For those who are old enough to remember, “The Kennedys — Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon,” an exhibition of historic photographs on view at Morven through October 31, will function as an evocative trip back in time. For the rest of us, this stunning collection of images capturing a behind-the-scenes look at President-elect John F. Kennedy and his young family will forge a graphic link between our often disturbing present and more promising times — a brief moment when it seemed as if an American version of Camelot was just around the corner.
The photographs that comprise the exhibit were taken at a time when it looked like the best was yet to come. Taken after JFK was elected but before his inauguration, these images capture an intimate domestic moment as seen through the lens of the internationally acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon. Organized by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, with the sponsorship of the History Channel, the 27 black and white images were made in a single afternoon on January 3, 1961.
The assembled photographs function collectively as a snapshot of the emerging first family on the brink of the inauguration — a telling look into the lives of John, Jackie, Caroline, and six-week old John Jr. They combine to create a graphic narrative that speaks of promise for the future and the warmth and strength of family connectedness; a story that is especially meaningful because we all know how it ends — the aura surrounding much-loved children, glamorous parents, and their dreams for the future that Avedon captured that day marked the beginning of a saga that ended with devastating loss for the family and for this country.
The exhibition was organized by Shannon Thomas Perich, associate curator of the division of culture and the arts at the Smithsonian, who concentrates on the history of photography. She makes particular note of the profound personal connection viewers make with the featured images: “These poignant and stirring photographs never fail to trigger memories, generate conversation, and make visitors recognize that they, themselves, are part of American history. If people are of a certain age, they will recall where they were when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.”
Morven’s curator of collections and exhibitions Elizabeth Allen says that she is hoping that visitors to the Kennedy exhibit at Morven will share their feelings and their memories as well. “We have added an interactive section to the display. We want visitors to leave their memories on a bulletin board. We are hoping for recollections of their own childhood, life in the ’60s, and their thoughts about JFK and the day he was in Princeton (Kennedy stopped at Morven for a campaign rest stop between New Brunswick and Trenton and met with Governor Meyner in September of 1960.) We think there are lot of people who remember that day.”
When all is said and done, Allen says the assembled memories will become part of Morven’s permanent collection — another chapter in the Princeton story. “Once the exhibition is down we will make the bulletin board into a memory book, and add it to our archives.”
Originally made for a photo-story in Harper’s Bazaar, only six of the images in the exhibit appeared in that magazine’s February, 1961, issue. Those photographs, however, combined with another Avedon series made that same afternoon that ran in Look magazine, to become the iconic imagery by which the country identified the Kennedy family.
The inclusion of enlarged contact sheets with the photographers’ notations turn the collection into a brief lesson in the art of the photograph and offer insight into Avedon’s creative process. We are able to see which images he chose for the final cut along with those he did not include, and consider his choices. In addition, didactic panels enrich the instructive mix with reference to retouching, dodging, and burning — the photographers’ technical manipulation of the original images.
Richard Avedon (1923-2004) is regarded as one of this country’s most influential and innovative photographers. Noted for his telling portraits of the great and famous, he has become almost as well known as his subjects. He is credited with reshaping fashion photography, and was the model for the photographer who was the subject of the movie “Funny Face.” In addition, the film “Capote” includes reference to Avedon’s collaboration with Truman Capote, and recreations of his photographs of “In Cold Blood” murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Avedon won many awards for his work, including the International Center of Photography Master of Photography Award in 1993.
Avedon used his camera to capture the soul of his subject. His portraits are easily distinguished by their minimalist style, in which he was able to evoke aspects of personality and feeling that others were unable to convey. In discussing his own work the late photographer remarked on its complex nature saying, “A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. . .Photography is a fiction. It’s lending yourself to the artist.”
The New York Times’s obituary of Avedon made note of his impact on the medium saying “Mr. Avedon revolutionized the 20th-century art of fashion photography, imbuing it with touches of both gritty realism and outrageous fantasy and instilling it with a relentlessly experimental drive. His fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty, and culture for the last half-century.”
Avedon’s ability to make profound connections with his subject is readily apparent in this exhibition. Many of the previously unseen images present the Kennedys as a more down-to-earth family than the larger-than-life, glamorous figures whose photos were to appear in Harper’s and Look.
These photographs offer an intimate view of domestic connectedness: the bond between husband and wife, the profound link between mother and child, father and daughter, and the aura surrounding happy children and loving siblings.
Images of Caroline are especially endearing. She is presented as playful with her father, gleeful by herself, and loving with her baby brother. The childish energy she projected was even able to make her father look relaxed — something that rarely happened when he was in front of a camera.
Images of Jackie are particularly telling. Avedon has caught her well-documented elegance and sense of style as well as her deep connections with her children. An image with her infant son is a contemporary take on Madonna and Child. Another in her pre-inaugural gown is as elegant and glamour-laden as Avedon’s finest fashion work.
Morven, which has played a role in the history of the state and nation for more than 200 years, is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition. Built in the 1750s by Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the house has had presidential connections from its earliest days. During the American revolution it was a gathering place for the social and political elite including Princetonian Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress. Visitors have ranged from George Washington and James Madison to JFK. Lady Bird Johnson rested there after helping start the national Head Start program in Newark, and Jimmy Carter’s campaign for President received an important early push at a Morven reception.
The historic house is now a museum that tells the story of its historic past. Director Clare Smith says in the next exhibition “we are going to look at life in Morven over the years with the family memorabilia of those who lived here. We are planning, in conjunction with the Senior Resource Center, to invite the governors and their families who lived at Morven — the Hughes, Cahills, Byrnes — to share their stories,” says Smith. To that end she says that they are seeking stories, local memories, and significant objects to include in the display.
Smith says the state also takes center stage. “Our mission is to showcase the cultural heritage of New Jersey. It gives us a real breadth of opportunities. All we need is a local connection. The Kennedy exhibit is an example of what we can do with a local tie.”
Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Through October 29. “The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family.” Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5. Teas every Wednesday in the garden room with house tours before or after a light lunch. Reservations required the preceding Friday. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.