A new exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery commemorates John F. Kennedy through a series of photographs, only one of which shows his face directly.
“A Great Crowd Had Gathered: JFK in the 1960s,” which opened at the YUAG last Friday, examines Kennedy through the lens of the American public, said Marisa Nakasone, the exhibit’s curator. The show features works by photographers Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Robert H. Jackson and Garry Winogrand, as well as wire photos, photos used in the Warren Commission and stills from the Zapruder film — a sequence shot by civilian Abraham Zapruder that inadvertently captured Kennedy’s assassination. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination, which took place in 1963.
“Kennedy served as the embodiment of who we wanted to be as a nation,” Nakasone said, adding that this aspect of the president contributed greatly to the sense of loss the country felt in the wake of his death.
The phrase that serves as the title of the exhibit, “A Great Crowd Had Gathered,” comes from “James Connolly,” a ballad about an Irish rebel who dies in combat. Nakasone explained that the phrase also appears in the Bible. She said both sources of the text are fitting because Kennedy came to serve as an iconic, symbolic, almost Jesus-like figure in the eyes of the American public.
All photographs but the one that directly depicts the president’s face belong to the YUAG’s permanent photography collection. The photos are displayed mostly in chronological order, beginning with a photo of the Democratic convention of 1960 and ending with a photo of spectators at the launch of the Apollo 11 in 1969. Markers on the wall note the year photos were taken as well as the key political events of that year. The majority of the photos in the exhibit address the public response to Kennedy’s assassination.
Though many of the photos in the exhibit — such as the wire photos of Lyndon B. Johnson’s swearing-in on Air Force One or Winogrand’s shot of Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Convention — are widely known, the works on display view Kennedy “obliquely,” Nakasone said. Even the convention photo, she explained, shows the nominee’s face only as it appears on a television screen, and also depicts a whiskey bottle, a timer and an ashtray tucked behind Kennedy’s podium.
Many of photos in the exhibit come from the YUAG’s extensive collection of Lee Friedlander’s work, which Nakasone said set the tone for the Kennedy exhibit. Nakasone said she has felt overwhelmed by the abundance of repetitive, staged, official-looking photos of Kennedy that have become ubiquitous this year, and that her frustration inspired her to create “A Great Crowd Had Gathered.”
This August, the YUAG published a book of Friedlander’s photos of Kennedy entitled, “JFK: A Photographic Memoir.” The book features 48 photographs, which Friedlander donated to the YUAG after the book’s release, according to the YUAG’s Director of Publications and Editorial Services Tiffany Sprague.
“The JFK myth is in a way subverted by these pictures,” Sprague said.
The stills from the silent film of Zapruder featured in the exhibit were originally part of a color film, but were edited to be in black and white and were enlarged before their release in Life magazine, Nakasone said.
“There are so many layers of remove,” Nakasone said. “It’s the public trying to understand what happened, but the authenticity of the evidence is questionable.”
A pair of photographs used in the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination includes both a photo of an armed Lee Harvey Oswald and a photo of his gun beside a tape measure. Nakasone explained that the photo of Oswald, which she said has a surreal quality to it, fueled conspiracy theories.
“The public saw room for doubt in this photo,” she said, adding that the pair of photos demonstrates the both conjectural and evidentiary roles photography took on in the assassination’s aftermath.
She also spoke about the way in which the exhibit depicts the commodifying of grief that took place as part of the public’s mourning of figures like JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Some photos depict children marching while holding images of all three dead leaders’ faces pasted together. Other photos show collectable memorial objects, such as JFK memorial postcards sold in Dallas.
Nakasone said the exhibit points out the extent to which the American people identify with Kennedy, citing a photograph that features a portrait of John and Jackie Kennedy sitting among portraits of ordinary couples at their proms or weddings in a photo shop’s window.
“A Great Crowd Had Gathered: JFK in the 1960s” will be on display through March 30.