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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW

Creating Camelot

A rare Avedon exhibit offers a glimpse into the making of the Kennedy mystique

(Courtesy National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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SALEM — All good politicians know they need to be able to work a room. The Kennedys were the first politicians to know they needed to be able to work a darkroom, too. The camera is one of the main reasons they — rather than the Bushes or Roosevelts or Rockefellers — earned the title of first family of US politics.

The Kennedys’ cultivation of their visual image began early, with Joseph P. Kennedy’s not-uncalculated fondness for photographs of his extremely photogenic family: touch football as the pursuit of politics by other means. It reached a new stage in 1956, when Jacques Lowe came aboard as a sort of court photographer. Perhaps the key event occurred a few years earlier, when John F. Kennedy took Jacqueline Bouvier as his bride. Short of marrying Audrey Hepburn, he couldn’t have chosen a consort the camera loved more.

A bright shining moment in the Kennedys’ relationship with the camera occurred on Jan. 3, 1961. Richard Avedon, the most glamorous photographer in the world, arrived in Palm Beach, Fla., on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar to photograph the most glamorous family in the world: Jack and Jackie and Caroline and John Jr. It was a marriage made in media heaven — not that anyone was using that word yet.

Avedon would photograph other Kennedys later, both more searchingly and more memorably. His mid-’70s portraits of Ted and Rose, for Avedon’s celebrated Rolling Stone portfolio on political power, “The Family,’’ have a stark acuity nowhere recorded that January day. Of course, the world had changed in the intervening years, and the Kennedys — what they endured no less than what they engendered — had much to do with that change.

Those few hours the president-elect and his family spent with Avedon in Palm Beach are exactingly chronicled in “The Kennedys / Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon.’’ The show, which originated at the National Museum of American History in Washington, runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through July 18. It is equally essential viewing for Kennedy buffs (it’s like watching a costume fitting for “Camelot’’) and would-be art directors.

That’s because the exhibition consists of not just the six portraits that ran in Harper’s Bazaar, and they are very handsome indeed, but also enlarged versions of Avedon’s contact sheets, meaning viewers get to see the more than 150 exposures from which he and his editors culled those half-dozen pictures. Why this choice rather than that one? Obviously, the two portraits where Jack has his eyes closed were rejected. But why not the version of the dual portrait with Jackie gazing at him adoringly? If ever there was a pose suited to that wife-in-white-gloves era, here it would be.

There’s a fascinating social dynamic at work. Who is manipulating whom? Avedon is in charge, except that Jack and Jackie are, too — or at least Jackie is. The future first lady (who had briefly worked as a photographer for The Washington Times-Herald) clearly gets the camera, and the camera just as clearly gets Jackie. “One of the pleasures of working with her,’’ Lowe wrote in the Los Angeles Times in a pre-inaugural article, “is that she appreciates photography as a creative medium, as opposed to some people in public life who consider photography a necessary nuisance.’’

Caroline gets the camera, too. Maybe all children do? Her adorability quotient is off the charts in these pictures. In two of the six photographs that ran in the magazine, she stands alongside her father, whom we see only as suited arm or leg. She’s the star. He’s the framing device.

To the extent Jack got the camera, it was in wholly abstract terms, insofar as it meant image rather than performance. He didn’t get it in a deeper, instinctual way — as end in itself as well as means. According to Rose Kennedy, her son said to a friend after the photo session, “Well, that was certainly a morning wasted.’’

Was Jack’s stiffness in so many of these pictures because of masculine self-consciousness (“What, me in Harper’s Bazaar’’)? A conscious attempt to offset his relative youth? A nod to the solemnity of the office he was about to assume? Maybe his bad back? Note that in the photos where he appears to be holding up Caroline, she’s actually standing on a table.

“I’ve never seen such a display of mental control in my life,’’ Avedon told Newsweek a month later. That’s a remarkable statement from a man who probably photographed more famous and powerful people than anyone else in history.

Part of the pleasure of looking at these pictures is noting the many small differences, not just in pose and expression, but also in accessories and dress. Caroline has a ribbon in her hair in the shots where she’s holding her baby brother, barrettes in those with her father. Jackie looks so much more elegant in the black sleeveless number than in the white Givenchy gown. Even Jack gets in the act, wearing two different ties. Maybe two different suits, too — it’s hard to be certain, since all the photos are in black and white.

What’s more striking, perhaps, are the constants throughout the pictures. Jackie’s highly unconventional looks (those wide-set eyes, that squared-off face). Jack’s puffy facial features, the result of the cortisone shots he had to take for the Addison’s disease that was kept a close secret. And, of course, that luxuriant scalp and those gleaming teeth.

What comes to mind looking at these pictures aren’t the ringing phrases of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Theodore H. White or other Camelot celebrants. They’re the words of James Brown. “Hair is the first thing,’’ the Godfather of Soul wrote in his autobiography. “And teeth the second. Hair and teeth. A man got those two things he’s got it all.’’ The Kennedys knew how to work a room. The Kennedys knew how to work a darkroom. They also knew how to work a dentist’s office and barbershop. Or even a salon. Mr. Kenneth did Jackie’s hair that day, and very nicely, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THE KENNEDYS / PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY: Photographs by Richard Avedon

At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through July 18. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org