All the photos are in black and white, and although their dates range from 1936 to 1987, nearly all are from the 1950s or ’60s. Most are news photos of famous people, including politicians, activists, artists, athletes and astronauts. Each of the featured subjects is an American, and only one photo — of Margaret Mead in Bali — was made outside the United States.
The pictures are candids, shot on the fly, but they look rather formal by today’s standards. They illustrate a broad consensus, since dismantled, of how to dress and behave before the camera. Even the most intimate and spontaneous pictures, such as a 1957 shot in which painter Elaine de Kooning and poet Frank O’Hara chat in a New York bar, were clearly made before the rise of selfie-consciousness. There’s no mugging or incongruous gesturing, no flaunting of the subject’s presence.
The pictures, selected by Leslie Ureña, the museum’s associate curator of photographs, are divided among four themes: “In the Public Eye,” “Teaching and Learning,” “Public/Private” and “Just Between Us.” But none of the photographically frozen moments were — nor would they stay — truly private, and the subjects knew it.
Case in point: President John F. Kennedy and his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, were aware that a photographer was following them when they walked a path at Camp David, conferring after the failed Bay of Pigs operation. The two men were in the process of making history, even if evidence of their meeting wouldn’t go public until later. (The picture is one of six in the show by George Tames, who photographed Washington for the New York Times for 40 years.)
Kennedy appears twice in the show, which is appropriate. The charismatic young war hero with the glamorous wife and attractive children was a new sort of president, ideal for an age in which a politician and his family could become the country’s imaginary friends. This was largely because of the intimacy, both actual and simulated, brought on by television.
“In Mid-Sentence” acknowledges this with the photo that’s been enlarged into the exhibition’s most emblematic image. Made by Garry Winogrand, the most prominent photographer represented here, the picture captures Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. The future president is addressing the crowd with his back to the camera, but a TV screen below him (yet visible to Winogrand’s camera) displays the face that home audiences were seeing.
Winogrand captures Kennedy — both the actual and the virtual version — at the same instant. His photo also hints at the coming age of media saturation in which multiple, simultaneous images would become commonplace and expected. There’s always another perspective.
That’s explicitly true of a few of the show’s pictures, which the museum supplements with short film clips available on a video kiosk. These include snippets of such famous events as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and attorney Joseph Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency?” rebuke to Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the 1954 Senate hearing on McCarthy’s investigation of the U.S. Army.
Less well known, but more enlightening, is a clip of San Francisco State University President S.I. Hayakawa, a frequent antagonist of student protesters in the 1960s. In the photo of Hayakawa, he looks a little smug. The film shows why: He had just ripped out the wires of a public address system, hindering the message of a group of demonstrators.
These video footnotes are intriguing but actually contrary to the spirit of “In Mid-Sentence.” This is a show about disconnected moments and unfinished stories. The photographs suggest powerful emotions, but they leave it to you to fill in the unheard words.
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. npg.si.edu