown Funk," which it turned out Obama could also execute "flawlessly," to the surprise of Lucidon, who'd long been used to the first lady's love of music, but had never actually seen her dance. Once again, she found herself struggling to keep her cool, but for a much better reason than nerves: "I was cracking up behind my camera."
See W’s most popular videos: