Robert Frank titled the photo above characteristically simple: ‘Convention hall — Chicago’. The atmosphere was anything but. It was 1956 and in order to whip up public interest, the Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson had declared that he would select the vice presidential nominee through a floor vote at the convention.
Two front-runners were Estes Kefauver, a senator who had represented Tennessee since 1939 and had recently been in news for his televised hearings on organized crime, and John Kennedy, a first-term senator. Kennedy had been in the news for his book Profiles in Courage, published earlier that year and on the New York Times bestseller list for over thirty weeks, and was about to narrate a television documentary Pursuit of Happiness but was a relative unknown on the political scene. Both candidates faced fierce opposition: Kefauver from his own fellow Southerners because of his support for civil rights, and Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic.
Upon being lobbied to vote for Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy (then in the congressional delegation of Minnesota, and himself later a presidential candidate) grumbled, “All we have are farmers and Protestants.” Others were more blunt. J. Howard Edmondson, the governor of Oklahoma noted, “He’s not our kind of folks,” and Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the house, said: “If we have to take a Catholic, I hope we don’t have to take that little pissant Kennedy.” As the nomination slipped away from him, Kennedy withdrew his name from consideration, giving a speech to make nomination of Estes Kefauver unanimous. The crowd loudly cheered, and when Stevenson lost that November as everybody predicted, Kennedy became the de facto frontrunner for the 1960 election.
Frank’s photo — reminiscent of Felix Solomon’s backroom photos of European politicians — captured the energy and stress of that vice presidential fight. Men in the photo were unidentified, but the jowly man on the right was likely to be Joseph Lohman, a criminologist who was later Sheriff of Cook County and Illinois secretary of state. The man in dark glasses looked like Carmine DeSapio, the last boss of Tammany Hall, who led this party machine which had controlled New York politics for the eight decades into a brief renaissance in the 1950s.