For the cover story of this week’s issue of TIME, award-winning photojournalist Charles Ommanney chronicled the life of Michael Bloomberg as the mayor of New York traveled from Paris to London. A veteran political photographer who spent more than 12 years covering Washington for Newsweek, Ommanney spoke with LightBox about Bloomberg and his own life in the rarefied world of high-stakes politics.
Ommanney’s career as a young photographer began in the early 1990s when the award-winning art director at Texas Monthly magazine, DJ Stout, began offering him varied and unusual assignments — for example, covering a case of unsolved serial murders, the notorious “I-45 killings.”
“Stout had me shooting all kinds of eclectic stories around the state,” Ommanney recalls, “and one day asked me to do a ‘day in the life’ photo essay on Governor George W. Bush.”
It just so happened that, at the same time, a story Ommanney had worked on about a frontline unit of the Children’s Protective Services in Houston had recently been published in Texas Monthly — and the work of that unit was very close to Laura Bush’s heart. It made for the perfect introduction to the Bush family.
“With very little idea of what I was getting involved in,” Ommanney told TIME, “I pitched the Bush family on letting me have access to them during the 2000 run for the presidency. After much deliberation, they went for it. Armed with two rangefinder cameras I embarked on a 19-month journey around the country. Three thousand rolls of Tri-X and a seriously controversial election later, Newsweek sent me to D.C. to be the White House photographer — and that was that.”
Ommanney covered the presidency for 12 years. When asked what advice he’d give to a photographer wanting to work in the nation’s capital, he says: “Be nice to people. You never know when you will be looking for their phone number again.”
Back in September 2002, Ommanney had his first shoot with Michael Bloomberg, portraying the new billionaire mayor as an improbable man of the people. He photographed Bloomberg riding the New York City subway, eating hot dogs and meeting with firemen.
Ommanney’s pictures document a Bloomberg at-once familiar and wholly changed — a man at the end of his third term as mayor of what is still, arguably, the capital of the world and, lest we forget, one of the single most successful businessmen on the planet. But power for power’s sake holds virtually no interest for Ommanney.
“In all the years that I’ve been crawling around on the floor photographing powerful people,” he says, “I rarely listen to a word that’s spoken in these meetings. I’m just watching their body language and their interactions. I’m really trying to make interesting images out of almost nothing.”
On the trip overseas with Bloomberg, Ommanney hurt his knee and still had to keep up with the mayor — at one point chasing him up four flights of stairs.
“Here was this 71-year-old man, full of energy, relaxed and ready to take on Paris and London. And as if he didn’t have enough to do with his short but full day in Paris, he managed to fit in two art galleries between meetings. Extraordinary!”
“It was a quick trip,” he concludes, “but somehow I felt we experienced France and England in all their glory. The last days of summer were balmy, the escargot in Paris were perfect and the bitter was perfectly warm in London. I have the best job in the world.”
Charles Ommanney is an award winning photographer currently based in Miami.
Paul Moakley is the deputy photo editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter @paulmoakley.