‘One brief shining moment’: Springfield photo exhibit highlights early look at JFK and the Kennedy mystique

  • Jackie and John Kennedy, photographed in Florida in early January 1961, a few weeks before he became the nation’s 35th president. Reproduction of Richard Avedon photo by Joe Goulait

  • The Springfield exhibit of rarely seen pictures of the Kennedy family includes blown-up contact sheets by photographer Richard Avedon. Images by Richard Avedon/courtesy Springfield Museums

  • At left, three-year-old Caroline Kennedy holds her father’s hand in this photo taken Jan. 3, 1961 by Richard Avedon.

  • Photographs of Jackie and John F. Kennedy, featured in Harper's Bazaar magazine in February of 1961, are displayed Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Karen Fisk, director of public relations and marketing for the Springfield Museums, right, shows a replica multi-line administrative phone featured in a mini-recreation of the oval office in Kennedy’s day Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Souvenirs commemorating John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidential inauguration at the exhibit. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Shannon Perich, curator for the photographic history collection at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, talks about photographs of the Kennedys made by photographer Richard Avedon featured in “Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House,” a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A mini-recreation of the oval office in Kennedy’s day is shown Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Photographs of the Kennedy family, featured in Harper's Bazaar magazine in February of 1961, left, and on the cover of LOOK magazine in the same year, are displayed Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maggie Humberston, head of library and archives at The Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, talks about a late 1990s Jacqueline Kennedy Portrait Doll featured in “Collecting Camelot: The Kennedy Era and its Collectibles” at the museum. At left, a mini-recreation of the oval office in Kennedy’s day. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A gelatin silver printed contact sheet of photographs made by Richard Avedon of Jacqueline Kennedy holding her son John Jr. in 1961 is featured Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A 1963 Ben Cooper Inc. John F. Jackie Kennedy Halloween mask is featured Dec. 7, 2017 in “Collecting Camelot: The Kennedy Era and its Collectibles" at The Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A 1961 gelatin silver print of Caroline Kennedy holding her father's hand, made by photographer Richard Avedon, is displayed Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A late 1990s three strand pearl necklace, similar to the one worn by Jackie Kennedy, is displayed along with several other items replicated after signature pieces she wore. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A decorative collectible plate featuring John F. and Jackie Kennedy is featured Dec. 7, 2017 in “Collecting Camelot: The Kennedy Era and its Collectibles" at The Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A gelatin silver printed contact sheet of photographs made by Richard Avedon of Jacqueline Kennedy holding her son John Jr. in 1961 is featured Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. In the final frame, at bottom right, Avedon is seen photographing Caroline Kennedy for the February 28, 1961 issue of LOOK magazine. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Shannon Perich, curator for the photographic history collection at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, talks about photographs of the Kennedys made by photographer Richard Avedon Dec. 7, 2017 featured in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A 1961 gelatin silver print of John F. Kennedy and his daughter Caroline, made by photographer Richard Avedon, is displayed Dec. 7, 2017 in "Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House," a photo exhibit at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 12/14/2017 9:05:00 AM

He was the handsome, youthful president. She was his beautiful, stylish wife. And with their two young children, they made for a photogenic First Family at the center of what later came to be referred to as “Camelot.”

There would be many, many pictures of John and Jackie Kennedy produced between 1960 and late 1963, before America’s 35th president was assassinated. But the first ones taken between his election in November 1960 and his inauguration in January 1961 have rarely been seen over the years.

Those images, by acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon, are now the focus of an exhibit at the Springfield Museums timed to recognize the centennial of John Kennedy’s birth. The 27 photos, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, offer a glimpse of Kennedy and his family just as their world began to change dramatically.

“This was an early peek at the Kennedys by a photographer who was really at the height of his powers,” said Shannon Perich, curator at the Museum of American History, during a tour of the just-opened Springfield show. Avedon, Perich noted, “was really focused on capturing the personality and humanity of his subjects.”

