A Look Back: The Kennedys 50 Years Ago

engagement announcement photos
1950sUnlimited via Flickr

Acclaimed fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon brought his portable studio to the Kennedys' Palm Beach, Florida-compound on January 3, 1961, to take some photos for Harper's Bazaar and LOOK magazines. The atmosphere in the oceanfront home was hectic, or so I've read in accounts of the event. The president-elect was dictating memos to his secretary in between clicks of the camera. A hair stylist was sculpting Jacqueline Kennedy's brunette bob, and dress makers were pinning an Oleg Cassini dress that Jackie would wear just a couple weeks later at a pre-inaugural concert.

The resulting pictures were the only known formal photographs of the Kennedys taken between John's election and inauguration. Six of the images appeared in the February 1961 issue of Harper's Bazaar, and then they remained largely unseen. Richard Avedon donated them, among other photographs, to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, in 1966. It wasn't until 2007, when Shannon Thomas Perich, an associate curator of the photographic history collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, published the collection in her book The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family that they were again in the public eye. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), they have since traveled around the country. Now, fifty years after they were taken, the portraits have returned to the American History Museum, where they are on display through February 28.

View a photo gallery of more of these images

The exhibition has an intimate feel to it, which is amplified by its inclusion of contact sheets of the unedited, outtakes of Avedon's work that day. One particular sheet shows 12 photos, some of John alone and others with Jackie, that allude to the surrounding commotion. The president-elect is laughing in a couple. In another, his eyes are closed, and a few of the couple appear as though they are in mid-conversation. Yet, these more informal portraits stand in contrast to a seated image of John and Jackie, both fully attentive to the camera, hanging nearby. (This portrait, above left, graces the cover of Perich's book.)

Avedon, who photographed famous cultural figures, performers, writers and leaders from the 1950s to his death in 2004, was at the peak of his career at the time. The focus Avedon was able to capture in John and Jackie's faces in the portrait above, despite all the action bustling around them, is testament to his craft.

"The white, or gray, background hides the details of the house that would compete for visual attention. There is no surrounding context to provide visual clues as to how one should interpret the photograph, so this forces the viewer's attention to the sitter," says Perich. "Avedon further controls this pairing down of visual information by printing in a graphic, contrasty way. There are few middle-tone grays, creating stark blacks and whites. The printing places bright emphasis on their hands and faces." (Avedon's editing becomes even more clear when the negative and the final print are compared side-by-side in the exhibition.)

Perich says that Avedon's intent was to create photographs that didn't just flatter the president-elect, but also revealed some deeper insight into what might make him a worthy president. However, in a 1961 Newsweek article, Avedon admits that that all-telling photograph eluded him. "What his photographs do reveal," adds Perich, "is how much enjoyed being with Caroline; it's easy to see the joy in his face."

The gallery space itself—situated between the American History Museum's exhibition, "Communities in a Changing Nation" and the "First Ladies" exhibition—provides some notable context, says Perich. Thoughts of civil rights, more specifically Kennedy's push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, may linger with visitors as they exit the preceding exhibition, and encounter the photograph of John holding his three-year-old daughter Caroline in his lap. In the next gallery, you can hear the recording of Michelle Obama talking about Jackie Kennedy's grace and style, while admiring the image of Jackie cradling the 5 1/2 week-old John Jr.

"For here is this beautiful, intriguing, dynamic family, and we know what's going to happen to them," says Perich. "Thoughts about Jackie's time as First Lady and Kennedy's political career swirl around to create a moment that puts them into a historical context and explains why they continue to be relevant."

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