How Photographer Stanley Tretick Captured Kennedy’s Camelot

For many in my parents’ generation, the half century between now and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 seems like the blink of an eye. The Kennedys and the “Camelot” myth surrounding them raise such powerful visual memories—the vital young leader with a beautiful family cut down in front of the public eye—make it almost impossible to clear away pictures in your mind’s eye. Photographer Stanley Tretick took many of the iconic images of the Kennedy clan from the early days of JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign all the way through RFK’s 1968 presidential bid and its tragic end. Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of The Kennedys beautifully recaptures that “brief shining moment” with Tretick’s photography celebrated with text by Kitty Kelley, a close friend of Tretick’s, who passed away in 1999. In a year sure to include its share of memorials, Capturing Camelot strikes all the right notes in showing the humanity behind the hype through Tretick’s lens.

A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War (with a stint as a news cameraman in the political warzone of Washington, DC, between), Tretick developed his keen eye and tough-talking style on the front lines of the action. When UPI assigned Tretick to cover then-Senator Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. “Although about 87 percent of the country owned television sets then,” Kelley writes, “most people still got their news from newspapers, so it was primarily through Stanley’s photographs that Americans came to know the handsome, young senator from Massachusetts who would become the country’s first Irish Catholic president.” While AP and other news outlets rotated photographers, UPI kept Tretick on the Kennedy beat throughout the campaign. The two war veterans developed a friendship that would last for the rest of Kennedy’s life. “Neither was a naïf in regard to their symbiotic relationship,” Kelley explains. “Each fully understood the powerful impact of images.”

Tretick went on to do 68 stories on the Kennedy family for Look magazine, but the relationship wasn’t always smooth. As Tretick soon realized, Kennedy looked closely at the photographer credits of all pictures of himself to make a mental list of which camerapersons to avoid. Traveling all across the country during what would be then the closest presidential race of the 20th century, Kennedy and Tretick played a cat and mouse game when it came to photo opportunities. Kennedy avoided being photographed eating, drinking, or combing his hair, realizing as a former journalist himself the awkwardness of such shots. Considering such shots “corny,” Kennedy avoided being photographed wearing the endless parade of hats offered to him on various stops, although Tretick did manage to capture Kennedy wearing for a split second a Native American headdress on a South Dakota stop. The only hat Kennedy would wear for photos would be a hardhat, which he accepted as a gesture by the hard-working laborers who came to his rallies. “He plays a game, enjoys the game,” Tretick said later of his attempts to catch Kennedy off guard, “but when he loses, he never cries about it.” Tretick’s few shots of Kennedy sleeping on the campaign plane or raising Iowan corn on the cob to his lips allow a welcome glimpse behind the curtain of Camelot.

Of course, Tretick and Kennedy worked their magic best when Kennedy was on his guard, as fully conscious of imagery as those photographing him. Scenes of adoring throngs pressing in on candidate Kennedy, every hand hoping just to brush his, give the viewer a sense of just how powerful Kennedy’s charisma came across to a country looking to forge in a new direction, to challenge a new frontier. But Kelley couples these powerful images with Tretick’s own personal observations of Kennedy. “I don’t think he really reveled in the adulation,” Tretick said of JFK. “He wanted to win and he went along with whatever he could to win. But I don’t think he reveled in the adulation like some people would.” Tretick’s photos speak for themselves, but Kelley allows Tretick to speak for himself through memos and other notes he left behind on his time in Camelot.

Another off-limits photographic subject for Kennedy was public displays of affection. But when Tretick caught the president brushing a lock of hair from his wife Jacqueline’s face in 1961 (shown above), it became one of Jackie’s favorite photos from that time. (Kelley’s text never discusses the infidelities and other marital strains that may have made such public displays of affection problematic.) The most frequent displays of affection JFK and his wife Jackie allowed on film were those with the children, Caroline and John, Jr.

Jackie protected her children’s privacy fiercely, and JFK deferred to her on most requests from the press. But when a cover photo by Tretick of JFK riding on a golf cart with his nieces and nephews became a smash, Tretick pressured for photos of the president with his children. In October 1963, a few months after the death of the Kennedy’s baby Patrick, Jackie went on vacation to Greece with her sister, Lee. Seizing the moment, Kennedy allowed Tretick to photograph him and “John John” playing together before bedtime in the Oval Office. Thus, the iconic shot of John, Jr. peeking out from beneath the president’s desk—a hideaway the two and a half year old called his “secret house.” Tretick took cute pictures of JFK and Caroline at that same time, too. When Jackie returned from Greece, she resigned herself to the deed as done, permitting it as part of JFK’s reelection drive for the 1964 presidential election. A month after the photo shoot, however, as part of the reelection campaign, JFK travelled to Dallas and met his end. The photo essay, because of the lag time to publication back then, ran on the cover of Look the week of the tragedy. After the assassination, Jackie told Tretick she was glad he disobeyed her wishes, as those photos of the children with their father became her “most precious possession.”

Growing up in an Irish Catholic household in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John F. Kennedy was literally a household god. A bust of his head stood as one of the rare pieces of artwork in my parents’ living room. I even have a cousin born on the day of JFK’s funeral who we still call “Jack” in the slain president’s memory. For those of us who only know the echoes of Camelot, memorials such as Stanley Tretick’s Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of The Kennedys tell the story once again but with the distance of decades finally allowing us to remember not just the shining glory, but also the human side to these people overshadowed by the mythology built around them. As I said earlier, 2013 will be full of memorials to the events of 1963, but Capturing Camelot may rank as the truest and the best.

[Image: Stanley Tretick. President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, returning to the White House after escorting President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia to Blair House. Washington, DC. May 3, 1961. A rare public intimate moment. © The Estate of Stanley Tretick.]

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