The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently unveiled its newest exhibit, “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times,” a fascinating photo gallery that explores and celebrates the life and legacy of the 35th president. Visitors might ask, what exactly is it that makes Kennedy an “American visionary,” and an international symbol for the country’s character? Was it his natural rebelliousness, his genius, his handsome face or his witty charm?
From the moment he was elected to office, Kennedy fascinated the American public. He was considered a beacon of hope for Americans who had just experienced World War II. From his youthful charisma to his sheer intellect, Kennedy embodied and shaped a confident and progressive America.
Stephanie Stebich, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s director, and John Jacobs, the exhibit’s coordinating curator, introduced Lawrence Schiller, an esteemed photojournalist who collaborated with Stephen Kennedy Smith, Kennedy’s nephew, to turn the exhibit into a reality.
Schiller was a photographer on Kennedy’s campaign trail, and his dedication to telling Kennedy’s story shined through his insightful and captivating knowledge of the president and explanation of the meaning behind the exhibit’s photographs.
The exhibit brings together 77 images, collected from a total of 34,000 images found in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and private collections from the Kennedy family archives. The photographs are accompanied by quotes on each wall, meant to illustrate yet another dimension of Kennedy’s life.
The early 1960s marked a golden age for photojournalism in America; Kennedy’s administration was largely captured through photography, especially given the absence of videographers at the time. As a campaign photographer, Lawrence Schiller described his job as simply having to “observe and lift the camera at the right moment.”
Schiller stated that no single politician was photographed more than Kennedy, and that the abundance of images of his family, political meetings and social gatherings emulated the significant generational change — and a new America.
Each room in the exhibit was assigned a different title: “The Making of JFK,” “The Road to the White House” and lastly, “The New Frontier.” In each room, the photographs were organized chronologically and thematically to authentically illustrate the story surrounding Kennedy’s election, personal life and legacy.
Throughout the tour, Schiller treated visitors to short anecdotes about the president and his family, lending a personal touch to the already poignant atmosphere of the rooms. For example, according to Schiller, in the book “JFK: A Vision for America,” the Kennedys asked only that the last image in the book be changed to the iconic photograph of Kennedy walking alone on the beach.
Schiller continued to captivate and entertain the group with stories of Kennedy’s younger years, from his early beginnings as a journalist at Harvard University to his later involvement in politics.
Kennedy strongly believed that the arts were essential to a vital democracy and recognized the importance of photographs in conveying his message to voters. With the media on his side, he could successfully and directly communicate with the public and his supporters, and gain recognition for his causes, like the Peace Corps, the space program and legislation on civil rights and immigration.
The exhibit comes to a close with a section commemorating Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. This part of the exhibit, unlike the rest, does not contain many photographs.
“Less is more; we wanted to be able to tell the story in the simplest way,” Schiller said.
This section serves as a reminder that, although Kennedy’s legacy still resonates with us today, his final visions were not completely realized during his presidency.
Although this exhibit was organized to commemorate Kennedy’s life and work, its relevance in today’s political environment has become a part of its role and significance. As guests marveled at Kennedy’s legacy, they reflected on how it has become increasingly difficult to identify figures from either political party that embody Kennedy’s persona and influence.
As the exhibit poetically and aesthetically demonstrates, the Kennedy administration brought a sense of warmth and sophistication to the White House. Kennedy and his family instilled a sense of promise into the eyes of previously hopeless Americans. For all of their lofty goals, Schiller and the other collaborators and curators successfully shed light on the “human puzzle” that is Kennedy, which has continued to attract so many people to investigate his life and legacy.
The “American Visionary: John F Kennedy’s Life and Times” exhibit will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until September 17.