No social media? No problem! Capturing America’s first modern media president


Before social media, smartphones or the internet provided access to the life and goings on of celebrities and elected officials, photojournalists were needed to capture every move of these famous people.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, there was arguably no bigger name than former Riverdalian, senator and later president John Kennedy.

“American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times,” an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, commemorates the public life and private times of Kennedy, marking what would have been his 100th birthday.

It brings together well-known and rare images from organizations like the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Getty Images, with photographs taken by journalists like Jacques Lowe, who was Kennedy’s campaign and personal photographer, freelancer Lisl Steiner, and Lawrence Schiller, whose work appeared in Life and the Saturday Evening Post.

“This time period is the golden age of photojournalism,” said Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator and head of the department of prints, photographs and architectural collections at the historical society.

“These are not fine art photographs. Photojournalists would follow (celebrities and elected officials) around, but the Kennedy family knew how to work that, and they knew how to work the media, and especially Joseph Kennedy. JFK’s father had great control as to what went out and what didn’t.”
It was also a time when television was in its early years, with Kennedy expertly handling that medium.

The photographs show a loving father, a three-year presidency — later called Camelot — giving the nation a glamorous young couple, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, in the years following World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie.

“He was steeped in history,” Kushner said of Kennedy. “She was steeped in culture. This was a time when the future was in that generation’s hands, and the future was bright — and the future was youth.”

Of all the images shown during the exhibition, Kushner found one of the most memorable ones featuring Kennedy with his daughter Caroline. The two catch each other’s eye as Caroline peeks out of her bassinet.

“The interaction between the two of them is just beautiful to watch,” she said.
There is another photo of the president walking his son, dressed in a bathrobe, back to bed. The two are holding hands. The photos, Kushner said, step outside the image of Kennedy as a politician, instead showing him as a parent.

One of the exhibition’s challenges was appealing to those who remember Kennedy’s presidency and those who only know of him through the history books or through a quote from one of his speeches.

In the exhibition, Kushner said, there is a video of Kennedy’s inaugural address to give the full context of phrases like, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Along the historical society’s walls are other memorable Kennedy quotes.

“Even though he didn’t achieve a lot of what he wanted to achieve, there was the desire there to do it,” Kushner said. “And, that was all shattered terribly on the awful November day in 1963 when he was assassinated and it was hard for the nation to pick up again.”

The exhibition covers Kennedy’s first congressional run in 1946, his 1953 wedding to the then Jacqueline Bouvier, and his White House years. The exhibition runs through Jan. 7.

The show is part of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum’s year-long celebration of Kennedy’s centennial year, and is based on the book “JFK: A Vision for America” by Stephen Kennedy Smith and Douglas Brinkley.

From 1927 to 1929, the Kennedy family lived at 5040 Independence Ave, and the future president attended Riverdale Country School.

“When I look at this and think back to the Kennedy years, there was such hope then,” Kushner said. “This was a time of youth.”