The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family

An excerpt from the new book by Shannon Thomas Perich

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Avedon's participation in creating visual culture through advertisements continued throughout his career. Those memorable and sometimes spoofed 1980s' television ads for Calvin Klein's perfume "Obsession" were directed by Avedon. In the November 1, 2004, issue of The New Yorker that featured Avedon's last photographic project, Democracy, Hermès, Harry Winston, and Kenneth Cole ran advertisements created with Avedon's images.

Many of the Kennedy–related materials—campaign literature and buttons, event programs, and more—at the Smithsonian have been acquired through individuals other than the subjects. But Jackie Kennedy did follow the tradition of first ladies by donating her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian as well as the dress she purchased from Bergdorf Goodman for the inauguration. Rose Kennedy also donated the gown she wore to the inaugural ball; this was the same dress she had worn some twenty years earlier when she and Joseph Kennedy Sr., then the United States ambassador to Britain, were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Objects exhibited at the Smithsonian often require that we look back through history. Today the experience of seeing Avedon's photographs of the Kennedys is laden with dramatic irony, for we know how the story ends for three of the four sitters. Most people who were at least five years old on November 22, 1963, remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned President Kennedy was assassinated. Many more watched how Jackie handled herself and moved on with her life until her death on May 19, 1994. Still more can recall how John F. Kennedy Jr., his young wife, and her sister perished in a tragic airplane accident on July 16, 1999. As readers, we can't help but bring our personal experiences when we look at these photographs.

The 1960 presidential election was won by a very narrow margin. When Avedon photographed the Kennedys between the election and the inauguration, the time represented the height of hopeful anticipation for those who believed in John F. Kennedy, and the height of anxiety for those who did not. Avedon's photographs of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their two children combine politics, style, public interest, and photographic history to provide a glimpse of historical figures who have deeply touched American life.

From Shannon Thomas Perich's The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family (HarperCollins, 2007)


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