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A Lost Legacy

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

There was yet another tragedy in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, though it did not involve the loss of human life.

It involved instead the loss of a huge and historic photographic archive that, until Sept. 11 and the unknowable horror of that day, had been widely believed to be protected from all harm, impervious to all damage.

Photographer Jacques Lowe's immense record from the Kennedy administration – an archive of more than 40,000 mostly black and white negatives, including some of the best known images from that era – is lost and presumed destroyed in the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero. Lowe, who died of prostate cancer last May at age 71, had stored his cache of negs, valued at more than $2 million, in the underground vaults of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. at 5 World Trade Center, secure in the knowledge that the most precious of his life's work was safe.

"He was being more prudent than most," his daughter Thomasina said, in monumental understatement, given the haphazard way many of us store our materials. "He really believed [the negatives] were as safe as they could be."

With the collapse of the twin towers, virtually all hope has been abandoned for the safe recovery of the safe-deposit box that held the precious pieces of acetate. "They were able to open a couple of [other] safes," Lowe's daughter told Reuters last month, "[but] what they found was just ash. It must have been like an oven in there." As of this week, a family source said there are no signs of optimism or even any indication that a promised fresh look at the crash site ever will take place.

It is a devastating loss: to history, to photography – not to mention to Lowe's family, which had looked upon sales of these pictures for financial support. In addition, the whole horrible episode brings to the fore questions about storage of images, both film and digital, and the ability to retrieve these images not just days, but decades, from now. Yet for all this, it still may be possible to learn from this tragedy, and from the marriage of old and new technologies. But first, some history about a remarkable photographer and his remarkable work.

Lowe's archive included images that have become icons to people who appreciate the kind of fly-on-the-wall photojournalism that Lowe practiced with a master's hand and eye. They include beautifully composed images of Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy during Kennedy's uphill campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination and his subsequent race for the White House against Republican Richard Nixon:

– Pictures of Jack, his tiny campaign plane off to the side of an equally tiny runway, surrounded by the barest handful of aides, in stunning contrast to the flying circus of campaigns today.

– Jack and Jackie sitting in the window of a nondescript – yet quintessentially American – diner, Jackie sipping her morning coffee while Jack confers with someone across from him.

Beautiful moments, beautifully captured in black and white available light.

It was a far different era then – in the years before the young President's murder – when campaign coverage still was something of a close-in game that every so often could be played one-on-one, without an interfering layer of security or staff people. Lowe had earned his access, ironically, through Jack's younger brother Bobby, whom he befriended in 1956. Papa Joe Kennedy was so impressed with the work of the talented, self-effacing photographer that he asked whether Lowe, then 26, also could photograph his "other son" who was at the start of his historic political career.

Lowe became JFK's campaign photographer, but declined the offer to follow Jack to the White House and become official photographer to the President. Lowe was, after all, not only a gifted photojournalist but a talented commercial photographer as well, and built a lucrative commercial studio in New York. Still, he managed to retain incredible access to the Kennedy White House – especially when compared to the structured, television-oriented, access given journalists today. He compiled a diverse photographic document "as an historian, not as a press agent," said Kennedy biographer and Pulitzer prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Lowe, said Schlesinger, "gave the natural rhythms of the Kennedy White House enduring form." Only the work of the late Stanley Tretick, another superb photojournalist of the time, and a friend of the Kennedys, rivals Lowe's for emotion, gesture and impact.

[By contrast, a new book Camelot at Dawn (Johns Hopkins University Press) is more a curiosity than a valuable archive. This very thin book, with text by Ann Garside, is a lightly edited look at what photographer Orlando Suero, then a picture agency shooter, was able to get during a week with the newly married Jack and Jackie. There are some wonderful images of the handsome couple, to be sure, but, as Garside herself notes, Cuervo had precious little creative or editorial control over what he shot. Virtually all the images have a staged, show-them-off-at-their-best quality to them. And there simply is no excuse, beyond trying to milk every image possible, for including a portrait of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy in which the photographer's jarring direct flash is visible, not once, but twice in mirrors behind his subject.]

Lowe's was a photographic record born of friendship, if not love, and if Lowe was heartbroken at the death of JFK, he was devastated by the assassination of Bobby just five years later. "I couldn't deal with these tragedies anymore," Lowe once said. "I had to get out." He sold his successful photography business and moved to France, where he stayed for 18 years. He largely set aside his cameras while abroad, but returned to the States seemingly invigorated and ready to get back to work. His final years were spent on numerous commercial, journalistic and publishing projects, including television documentaries, and he died acclaimed and mourned by his colleagues and friends.

Lowe was, by most accounts, a meticulous packrat – or the polar opposite of many photographers, photojournalists especially, who don't pay nearly enough attention to their work once it appears in print or, now, online. The commercial and the artistic combined in him: in what seemed at the time the overkill storage of his negatives in a bank vault, as well as in his handsome website offering for sale signed editions of his most famous prints, some of them in custom made archival museum cases.

By most estimates only about 300-400 images in Lowe's huge Kennedy-era negative archive – or less than one percent – ever were printed. In truth, one must assume that these were the best of the lot, but what photo historian or archivist would not have given a right arm to mine what was left?

If one assumes – as right now one must – that the negatives are destroyed, there is not insignificant comfort in the fact that existing master prints, which remain Lowe's most visible and enduring legacy, now can be scanned and reproduced with the kind of stunning clarity that heretofore only could be achieved with straight negative enlargement. [In the past, the only alternative was to make a copy negative to print from – i.e: a photograph of a photograph – that inevitably lost detail and increased contrast.] It's one reason the huge Corbis picture agency is moving most of its millions of images to the bowels of a salt mine – after also digitizing some 200,000 of its most requested images.

Lowe's negatives may be gone, but the key prints are not. And now, through the magic of digital technology, family sources say these prints will be "cloned," if you will, and be offered not only to the market, but to museums and collections all over the world.

Which inevitably raises the question of whether photographers working today, especially journalists and documentarians, are better off working digitally than with film. No one can dispute digital's ability to transmit photographs instantly, or to give instant feedback. And, given today's post-September 11th climate, it probably is easier to travel with gigabyte flash cards than with rolls of X-ray sensitive film. But I have heard far too many news photographers cavalierly tell me they do not archive their work as carefully as they should, that once a job is shot, maybe a photo or two is downloaded to somebody's hard drive somewhere – maybe even to a photo CD – but that the rest (the rest of the negative strip, as it were) is vaporized, never to exist again in any form. And who knows how long that photo-CD is going to last?

This is what I call the loss of "incidental history" – images that may not reflect the key element of today's hot news story or feature, but which may gain unknowable value with the passage of time. Jacques Lowe realized this and thought he was preserving this history – as well as his hundreds of glorious keepers – when he stashed his treasure in a bank vault.

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 at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Jacques Lowe
Jacques Lowe portrayed the humanity of John Kennedy's 1960 race for the White House in a treasure trove of capture-the-moment images like this one at a quintessentially American diner. The negative for this picture and some 40,000 others are now lost and presumed destroyed in the rubble of the World Trade Center collapse.

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