A review of Pierre-Henri Verlhac and Yann-Brice Dherbier, JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY, a Life in Pictures, Phaidon, 2003


This is a picture book of the life of the American president from cradle to grave and it is implicit throughout that the photographs it contains are to be trusted yet we know the political photograph is prone to much manipulation. This extends from setting “backdrops and photo-opportunities”, when Michael Deaver choreographed Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth on horseback at Windsor, to temperature control and furniture when Roger Ailes staged events for Candidate Nixon in 1968, “Make sure you’ve got that handkerchief soaked in witch-hazel…I can’t do that sincerity bit with the camera if he’s sweating.” In the Reagan/Mondale debates of 1984, Mondale’s staff placed reflective white paper on the podium to better light the jowls of their man.

Perhaps a state of alert is particularly pressing and depressing in this year of a President’s re-election. “But photographers, picture editors and even administration officials say that no other administration has moved as forcefully as the Bush White House to limit the access of outside news photographers to the president. There are two reasons, they say: the administration's desire for secrecy, and new technology, like the ability to send digital photos by e-mail, that makes immediate dissemination of images possible.” Elisabeth Bumiller, “Glimpses of a Leader, Through Chosen Eyes Only”, New York Times, Saturday 12 July 2003.

Turning then to Verlhac and Dherbier we ask what exactly is the point of this book ? Forty years have passed since the assassination of this President. Given the pressing need for the presentation and analysis of political images – their use and abuse, do we just accept this slab of a book as a decoration for the Coffee Table, relying upon its general civilising qualities in the periphery of our vision? Can a book of pictures, this book of pictures, be more than a hagiography and further extend the understanding of the Ruler by the Ruled?
The Photo-gallery of American Presidents has, since its first sitter, James K. Polk in 1849, been a rich Feast of the Absurd – Gurning (Teddy Roosevelt) ; Pratfalls (Gerald Ford) ; Projectile vomiting (Bush the Father); Watermelon Fingering (Nixon) ; the plastic turkey (Bush the Son); Jogging to destruction (Carter) and Coitus to destruction (Harding).
Turning to Verlhac and Dherbier we may well ask “where’s the beef?” It is a disadvantage that no work by the President’s personal photographer Jacques Lowe is represented. How much more heartfelt, graceful and literate is Lowe’s own Kennedy – a Time Remembered of 1983. Lowe’s entire negatives and prints (over 40,000) were incinerated in the World Trade Centre attack four months after Lowe’s own death.

It is just one damn smile after another, even when the company includes such rascals as Honey Fitz (JFK’s Grandfather) and Ambassador Joe (JFK’s Father). Its selection of images stops short (well short) of Zapruder in Dallas, the indignities of the mortician’s wax, and gives us instead plenty of the soft soap. Action Jack plays touch football, plays Family Man, plays Sailor Boy. The reader turns through the receptions, trips, moments of staged leisure. Still Jack smiles bravely on through dogged encounters at the White House with world-class loons and notorious hoods.

The picture flow of this book slides on from reception to addresses, from meeting the young Clinton to summers at Hyannis Port, an ominous dreamy languor before the storm. But the storm never comes in Verlhac and Dherbier as we encounter something euphemistically called “his last trip to Texas” and then stop dead at a black page with the date (reversed out) “November 22,1963”. The last shot before this Black page is a rather tactless image of the back of the President’s head seen from behind a White House Chair. After the Black page, there is no representation of the events of the Assassination, moving to a picture of Jackie’s departure and the lying in state, ending with a picture of the president’s daughter carrying his photograph in 1960, a last hint of sentiment but also a reminder that Kennedys were born to survive, procreate and lead.

The book’s claims, implicit and explicit, are ill-founded and shallow. What was Phaidon, a company dedicated to the highest qualities of book production and content, doing sanctioning such sloppiness of text? “The entire world remembers his words” at the Inauguration, while on the facing page, “The entire world held its breath…” at the Cuban Missile Crisis. By page 13 “The entire world was in shock” at the assassination of the President.

The authors’ accounts of Kennedy’s daily workload, at the desk from 07.00 to 23.00 (a claim repeated for every president except for Ronald Reagan in the mass circulation magazines) are surely hilarious, given accounts then and after of the President’s regular excursions into horseplay, pain, swimming and congress. Rarely does a President confess, as Reagan did, “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?”

