JFK exhibition in Saginaw traces a lost era

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Los Angeles televised address with President Kennedy, 1962.

It's not that Lawrence Schiller is precisely nostalgic for the golden age of photojournalism, which probably peaked sometime in the 1970s.

It's just that the photographer and filmmaker thinks most contemporary coverage of politicians is, by comparison, stage-managed and flat compared to the best photos of the past. 

"Today the pictures all come out of press conferences," Schiller said, a reflection of the much-tighter control over image that characterizes 21st-century public relations. 

Schiller was speaking at the Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel last week before heading to Saginaw, where he was to attend the opening of the exhibition he curated for the Smithsonian Institution, "American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times." 

The show will be at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum through June 29. 

"What do you see of Trump?" Schiller asked. "Day and night, it's always walking to the microphone. I don’t know if we’ll ever see an intimate photographic moment with President Trump."

By contrast, he noted, "The Kennedys couldn't have cared less how you photographed them." As the guy who shot Robert Kennedy for a range of publications including Life and Paris Match from the late 1950s up to the senator's assassination in 1968, Schiller would know. 

Kennedy boards the Caroline.

To prove his point, he pulls up one of his pictures of RFK sleeping on the floor of an airplane, his narrow frame tucked between two rows of seats. 

Much of this sort of intimacy (if not that specific photo) is on display with "American Visionary," and that was part of Schiller's aim -- to illustrate the richness of magazine and newspaper photography half a century ago. 

Originally created for the 100th anniversary of JFK's birth in 2017, the exhibition -- with 77 classic photographs from over 20 different photographers -- tracks the years of JFK's rise, from 1958-1963.

You'll likely recognize any number of shots, including Jacques Lowe's iconic picture of President Kennedy in the Oval Office. Shot from the back in silhouette, JFK stands with his hands on his desk as if weighted down by the burdens of his job. 

The President at work in the Oval Office, January, 1961.

Also in dark silhouette, Life photographer Hank Walker caught the two Kennedy brothers deep in conversation, heads almost touching. 

If the name Larry Schiller doesn't mean anything to you, you're certainly familiar with his work -- whether "Lady Sings the Blues," which he edited for Berry Gordy; the Gary Gilmore story "The Executioner's Song," which he directed; or the iconic 1969 photo of the Jackson Five capering on Malibu Beach, reportedly the first time the Motown artists had ever seen the ocean. 

You may also remember Schiller's 1960 shot of candidate Richard Nixon conceding the presidential race, with Pat at his side, one tear streaking down her cheek. 

Richard Nixon, with wife Pat, concedes the presidential race to John F. Kennedy in 1960.

The Kennedy family enlisted Schiller in 2016 to help with a compilation of JFK's speeches for HarperCollins, and while laying out the book, he recalled saying, "This is crazy -- why aren't we doing an exhibition with all these pictures for the Smithsonian?"

Curators at the museum fondly known as "the nation's attic" had just one question: Can you deliver in six months?

Schiller could, producing an exhibition that's both a visual tribute to a lost era, as well as a memorial to a vanished form of photojournalism. Black-and-white prints hang on the wall, while beneath them, vitrines display the magazines that featured them -- imparting a nice sense of how the images were communicated to the public.

Mannequins of John and Jackie Kennedy being moved in New York City, 1961.

Schiller worked with a database of some 48,000 images, and exercised considerable discretion. "I don't show Oswald or Jack Ruby or anything like that," Schiller said, referring to JFK's assassin and the man who gunned him down. 

There's also a range of magazines with Kennedy on the cover, including The Atlantic, Look, the Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine and Newsweek. 

Schiller's particularly proud of the last picture in the show, which nicely underlines the finality of it all -- a Black Star photo agency shot of a Fifth Avenue store window, with a picture of the late president draped in black crepe. 

That said, not every photo is of the fallen president. The exhibition takes a broad view, conveying the wider world that Kennedy had to contend with. Accompanying it all is a detailed timeline, so those under 40 won't be completely at sea. 

In addition to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibit -- there are three  identical sets currently traveling -- has shown at the New-York Historical Society, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and Iowa's Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. 

It's also currently touring Europe, and will spend three years, Schiller said, going all across China. 

One of the surprises of the exhibition, he said, has been its magnetic pull on the young.

"We thought at the Smithsonian it’d only be people 50 or over," Schiller said. "But the demographics almost everywhere have been the same. In California," where it showed at the Bowers Museum outside Los Angeles, "60-70 percent were young people."

Photographer and filmmaker Lawrence Schiller, who curated "American Visionary."

If a sculpture museum seems an odd choice for a photo exhibit, there's a strong and compelling link.

"Marshall Fredericks did a bust of JFK which is at the Macomb County Building," said Megan C. McAdow, the museum's new director, adding that the museum has the plaster cast used in its creation on display. 

"So that," she added, "was our connection in finding this wonderful photography exhibition." 

'American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times'

Through June 29

Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay, University Center


11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mon. - Fri; noon - 5 p.m. Sat. 


(989) 964-7125


Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

(313) 222-6021