Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Kennedy Family on beach, Hyannis Port, 1959 (Caroline overhead)
John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier married in 1953.
Even before JFK was elected president in 1960, they had attained the status of celebrities. Images of the young, glamorous, and good-looking couple were in high demand. Mark Shaw was a photojournalist and fashion photographer who became close with the Kennedys in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to serve, albeit unofficially, as the Kennedy family photographer throughout the presidency. On assignment by Life magazine, Shaw took this photograph of then Senator Kennedy, his wife, and daughter at the beach in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 1959.
Shaw’s black and white photograph shows John Kennedy lying on his back at the beach’s edge. With his knees bent, his slacks are hiked up to reveal white socks. His shoes cross the line into the water. Arms upraised, Kennedy strikes a playful pose, lifting his two-year-old daughter Caroline into the air. To the left, and slightly behind the father-daughter pair, Jackie Kennedy looks on. Her pose is relaxed and her pants legs wet, presumably from a walk in the surf.
Taken out of context, the photo seems like a charming and even ordinary image of family life. The fact that the family is the Kennedys, however, makes the scene remarkable and the careless abandon of the moment becomes revelatory. In the 1950s politicians enjoyed a much higher degree of personal privacy than their counterparts do today. For a presidential hopeful to appear candidly, lying on the ground, playing with his daughter at his family’s private retreat would have seemed thrillingly intimate and endearing to the public who saw this picture. The portrait, however, is not as candid as it seems. Although the family appears to ignore the camera, they were well aware of its presence. In fact, they had invited Shaw to photograph them. This private, touching moment is, then, essentially staged and performed.
The long history of European ruler and state portraits from which presidential portraiture in the U.S. derived was marked, even at its most casual, by a sense of rigid formality. In Shaw’s image and similar photographs taken during JFK’s presidential years, this tradition is turned upside down. Kennedy is presented as familiar and relatable. To argue on this basis, as some might, that such images are not portraits, is to fail to recognize the conscious self-presentation behind them.
David Lubin, Professor of Art, Wake Forest University
“When John Kennedy was running for president he was very conscious, he and his father, Joseph Kennedy, who had started off as a Hollywood producer, ran a studio and was very conscious about developing Kennedy’s image in a certain way that would appeal to the electorate, and it was an electorate that was postwar. It was the era of Dr. Spock and it was about being child-friendly—that this is what was expected of a leader. Whereas in previous generations leaders were expected to be distant, remote, and authoritarian and patriarchal, John Kennedy is not a patriarch; he’s a family man. And so the pictures that Mark Shaw, for example, photographed of the Kennedys in Hyannisport in the summer of 1959, when he was first running for the Democratic nomination, really emphasized that he was part of a unit of wife, father, daughter.
So he did a really brilliant job of merging authority and privilege and power with a sense of approachability, that people could look at Kennedy and go, ‘Geez, he has young kids, he probably wakes up in the middle of the night to deal with his kids’ problems just the same as I do.’ And so he humanizes his authority.”
Adatto, Kiku. Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op, new ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Lubin, David M. Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Shaw, Mark. The John F. Kennedys: A Family Album. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.
Voss, Frederick S. Portraits of Presidents, rev. ed. New York: Rizzoli for the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2007.