The Kennedys 50 Years Ago at the National Museum of American History
By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Fifty years later, the Kennedy family mystique persists. That much is clear when paying a visit to the new exhibition of family portraits by famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Museumgoers gush over Jackie's timeless glamour in satin Givenchy, coo at images of little Caroline's sweet smile and still marvel at the 35th president's rugged, stately demeanor; baby boomer discussions of where people were when they heard the news no doubt ensue shortly after.
But the tiny show of nine photographs at the National Museum of American History, "The Kennedys 50 Years Ago," does more than reminisce about the seemingly irresistible spell of Camelot, which was an illusion, after all. The images on display offer a study of power and control, a look at whether the man behind the camera or the one posing in front is running the show.
Between John F. Kennedy's 1960 election and his inauguration the following January, Avedon visited what would become the first family in Florida to capture photos for Harper's Bazaar and Look Magazine. Avedon, who died in 2004, was no stranger to powerful subjects in various realms. His prolific career included portraits of the Chicago Seven, Ronald Reagan, Audrey Hepburn, Salvador Dali and the Beatles. Some of these photos (and a whopping 250 more) were part of the Corcoran's 2008 exhibition of Avedon's work, and visitors to that show will recognize the same no-nonsense style in the Kennedy images - black and white with a plain background and black border, plus straightforward poses and somewhat blank expressions.
Other than Avedon's distinctive approach, what's immediately striking is how carefully the future president keeps his go-to expression. Kennedy appears almost wooden at times, maintaining a well-worn look that's warm yet restrained, achieved by a slight squint paired with the vague phantom of a smile. Before staying on message was part of the political vernacular, Kennedy seems to be doing just that, offering up a dignified, controlled vision of himself whether he's posed beside an effortlessly elegant Jackie or holding Caroline in his lap, arms encircled around her tiny frame.
Most revealing is the one Avedon contact sheet that's on display - a chance to see what the photographer saw, and where there's a wider range of emotions on display. In one frame, the president-elect looks straight into the camera, laughing as though the photographer has just told a joke. Another shot captures Kennedy reaching carefully down to John-John, whom Jackie holds in her arms, while a different frame finds the president caught off-guard, smiling with eyes scrunched shut. Now we see the power that Avedon held. He had an array of shots, but the image of Kennedy that Avedon disclosed aligned with the persona the 35th president worked so hard to create.
But for all of Kennedy's effort, it may be Caroline who steals the show. One iconic shot, brilliantly framed by Avedon, stands out among the rest. The 3-year-old occupies the middle of the photo in a frilly white dress. She stands beside her father, who is all but out of frame with the exception of a glimpse of his suit and his right hand, which reaches down, resting gently on her shoulder. When the magazine hit stands, the aw factor was most certainly high with this adorable image. Yet despite her baby face, Caroline seems to carry a wisdom beyond her years. She looks almost wistful. The sweetness of the photograph commingles with a kind of sadness.
That may be the most intriguing message of the show. No matter how carefully a photographer or subject tries to orchestrate the scene, an image's meaning changes over time and ultimately depends on the beholder.