While the History Channel’s highly anticipated miniseries “The Kennedys” may have been pulled from the programming schedule, there are still plenty of other ways to get your fill of Camelot. JFK enthusiasts should check out “The Kennedys 50 Years Ago,” which recently opened at the National Museum of American History.
The exhibit consists of nine photographs taken by famed photographer Richard Avedon shortly before John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president. In fact, they are the only formal photos taken of the family between Kennedy’s election and his inauguration. The black and white images, which were taken in Palm Beach, Fla., in January 1961, are not only of the incoming president, but also of Jackie Kennedy, a young Caroline Kennedy and infant John Kennedy Jr.
The photos debuted as Avedon’s first “Observations” column in Harper’s Bazaar, a column that would go on to be a monthly feature. In true Avedon fashion, the photos were accompanied by a short essay that was sparse on details, thereby allowing those who viewed the images to draw their own conclusions.
The photos have a personal quality and, in some cases, show different sides of the soon-to-be first family. For instance, there is a photo of Jackie Kennedy holding her new baby and another of Caroline Kennedy, age 3, holding her younger brother. A plaque near the images explains their importance: “The viewer becomes aware of the private nurturing and caring that will go on behind the closed doors of the White House.” In another photo, Jackie and John Kennedy are shown sitting side by side, a shot that shows them “in their public roles with determination, clarity and unwavering determination.”
While the exhibit may be small, it is certainly ambitious. It aims to illustrate a photographer’s process and includes the various stages each photo went through before completion. For example, there are two versions of a photo of John and Jackie Kennedy shown side by side. In the final print, a few stray hairs have been removed from Jackie Kennedy’s head and the photo has been edited so her dress is no longer visible along the backside of her shoulder; instead, the viewer only sees skin.
This shoot was not the first time that Avedon photographed Jackie Kennedy. The pair first worked together in 1946, long before she married the future president. At the time, Jacqueline Bouvier posed in an evening gown alongside other debutantes for an issue of Harper’s Bazaar.