JFK in Photographs: A Yale Art Exhibit

Jan 9, 2014

Fifty years after his assassination, images of President John F. Kennedy continue to resonate as an expression of American culture and self-identity. A photography exhibition called "A Great Crowd Had Gathered: JFK in the 1960s" examines the president by way of his public at the time. It's at the Yale Art Gallery and runs through the end of March. 

Curator Marisa Nakasone walked me through the exhibit. Black and white photos hung on walls painted a presidential blue. Above the pictures was a timeline of the 1960s.

We stopped in front of a photo by Gary Winogrand called, "John F. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles."

Marissa Nakasone: Winogrand has situated himself behind the podium at which Kennedy is addressing convention attendees. We see Kennedy from the back, and Kennedy is gesturing upwards. There is this beautiful light shining down on him, and he is illuminated, but we can’t see his face. But what we do see, at the foot of the podium, is a television set, with his broadcasted image, which sets the tone for this exhibition, because of the medium nature of the way the public interacted with Kennedy.

Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, 1960, printed 1992. Gelatin silver print. Yale University Art Gallery.
Credit Garry Winogrand / The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Diane Orson: Gary Winogrand was a professional photographer. But there are photos taken by non-professionals here, correct?

Yes, there [are] some photographs here that are interesting objects that were never meant to be art, even though we are treating them, on the wall, like art objects. These are press [and] wire photos that were sent by telegraph to news agencies across the country.

This is a pair of photographs by John Hill in New Haven. Kennedy campaigned in Connecticut a few days before the general election, so this I believe is November 6. He went to Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury, and New Haven. Here, we have people gathering on The Green; the crowd is predominantly Irish and Italian. At the time, New Haven had a large Irish and Italian population.

Part of the challenge for me in doing this exhibit is the fact that I wasn’t alive in the the 60s.

I was going to ask you about that. How old are you?

I’m 27 years old.

What drew you to do a photography exhibit about John Kennedy?

Well, part of the reason why we’re doing this exhibit is because we worked on a book called JFK: A Photographic Memoir, and we were very fortunate to have Lee Friedlander give us all the prints from this book. When we looked at these pictures, it seemed the timing was right because of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination -- that was in November. [It] seemed like a perfect opportunity to show these pictures.

What have you gained from working on this exhibit?

One thing I learned is that the way you matte and frame certain pictures, such as news photographs, can change the meanings that people will read into them.

I should talk about this picture here. This is the only loan in the exhibition; this is a Robert Frank. We see Kennedy in the foreground, but he’s blurry, and behind him is Richard Nixon, who comes into focus, and he doesn’t look half bad. Kennedy doesn’t look so great, partly because he’s blurry, but there's this weird Mount Rushmore thing happening because of the lens. The camera has flattened the space, so it looks like this line of men who Frank has captured walking down the street. There's this weird collage of noses and ears happening here. Also, what’s interesting about this image is that we bring Nixon into the picture. At the time, people thought of Kennedy and Nixon as opposites. Bringing them together this way, and almost making them look like parasitic twins in some regard, is interesting, subversive, and a little indelicate. I love this picture.