How I got that iconic Nancy Reagan photo

Photo editor Bryan Chan was a photographer for the Los Angeles Times when Ronald Reagan died in 2004. He took a photo of Nancy Reagan leaning over her husband’s casket when it arrived at the Reagan Library. The photo appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country, including The Times. Here’s the story of how he got it.

As told to Jessica Roy:

I got a call that day: Get to the Reagan Library. Ronald Reagan has died.

An editor, Carlos Lozano, wanted me to go to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and photograph people paying their respects and leaving flowers.

Two days later, Reagan’s casket arrived at the library for a viewing and I was one of two photographers chosen to be in the room. We were brought into the lobby where the casket was placed. The other guy was on the first floor; I was on the balcony on the second floor to get overhead shots.

Being a pool photographer like that is a lot of pressure. Your photos will go on the wires and appear all over the place. You’re basically the eyes for everyone who wants to be in the room.

After a few minutes, they asked the other photographer to leave. Nancy Reagan was coming in to see the casket for the first time. I don’t know if they forgot about me or if they only wanted the first floor cleared, but when she came in, I was one of the only people in the room. One of Ronald Reagan’s White House staff members was up there with me. His staff, all of his people had an agreement that when he died, they would come back (if they could) and help with the funeral preparations and everything.

Nancy Reagan was escorted in, along with her family and a minister. The casket was surrounded by guards representing every branch of the military.

You go into something like that knowing that you’re going to witness history. It was very solemn. She came up, she caressed the casket, and she put her head down on it and kissed it. I was able to photograph that moment. This was just one of many moments captured by the members of The Times photography team for the weeklong memorial that included events in Washington.

For me, I just happened to be the only one in the room with a camera.

The next day, that photo was everywhere: The New York Times, the Washington Post. Most of the major papers used it. We used it on the cover. Somewhere, I’ve got a stack of printouts from everywhere that it ran. This was in 2004, before Facebook, so I was calling and emailing people I knew all over the country, asking people to check their paper and see if my photo was on the front page.

My family saw it in Seattle. I had a friend traveling through an airport who saw it all over the newsstands. At the Newseum in Washington, they have a display of all the big newspapers’ front pages that day. We had a bunch of photographers there, and they said my photo was all over the display at the Newseum. Of course, as a gigantic group of photographers, none of them thought to take a photo of it.

It was the home run of my career, getting all those front pages. It had never happened to me before, having that thick stack of newspapers that all have your photo and name on the front page. I’ll never forget having the opportunity to take that shot.