He’s one of the most recognizable Americans of all time, an object of almost unhealthy fascination, and the subject of countless books, anecdotes and myths.
So is there any reason to spend more time with the durable ghost of John Fitzgerald Kennedy?
A photo exhibit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London is betting there is, and the gamble succeeds.
“American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” mixes famous and unknown images of the 35th president. The result is a chronological highlight reel that takes the man we know so well (or think we do) and adds new insights, or at least new things to wonder about.
The show begins with a claim that seems both unverifiable and hard to doubt: “No single politician was photographed more than JFK.”
That was due to a happy combination of factors: his camera-ready charisma; his well-timed entry on the national stage, when television and photojournalism were hitting a golden age; and his canny exploitation of the media.
But it’s photos from before this time that offer the most to reflect on. The viewer is tempted to search for the spark of future greatness, though it’s hard to separate what we see from what we already know, or think we know.
The exhibit, based on the recent book “JFK: A Vision for America” and curated by Lawrence Schiller, is organized into three phases, each in its own room: Kennedy’s life before 1960, his campaign and his presidency.
The first of these begins with a mild shock. It’s an ordinary photo showing a recognizable toddler on a beach in 1918. The date is what shocks, for it’s hard to believe that the face of the New Frontier, frozen in eternal youth, was alive 100 years ago.
Another early photo is refracted through its subject’s familiarity. The Kennedy family story is so embedded in collective memory that the innocent 1926 view hangs heavy with future tragedy. The five eldest children stand side by side against a leaf-covered wall at Hyannis Port. Their unsmiling faces seem to portend their fates: combat death, assassination, lobotomy, plane crash.
The future president grows up before our eyes, with captions providing context. A 1937 shot of the carefree 20-year-old traveling in Europe shows him sitting on the fender of a car and holding a small dog. A quote from a prophetic acquaintance gives the scene meaning:
“When he grows up enough to gain seriousness of purpose, he will make a real contribution.”
That is followed by a well-known image of Kennedy at war, shirtless and in sunglasses, aboard PT-109, the patrol boat whose loss made him a hero.
From there it’s quickly into politics, and a photo from his 1946 run for Congress captures his initial ambivalence. A campaign poster with his image is displayed on a mantel, and he sits beneath it in a rocking chair. Does the photo show one person or two? Kennedy seems to wonder that himself.
But by 1953, when he was both a new senator and new husband, Kennedy’s thin, youthful face has filled out and glows with confidence. In a photo booth portrait, he already looks like a man on his way to the White House. By contrast, his bride, Jackie, still appears waif-like and innocent, almost hiding behind his shoulder.
As a first-time father, Kennedy beams as baby Caroline peeks out coyly from her bassinet. The scene looks anything but political, but a news account of Mrs. Kennedy’s pregnancy says otherwise:
“A vital element has been added to the well-planned and generously financed campaign to make Senator Jack Kennedy President of the United States.”
The sense that his 1960 campaign embodied a new era is vividly captured in the first photo of the exhibit’s second phase. The candidate is seen shaking hands on Nantucket, but it’s the photo itself that is striking.
In the first color scene of the exhibit, bright Kodachrome hues make everything that came before seem as if from a different century. Kennedy wears a trim, green blazer and holds his sunglasses in his hands. The stodgy ’50s are over, and the young candidate is setting a fashion tone now celebrated as “Mad Men” chic.
Kennedy’s powerful magnetism is evident at a Los Angeles campaign stop, where many arms reach toward him, like sunbeams in reverse. In another shot, as he sits in a straight-backed chair, absorbed in preparing a speech, a window behind him is filled with smiling young faces eager for a glimpse of him.
Two photos, one familiar and one not, speak to the consequential presence of Kennedy’s running mate, a charismatic figure of a different sort.
The former shows the candidate in head-to-head consultation with his brother Bobby, breaking the news that Lyndon Johnson will fill out the ticket over his objections. The latter shows Johnson at an airport in Texas, gesturing profanely as he screams at pilots drowning out Democratic speeches with their engines. Kennedy, uncharacteristically timid, puts a tentative hand on his shoulder to restrain him.
The depiction of the race wraps up with a campaign worker triumphantly holding up the Boston Globe, which proclaims, “President Elect KENNEDY.” The photo echoes the famous shot of Harry Truman gleefully brandishing the incorrect headline that had him losing. This time, though, there was no mistake.
Both the exhibit’s second and third phases include centerpieces that feature copies of Kennedy’s books as well as magazines like Time, Life and Look that put him on their covers, a testament to his hold over the media.
By the third phase, great events overtake the personal details that make the show sing up to that point. With a few exceptions, like a pajama-clad JFK Jr. walking his father to the Oval Office, the presidency, not the president, becomes the focus.
Cellist Pablo Casals performs at the White House, school kids do duck-and-cover drills, and civil rights marchers protest in Birmingham. The drama is less intimate and less absorbing.
But for one fascinating and unexpected moment, the personal regains center stage. Kennedy is shaking hands with a young delegate from an American Legion Boys Nation event. The earnest 16-year-old from Arkansas looks like he hopes to become president himself one day. And 30 years later, he will.
After this, the sweep of history again revs up, with Kennedy visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Jackie charming Nikita Khrushchev, and a presidential TV address announcing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Time speeds up and events blur one into another. Suddenly, we see a pink suit and pillbox hat at the Dallas airport, the motorcade frozen in a fateful moment, and a stunned Walter Cronkite announcing the unthinkable.
Any account of Kennedy’s life and career would be incomplete without crossing such well-traveled ground. But one leaves this show wanting to know more about the man and wishing it hadn’t ended so abruptly.
Just the way it happened in real life.