Virtually all photography, and especially news photography, is about witnessing events as they happen. In fact, the hoary slogan of the old-time news shooter, was "f.8 and be there."
Whether paparazzo or in-house portraitist, no photographer can work without his or her subjects. That access can be as simple as a press pass to shoot near the stage during a rock concert, or as elaborate as a multi-vetted admission to the Oval Office.
What goes unsaid and what sometimes does not have to be said is that the greater the degree of access granted by a subject, the greater might be the expectation that the subject will have a say in how or even whether such pictures are used.
In far too many fields today, this control has shifted near-totally to the subject. In the entertainment and music industries especially, flacks, managers, record execs, promoters and the like routinely demand near-total control of images before photographers are allowed to shoot these folks' meal-tickets. Sports teams, too, try with varying success to impose Draconian conditions on how certain press images made in their stadiums or arenas ultimately are used.
In the Corcoran Gallery's current exhibition of the work of the late news photographer Stanley Tretick, a man of uncommon talent who worked for Look Magazine in its heyday, one becomes aware, too, of how far some photographers believed they had to go of how much control they were willing to surrender in order to make their singular images.
"Stanley Tretick: The Kennedy Years," a mini-exhibition gracing the rotunda at the top of the museum's main staircase, concentrates on, though is not limited to, the close-up and very personal images that Tretick made of John and Jackie Kennedy and their two children during the thousand days of the tragedy-shortened JFK presidency. Virtually all are in black and white and many are vintage prints. The photographs show a side of the Kennedys we have locked away in our collective visual memory: that of a handsome, loving, active family. A family with very young children. A family that seemed to turn the stately White House into a home.
A family whose personal grief shattered us as well on that awful November 22 so many years ago.
"I propose that Pierre and I work very closely on an idea," Tretick had written the President. "Pierre" was press secretary Pierre Salinger and Tretick wanted very much to do a behind-the-scenes portrait of the first family for Look.
If allowed to do the story, Tretick told the President, Salinger would have "complete control of the pictures until such time as publication."
And Tretick went on, "any negatives you may reject would be turned over to [Salinger] to insure they not be used."
In addition, Tretick gave the President his word that anything he saw or heard that could potentially embarrass the President would be off the record.
In politics, it is easy to harken back to the Nixon era, when press secretary Ronald Ziegler introduced the phrase "photo-opportunity," describing a prescribed time and place where press photographers would be allowed to work, in a kind of choreographed photo-Kabuki during which the president would hit his mark and the shooters would hit theirs. The President would do his thing; the press would do theirs and after a few minutes both sides would have what they wanteduntil the next photo-op.
But in fact the realization that controlled photography plays an integral partperhaps the integral partin forming (and polishing) an administration's image did not begin with Nixon. One even might go back to Mathew Brady's retouched portraits of a craggy-faced, long-necked Abraham Lincoln, or to an apparently staged picture of Teddy Roosevelt resplendent in a white tropical suit sitting at the controls of a steam shovel during the building of the Panama Canal, to argue that, long before television, politicians knew the value of flattering or sympathetic photography.
Or that photographers long have been willing to play by someone else's rules or sensitivities. Witness the near-universal practice by White House news photographers of never photographing the polio-crippled Franklin D. Roosevelt on crutches or in a wheelchair.
[Of course, there is the other side to this: the photo-vultures and paparazzi who cheapen what we all do by their thuggishness. But that's another story. See Vultures with Cameras, 9/26/97.]
JFK, arguably the first president of the television age, knew instinctively the power of image and it is a testament not only to Stan Tretick's skill as a photographer, but to Kennedy's ease before the lens, that the Corcoran exhibition of Tretick's work hangs together as well as it does. There is no reason to think that the Kennedy White House ever exercised the kind of strict control over Tretick's photography that he was willing to offer. It didn't have to. Stan went into the assignment wanting to make the first family look good. Kennedy and company were smart enough to let him go about his business.
And we are the richer for it.
There are some wonderful and now so poignant images here. Of course, there is the image of John-John Kennedy peering out from under his father's desk in the Oval Office, while the President shuffles papers wearing a bemused grin. It was never Tretick's favorite picture, but he knew it was a keeper. He mused that when he died, that would be the image that accompanied his obit. And he was right. Tretick died two years ago, after a four-year incapacitation from a series of strokes, and sure enough it was that image that made most the papers. [It is one of the bitter twists of history that one reason that shot inevitably made the papers again was that Tretick died within days of John Kennedy, Jr.'s fatal plunge into the waters off Martha's Vineyard.]
There is nothing in Tretick's Corcoran show that looks awkward or staged. Tretick was as good any anyone at capturing the moment, be it during the Korean War (where he was a Marine combat photographer) or at a summit conference in Vienna, where Jackie Kennedy took tea with Mrs. Khrushchev.
I was privileged to know and work with Stan, and to see how seriously and also how enthusiastically and irreverently he took his job. He radiated the same kind of joy about doing what he loved that other of his contemporaries, like the now-gone George Tames and Fred Maroon, displayed whenever they were in the thick of things making images.
That's a great way to live and not a bad way to be remembered.
Stanley Tretick: The Kennedy Years. Through October 7th .Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York Avenue and 17th St. NW. Open every day except Tuesday, 10a-5p; 9p on Thursdays. Admission: $5 adults; $8 families; $3 seniors; $1 students with ID.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.