Through Her Lens

Seelmeyer was often stationed on the Capitol's front steps./tiles/non-collection/5/5-16-seelmeyer-steps.xml Image courtesy of Dolly Seelmeyer, provided by Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives As part of her job, Seelmeyer was stationed on the front steps of the U.S. Capitol to take pictures of Members and their constituents.
With a bounce in her step and a camera in hand, Dolly Seelmeyer walked through the halls of the United States Capitol, from 1972 to 2004, as the first female House photographer, ready to prove she could do anything a male photographer could do—“and do it better.”

Packed in a Volkswagen Beetle with her husband and two-year-old daughter, Seelmeyer left New York City and arrived in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s to work as a freelance photographer, developing film in her bathtub. Seelmeyer’s husband, a reporter on the Hill, found her a six-week position as a photographer for the House. At the end of the contract, Seelmeyer campaigned to stay and argued she could be helpful for the busy summer season, when thousands of constituents visited their Representatives’ D.C. offices. When Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana heard that Seelmeyer wanted a permanent position, she approached Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts to settle the matter. “Now, Tip,” she announced, “It’s time to have a lady in the House!” The House hired Seelmeyer as a full time employee in May 1972.

Seelmeyer was often stationed on the front steps of the U.S. Capitol./tiles/non-collection/5/5-16-seelmeyer-flag.xml Image courtesy of Dolly Seelmeyer, provided by Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives Dolly Seelmeyer took this photo of the flag flying at half-staff over the Capitol on January 5, 1994, in honor of Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts. The photo was displayed at O’Neill’s funeral service the next day.
Congresswoman Boggs’ welcome contrasted with the rest of the “boys club,” however. The male-dominated world of photography presented obstacles for Seelmeyer. She earned less money than her male counterparts, and people resented her for wearing pants, instead of dresses, to improve her mobility on the job. But the new generation of women entering Congress refused to conform to male expectations, and Seelmeyer wouldn’t either. As she put it, she ignored attempts to “push her out the door.”

Seelmeyer recognized her role as a gender pioneer. One day, she met Representative Gerald Solomon of New York on the Capitol steps with a Girl Scout troop. After he described Seelmeyer as “the only lady on the Hill who could tell any Congressman where to go,” she excitedly shared with the girls that she was the first female photographer in the House. Seelmeyer encouraged the girls to do something different and “break through glass walls” like she had.

Seelmeyer had an array of responsibilities. She documented committee work, including hearings about the highly-publicized Watergate Scandal. She also photographed many foreign leaders invited to speak at Joint Meetings of Congress, such as Queen Elizabeth II. But Seelmeyer spent most of her time taking photos of Members and their constituents. While this practice became routine, she never knew who—or what—to expect. To her surprise, exotic animals often joined visitors into the Capitol. Listen to Seelmeyer recall this aspect of her job:

Dolly Seelmeyer, House Photographer, Office of Photography, U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded November 11, 2004 Transcript (PDF)

Over the years, Seelmeyer refined her craft and developed a knack for bringing out the best in her subjects. Her reliable photography service earned her the reputation within the House as “the lady who cares.” Perhaps this is why Speaker O’Neill’s family called Seelmeyer when O’Neill died on January 5, 1994, and asked her to photograph the flag flying at half-staff over the Capitol. Seelmeyer describes this night:

Dolly Seelmeyer, House Photographer, House Photography Office, U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded December 15, 2004 Transcript (PDF)

During her career, which spanned three decades, six Speakers, and more than a thousand Members, Seelmeyer not only broke gender barriers, she created a visual archive of the House of Representatives. When she retired in 2004, her colleagues viewed her as an institution herself.

Sources: Dolly Seelmeyer Oral History Interviews, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [24 November 2004, 15 December 2004, 8 June 2005]; Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 2nd sess. (December 20, 2004); Letter from William R. Cotter to Dev O’Neal, March 8, 1973.