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Making an icon: JFK and the power of media

The video explores Garry Winnogrand's photograph of JFK at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. It highlights the significance of this image in portraying Kennedy's vulnerability, the media's role in shaping public personas, and the historical context of Kennedy's nomination. The photo's depth and texture are also discussed. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) (crowd cheering) - Let me say first that I accept the nomination of the Democratic Party. (crowd cheering) I accept it without reservation and with only one obligation; the obligation to devote every effort of my mind and spirit to lead our party back to victory and our nation to greatness. - [Narrator] We're in the Photography Study Center in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Mia looking at a photograph of John F. Kennedy. - [Narrator] This is a photograph that Garry Winnogrand took at the 1960 Democratic National Convention of Kennedy in the midst of his acceptance speech for the nomination for the presidency. - [Narrator] Upon this acceptance speech he begins to run against Nixon and will eventually become the President of the United States. - [Narrator] Kennedy in the center, he's being looked at by Winnogrand through the lens and then we're also enabled as viewers to see a second image of Kennedy on this snowy black and white TV screen. - [Narrator] So, this is being projected live across the country. - [Narrator] This image is about how celebrities and politicians and people who have a public persona are constantly mediated through images and through broadcasts to us. So, we never fully have intimate access to them as real human beings. And, of course, we can't look at this photo without knowing how his story goes. Kennedy's nomination was not a foregone conclusion. Many people were in the running like Adlai Stevenson from Illinois, Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota and Kennedy was not backed by the establishment because he would be the youngest person to be elected president up to that point. And also his Irish/Catholic background. - [Narrator] Every United States President up to that time had been a Protestant. And there was significant anti Catholic sentiment in the United States. - [Narrator] Those are the kinds of things that the party elites were wondering if they would be a liability in his facing off against Nixon, an intense cold war crusader during the 1950s. - [Narrator] But the 1960 Democratic Convention was different in many ways. Winnogrand talked about how this was not a place of smoke filled back room discussions. He saw it as a more open convention with a much younger voice. - [Narrator] One of the questions that we have about this photograph even existing is what was Winnogrand doing there? There's no evidence that he was on assignment for anybody, so, he must have gone there on his own volition to poke around and see what was going on. And eventually winds up taking many photographs. But this is the only one he printed. - [Narrator] He's known best as a street photographer who takes a small portable camera, a Leica, out into the street. The political context is a little unusual for him. - [Narrator] And it's possible that because he was drawn to crowds and people watching and catching these unscripted moments, that the convention with the carnival aspect that sometimes the convention had would have just seemed like a perfect spectacle for somebody who was so attuned to photographing things from the periphery. - [Narrator] But this photograph is different. Unlike so many Winnogrand photographs, there's a central focus, it's the back of JFK. In the distance we can make out some other people but they're out of focus. These are photographers and television news cameras. - [Narrator] It's really only the third convention that had been televised nationally. - [Narrator] Soon after this photograph was taken, Kennedy will sit down with Nixon in front of the television camera for the first televised presidential debates. But within just a few years, Kennedy will be assassinated in Dallas. And it's those images, of course, the Zapruder films that had such a profound impact on the American psyche. - [Narrator] That too is mediated through lots of different kinds of images that had been interpreted and scrutinized over and over and over again. - [Narrator] But here, in 1960 in a much more innocent moment, we see Kennedy's back. His head is framed by the camera lights, creating a halo. His right hand is up, it's also framed by light. - [Narrator] It is an image that rhymes with earlier images of orators and leaders that go back to the convention of Roman statuary. - [Narrator] Winnogrand is giving us a privileged view from backstage that is very different from the image that is beamed to living rooms around the United States. - [Narrator] It strikes me how vulnerable Kennedy seems at this moment, too because we have such close access to him. When I look at this image, I can't help but think of all the events that happened afterwards. - [Narrator] The cameras trained on Kennedy as if they were the scopes of a rifle. The clock, a reminder of the memento mori, that his time is running out. But it's an important reminder also that works of art have a life of their own as they move into society. There is a different kind of meaning that develops as our immediate memories of this president recede. - [Narrator] The light on Kennedy's face, that glowing halo effect feels like a martyrial image. All these different things start to gain different kinds of symbolic significance. - [Narrator] The photographer has so little control over the things that he's photographing. He has his placement, he has his timing. He has choices in terms of lens and film and f-stop and shutter speed. But he's working to a large extent, in terms of instinct. - [Narrator] One second to another could make or break the image. Winnogrand said something about that. He said, "Great photography is always "on the edge of failure." - [Narrator] Before today I had only seen this photograph in reproduction. This is an original print that the photographer not only took but then he developed the film and he printed the image. And it is a masterful print. - [Narrator] On specific kind of paper that has a particular kind of texture. The coating, all the different chemical reactions bringing out the nuances of the black and white, making judgment calls about how much to expose and how not is all a skill set of the photographer that people aren't really aware of anymore because of the ubiquity of digital photography. - [Narrator] You used the term black and white but I would argue there's no absolute black and there's no absolute white here. There's this rich, warm gradation. - [Narrator] The depth aspect of this is something that can startle you when you're not used to seeing printed photography. And that adds to the visual dynamism of this image. (piano music)