To commemorate the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth on May 29, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will display nine photographs of the 35th president, taken by renowned portraitist Richard Avedon. The above photos and contact sheets provide a first look at some of the portraits that will be in the exhibition, which will be on display from May 25 to August 27.
Avedon was the only photographer who was allowed to take official photographs of JFK, his wife Jackie and his children, Caroline and John, between the time that he was elected in 1960 and Inauguration Day early the following year. The family sat for this Harper’s Bazaar photo session on Jan. 3, 1961, against the photographer’s signature white backdrop, just a few weeks before moving to the White House, at the Kennedy estate in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Jackie had already been photographed twice by Avedon for that magazine — in 1947 when she was voted Debutante of the Year and in 1958 as one of “Six Faces of Beauty.”)
After the photographs ran in Harper‘s, they were seldom displayed or published in the years that followed. In other words, not only are they a rare look at a time in Kennedy’s life, but they are also rarely seen.
“Avedon was at the height of his career” when this brief photo session took place, according to Shannon Perich, curator at the National Museum of American History. And, though Kennedy was about to be President, the photographer’s style was powerful too: “[Avedon] changed the way we talked about portraiture,” Perich says, referring to the fact that not every portrait features a smiling face. “He questioned whether portraits had to be flattering or not.”
And if it seems as if the figures aren’t totally focused on the camera, that’s because the photo session was rather chaotic.
That day — Jan. 3, 1961 — was the same day that the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Cuba. Dressmakers working on Jackie’s Oleg Cassini dress for the inauguration festivities were apparently there to work on the outfit, too. As Avedon told Newsweek shortly after the photographs were published, “When I took Caroline’s picture with her father, he was dictating memos to his secretary. … When I’d ask him to look around, he’d stop dictating. But the moment I finished, he’d start in where he left off. I’ve never seen such a display of mental control in my life.”
But the photos of the then-future President still manage to convey a warm vibe.
“They show him as a paternalistic president, a loving, caring parent, who is going to protect us just as he takes care of his daughter,” says Perich.
The Smithsonian would give Avedon a solo show in 1962. In 1966, Avedon donated a set of the Kennedy images to the museum as part of a larger donation of 217 black-and-white photographs.