“This is really a great piece of history,” she added, noting that Avedon took his pictures of the Kennedys during a somewhat hectic 1.5-hour session at the family’s West Palm Beach, Florida home on Jan. 3, 1961, less than three weeks before the new president’s inauguration.

Just that day, Perich noted, Kennedy learned the outgoing Eisenhower administration had severed diplomatic relations with Cuba; while not being photographed by Avedon, he was busy dictating memos, making and taking phone calls and discussing various issues with aides, as Secret Service agents circulated through the house.

Working around those moments, Avedon created some iconic images, like the Kennedys’ daughter, three-year-old Caroline, clutching her father’s right hand, and Jackie Kennedy holding their infant son, John Jr., not quite six weeks old.

The photo exhibit, in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, also includes a mini-recreation of the oval office in Kennedy’s day, complete with the rocking chair he used to ease his bad back.

And the Wood Museum of Springfield History features a second exhibit, “Collecting Camelot,” filled with memorabilia from the era including campaign buttons, collectibles and merchandise such as a children’s “Kennedy Coloring Book,” with figures like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nikita Khrushchev waiting to be filled in.

“I think the two exhibits really help capture the spirit of that era, the sense of excitement that the Kennedys brought to Washington,” said Margaret Humberston, head of library and archives at Springfield Museums. “The shows really complement each other.”

Creating an image 

Avedon, born in 1923 in New York City, was a leading fashion photographer, particularly for Harper’s Bazaar, when he was assigned to photograph the Kennedy family for that magazine. The session came about from Jackie Kennedy’s friendship with the magazine’s fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, who went with Avedon to the Kennedy compound in Florida.

But Avedon, Perich said, had photographed other public figures at that point in his career, and he was also noted for photographing models on the streets, on the beach, in clubs and in other active settings considered unorthodox at the time.

“He humanized women — he didn’t just show them in sterile situations, like mannequins,” Perich said of Avedon, who died in 2004. He was also a man of strong social conscience who photographed civil rights activists, Vietnam War protestors and working class Americans.

His images in the Springfield exhibit — they come from a set of prints Avedon donated to the National Museum of American History four years after John Kennedy died in 1963 — include a mix of straight-on portraits of his subjects, as well as blown-up contact sheets that contain a dozen smaller images, including ones of Jackie Kennedy holding their infant son.

Another contact sheet has a series of images showing John Kennedy sitting with their daughter: At one point, he looks at and holds a small cross that’s on a necklace she’s wearing.

“That’s a pretty important moment when you think about it,” said Perich. “He was the first Catholic president, which was a very big deal at the time … this picture kind of makes a statement about what their family is about.”

Both Kennedy and his wife look fairly serious in many of the images, especially their formal portrait, in which the president has his hands folded in his lap, while she holds his right arm.

According to exhibit notes, Avedon wrote that he “wanted to get a victory picture of Kennedy with his big smile … But ... I just didn’t make it.”

In retrospect, it’s tempting to find some foreshadowing in that portrait of the couple, as if the Kennedys could see ahead to the difficult issues of the next few years: the turmoil of the civil rights movement, the desperate days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

Yet Avedon’s image of Jackie Kennedy modeling her inaugural gown by her favorite designer, Oleg Cassini, would also go a long way to making her a global fashion icon, one many women of the era would attempt to emulate, Perich notes.

And the exhibit also touches on the famous story of “Camelot,” the image Jackie Kennedy invoked for her husband’s short and ultimately tragic administration. In an interview with Life magazine shortly after his assassination, she said he had prompted a spirit of national optimism, a sense of progress and new possibilities such as  space exploration and civil rights.

She recalled her husband’s deep interest in the legends of King Arthur and his love of Camelot and chivalric ideals, from the time he spent as a sickly child reading about knights and castles. His presidency had been “one brief shining moment,” she said, and though “there will be great Presidents again ... there will never be another Camelot.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Jack & Jackie: The Kennedys in the White House” and “Collecting Camelot: The Kennedy Era and its Collectibles” are on display at the Springfield Museums through March 25, 2018. For additional information, visit springfieldmuseums.org.




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