Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

Today In History: Richard Avedon Photographs The Kennedys

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 3, 1961, Richard Avedon arrived at the Kennedy home in Palm Beach, Fla. There he set up his famous white paper background, loaded his Rollieflex cameras with 2 1/4-inch film, pulled up the piano bench and began to photograph the president-elect, John F. Kennedy, and his young family. These would be the only formal photographs made between the time of the election and his inauguration. Six of the images appeared in the February issue of Harper's Bazaar, where Avedon was employed, as the first in a series of Avedon photo essays called Observations.

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The photographs are focused and intense, but the environment must have been swirling outside of the frame. Kennedy was working on his inauguration speech. The Eisenhower administration was calling the house to give updates, as Jan. 3, 1961, is also the day the United States ceased diplomatic relations with Cuba. Avedon told a Newsweek reporter in 1961, "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."

Activity buzzed around the rest of the family, too. Mr. Kenneth had come from New York City to do Jackie's hair. Secret Service and Kennedy friends milled about. The Oleg Cassini dress that Jackie eventually wore on Jan. 19 to a pre-inaugural concert was not quite finished, so the dress makers were there, too. John Jr. was just 5 1/2 weeks old. Rose Kennedy fretted that Caroline, then 3 years old, would get her dress dirty. Avedon's plain background pushes all of that noise away, creating photographs that allow for a privileged moment to engage with the sitters as they are about to embark on a world-changing journey.

Jacki Kennedy with her son John, Jr.
Richard Avedon/Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

These photographs and others were donated to the National Museum of American History by Richard Avedon in 1966. The donation includes individually printed photographs, but most of the images are enlarged contact sheets. A blog on the museum's website explores the contact sheets. This unique set of photographs was relatively unknown until 2007, when they were published in my book about this photo session, The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family. A selection of the photographs is now on view at the National Museum of American History until the end of February.

Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.

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