James Atherton, news photographer, captured iconic Washington events

November 30, 2011

James K.W. Atherton, a Washington news photographer whose unusual camera angles captured revealing images of events such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Watergate hearings, died Nov. 29 at his home in Annapolis. He was 83.

Mr. Atherton collapsed outside his home, said his wife, Patricia Atherton. He had suffered from cardiovascular ailments since a heart attack and bypass surgery in 1999.

Mr. Atherton retired in 1990 after a 40-year career, including two decades each with what became the United Press International wire service and then The Washington Post. He covered every president from Harry S. Truman to Richard M. Nixon, the civil rights movement, the U.S. space program and hearings on Capitol Hill.

He was known to his colleagues as “Bad Light Atherton.” The nickname referred to his practice of sacrificing what other photographers considered the best (or easiest) lighting conditions for a more arresting image.

“He would go around to the other side and try to get a different angle,” said Dennis Brack, a former president of the White House News Photographers Association. “Lo and behold, the next morning we would all pick up The Washington Post and see the pictures that we didn’t think about making. He basically burned us again.”

One of Mr. Atherton’s most celebrated photographs was the one he took of the crowd gathered along the reflecting pool to hear the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

Mr. Atherton stationed himself behind King inside the Lincoln Monument. To show the scale of the crowd, Mr. Atherton mounted his Nikon on a bamboo pole, hoisted it above Lincoln’s shoulder and, using a cable, snapped 11 images.

The photos — which Mr. Atherton’s colleagues consider to be among his best — captured the day’s event as seen by the Great Emancipator.

That was not the only time Mr. Atherton stepped behind his subject to find an interesting image. He once walked onto a stage as John F. Kennedy was speaking and positioned himself behind the president.

An image snapped by another reporter in the audience shows Kennedy at the podium and Mr. Atherton behind him, his arms stretched above his head to hold the camera in what photographers call a “Hail Mary” shot. With no way of looking through the viewfinder, he could not have predicted how the image would turn out.

The photo of Mr. Atherton made more news than the one he took. Press secretary Pierre Salinger was outraged by what he considered Mr. Atherton’s lack of decorum.

Kennedy, however, liked the image of himself with Mr. Atherton. When the photograph appeared in the newspaper, the president clipped a copy and instructed Salinger to deliver it to Mr. Atherton. He had signed the photograph, “Two men at work.”

For The Post, Mr. Atherton covered hearings about the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals. The difficulty in such assignments, former colleagues said, is to show not the officials seated behind microphones, but the human drama.

Mr. Atherton did that by seeking the unlikely images. During the Watergate hearings, he found embattled former White House counsel John Dean’s hands more revealing than his facial expressions.

“Jimmy probably looked down at his hands . . . and his hands were probably giving away the tension that he was going through at the time,” said Frank Johnston, another Post photographer who covered the Watergate hearing. People “always have a point of breaking somewhere.”

James Kenneth Ward Atherton was born Dec. 16, 1927, in the District. He graduated from Roosevelt High School before joining the Navy shortly after World War II and serving in Asia as a military photographer.

When he came home, he studied at a photography school in Silver Spring before joining the old Acme Newspictures, a component of an agency that would later become UPI, as a telephoto operator.

Mr. Atherton joined The Post in 1970 as as a picture editor but, missing the action outside the newsroom, returned to photography.

During the 1970s, Mr. Atherton and his wife owned Atherton’s Used Books in Kensington. They lived in Silver Spring before moving to Annapolis several years ago.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Patricia Hall Atherton of Annapolis; four children, Michael Atherton of Trego, Mont., Robin Atherton of Groton, Vt., Jamie Kirkley of Eureka, Mont., and Steven Atherton of Northfield Falls, Vt.; one brother; 13 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.