Study of this book and its ilk will lead us to the formulae and iconography of the Visual Vocabulary of Spin, the Cult of the Image, the picture language that exists without substance and which today passes for political thought. Know this book and we will know how it came to be conjured, this repertoire of persuasive images, the significant gesture, the telling accessory, the aw shucks smile, the heavenward gaze, the pointing finger, and even, dare I say it, the Spouse as Best Supporting Actress. Kennedy was different from Truman, Roosevelt and Eisenhower in that he was, in his photographs, concerned with being seen rather than being - permanently on view in Camelot, finely tuned to the needs of the picture magazines, working out, smiling and smiling over the pain of his disintegrating back.
Know this book and you’ll see the Great Actor working the crowds, pressing the flesh. Kennedy was not as good a performer as Reagan, but he was good. Reagan was born to the role. Know this book and you will know Clinton and his capacity to charm the Nations and hug the grieving. Know this book and you will be prepared for Brother Blair, the Lord of Marzipan and Teflon (Bambi and Stalin as he artfully mused once), his cheesy grin directed up and out, shoulders back, shooting cuffs and narrowing eyes. Watch him working the podium, pointing for Cherie’s eyes to follow, it is all here set forth in the pioneer work of Jack and Jackie. They all learnt it from Jack. And Jack comes to us in these photographs.

The most satisfying images of Kennedy are perhaps those created in prose. In his novel about the President’s assassination, Libra (1989), Don DeLillo writes “After the handshakes and salutes, Jack Kennedy walked away from his security, sidestepping puddles, and went to the fence. He reached a hand into the ranks and they surged forward, looking at each other to match reactions. He moved along the fence, handsome and tanned, smiling famously into the wall of open mouths. He looked like himself, like photographs, a helmsman squinting in the sea-glare, white teeth shining... The white smile brightened. He wanted everyone to know he was not afraid.” DeLillo takes us into the picture in a way that no serving President would allow. We know that “Kennedy carefully controlled the production of photographs to ensure that he was always presented as the character he had chosen to play. No photographs were allowed showing him eating, smoking cigars, playing golf, or kissing his wife.” So, again, what we see in the three hundred pages offered by Phaidon is a Manual of the Politician’s Smile.

There was a time when Manny Shinwell, a Labour veteran, saw no future in Neil Kinnock as a prospective Prime Minister because “he smiles too much”. Manny never lived to see Brother Blair who has defined the new intensity and shape of the Modern Smile held aloft on the Perfect Groomed figure. In times where our Leaders are made up before each TV performance, it is difficult to remember the times when the Ugly Mugs stalked the Land; when all the men in power were knobbly and careless of their haircuts and seldom wore toupées, and when President Hoover never smiled.

The electorate should realise that Political wisdom does not naturally converge with the good looks of politicians and an absence of facial hair. The proficient Prime Minister Diefenbaker of Canada was so ugly, it was cruelly claimed, that he caused any child under ten to run screaming for cover, usually at official receptions. Senator Henry ‘Scoop” Jackson was so unappealing it was said that he only had to appear on television for the living room fire to be instantly extinguished.

Against this Rogue’s Gallery, many of whom were devoted, distinguished and creditable political forces, we are being asked to set a Gallery of the Coiffed Angels. How do they come to colonise our imagination now with such visual force? When we attribute policies to the leader that seeks his place in history, perhaps this is what we now mean – to associate a figure with a montage of Visual Devices that fend off, inhibit or even atomise the more incisive political scrutiny of his policy.

This task is vital for us, the Ruled, to identify and understand the Cunning Ways of the Westminster and Washington Boys, the Bent Rulers, the Gladhanders, and Carpetbaggers. In the process, I argue, we can blame the very medium of Photography itself for its complicity in the conspiracy to make us pliant, to make us mild.

No enough is enough. Photography is too important a witness to let its practitioners fix Jack in a rictus, and brush on the rouge. Look again at this great slab of a book. Once our vision of Camelot on the Potomac contained only the President’s strengths but now, in a century he never lived to see, we encounter his physical and mental frailties, his serial infidelities, his incurable vanities and insecurities. Like Nixon and Roosevelt, this man who controlled our destinies took medication sufficient to cloud his judgment and threaten entire nations. Could this book have another purpose ? Does it help to unlock anything of our present predicament ?

Yes, there’s hope; the book is finally about the power and the glory, the mechanics and protocol of Spin and indeed the utter untrustworthiness of the medium of photography in communicating supposed truths to us. Let a President have the last word on this matter. It is a useful warning to keep our wits about us.

“I’ve seen all those photographs that have been printed in various articles of someone slouched looking out the Oval Office windows and then beside it the quote about [the presidency] being the loneliest [job] and so forth. I have to tell you, I enjoyed it. I didn’t feel that way about it.” President Ronald Reagan, May 1989.


Dr.Chris Mullen