John F. Kennedy Jnr. under the Resolute Desk

As the first child born to a sitting president in nearly 80 years, John F. Kennedy Jnr enjoyed a national spotlight throughout his life. He was in utero during his dad’s campaign, and grew up in the White House. The photo of John Jr. peering out from the panel which he called ‘the secret door’ under the desk (‘my house’ to John Jnr) as his father reviews the papers was an instant icon — both for its timing and composition.

The photo was taken by Alan Stanley Tretick, a former Look magazine photographer who took many intimate pictures of President Kennedy and his children. Ms. Kennedy was against her children being photographed and used for political purposes, and the above photo was taken when Jacqueline Kennedy was out of the country. JFK invited Tretick over in October 1963 — by this time, JFK had recently lost a child to premature birth and needed all the family affection.

An advance copy of Look magazine with the photos travelled with the Kennedys to Dallas — and hit the newsstands several days after the assassination. The image immediately comes to summarize the myth and memory of Camelot — that of a youthful President running the country with a young family playing at his side in the White House. It would take another Democratic president some forty years to portray a similar image in these photos (here, here).

The desk in the photo was the Resolute Desk, was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes and was built from pieces of a salvaged Arctic discovery vessel. With a few exceptions, it has been used in the Oval Office by every president including Obama. Nixon used the same one he had used as vice president. After the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson allowed the desk to go on a traveling exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library and later to be displayed in the Smithsonian. Primary reason was that Johnson found he was too large for the desk, and commissioned a plainer replacement from the Senate cabinet shop. Under President Reagan, the desk underwent a height adjustment so that the President could sit at the desk without banging his knees. The ‘secret door’ dates to an earlier adjustment. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the kneehole be fitted with a modesty panel carved with the presidential seal to conceal his leg braces. (He had to placed a waste basket in front of his desks). FDR did not live to see it installed, but Truman liked the eagle motif and had it installed.

Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s Funeral

Think of Elliott Erwitt, and the iconographic image that probably comes to mind is his photograph of a small, anxious chihuahua dwarfed by the boots of his owner and the colossal front feet and legs of a Great Dane.

While the observant and eclectic eye of Erwitt (one of the last surviving photojournalists of that Golden Age of photojournalism) has often explored life at its most humorous, leading critics to label him as photography’s greatest comic, one has only to turn to another famous image to see a completely different side of Erwitt. At her husband’s funeral, Jacqueline Kennedy clutches the flag that draped his coffin to her chest as Bobby Kennedy looks on. Despite the black veil behind which she retreated to preserve a fragment of her privacy, Erwitt collides head on with the poignancy of a woman so lost in grief and confusion that the intimacy of the pain he captures pierces the viewer to the core.

It was one of the most memorable records of America’s national ordeal, not only Erwitt’s only memorable funeral image: earlier he had portrayed Robert Capa’s mother weeping over his grave.

Lee Harvey Oswald shot


On November 24, 1963, two days after Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he was about to be transfered police headquarters to the nearby county jail. Oswald was handcuffed to Dallas detective Jim Leavelle. At 11:21 am, stepping out from a crowd of reporters and photographers, a nightclub owner Jack Ruby fired a Colt Cobra .38 into Oswald’s abdomen on a nationally televised live broadcast.

His motives for killing Oswald were not clear. There is some evidence it was on a whim, for Ruby left his dog, Sheba, in the car. He told that he helped the city of Dallas “redeem” itself in the eyes of the public, that Oswald’s death would spare Jackie Kennedy the ordeal of appearing at Oswald’s trial and that he avenged Kennedy. Ruby was convicted of Oswald’s murder and died in prison.

Although hundreds of cameras and news reels captured the moment, the most famous image of Ruby’s killing was made by the Dallas Times-Herald reporter, Robert H. Jackson. He won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Photography for the above photo, which showed “the hunched determination of the assassin, the painful gasp of the handcuffed victim, and the shock of helplessness on the face of a policeman”. 

Bob Jackson had missed the President’s assassination earlier; he had been riding with Kennedy’s motorcars, but he was changing film and giving it to his editor when shots rang out. He had the dubious honor of being the only photographer in the press corps to miss the assassination. Two days later he went to the Dallas police headquarters. He remembers the fateful day:

“I walked right in. There was no security to speak of. Nobody checked my press pass.

I had seen Ruby once. He came up to the photo department at the paper and brought one of his strippers. That day there was a feeling in the air that something could happen. When Oswald came out the door, I raised my camera to my eye. I was ready. We stood in a semicircle about eleven feet in front of the door which formed a little clearing.

People yelled out, ‘Here he comes.’ As I looked through the camera, Oswald took eight or ten steps, and I saw a body moving into my line of sight. I leaned over the car to the left, Ruby moved three quick steps and bang. When he shot, I shot.”

Jackson’s contact sheets were displayed about ten years ago at  artandphotographs gallery in London; I couldn’t get hold of their digital copies. If you can, please let me know. @aalholmes

Moorman Polaroid


The Polaroid camera, invented by Edwin Land, was sold to the public was in November 1948. Instant photography revolution was not embraced by the professionals but the polaroid opened the door of photography for many amateurs.

In December 2008, the company announced that the production of the polaroid films will be stopped by 2009. Eclipsed by digital photography, Polaroid’s white-bordered prints — and the anticipation they created as their ghostly images gradually came into view — are now officially things of the past. However, from David Hockney’s famous Polaroid art compositions, to the line, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” from OutKast’s hit “Hey Ya!”, Polaroid instant film has embedded itself in popular culture.

Perhaps the most famous polaroid photo was taken on November 22nd 1963 by one Mary Moorman. She took the photograph of President Kennedy’s limousine a fraction of a second after the fatal shot. In the frame 298 of the Zapruder film (below), Moorman and her friend Jean Hill were clearly seen standing 20 feet away from the limousine, standing on grass south of Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, directly across from the grassy knoll.

What was captured in her polaroid has been a matter of contentious debate. On the grassy knoll, as many as four different figures can be observed, while these can also be easily dismissed as trees or shadows. A figure is identified as the “badge man”, a uniformed police officer. Others claim to see Gordon Arnold, a man who claimed to have filmed the assassination from that area, a man in a construction hard hat, and a hatted man behind the picket fence.

Moorman stated she heard a shot as the limousine passed her, then heard another shot or two after the president’s head first exploded. She stated that she could not determine where the shots came from, and that she saw no one in the area that appeared to have possibly been the assassin. Moorman however was not called to testify to the Warren Commission.

Moorman sold her original Polaroid photograph of the assassination for US$175,000 in an eBay live auction in January, 2008.


November 22nd, 1963


Headlines, November 22, 1963, on a train to Stamford, Connecticut. By Carl Mydans

Carl Mayer Mydans worked with LIFE magazine for 36 years of its existence as a weekly journal. The veteran photographer’s elegantly photo included those of Frenchwomen punished for collaborating with the Nazis, the liberation of the Santo Tomas prison, the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri, the 1948 earthquake in Fukui, Japan, and the above picture of American commuters reading newspapers the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He also created memorable portraits of historical figures, such as Indira Gandhi and Winston Churchill.