Infusing old images with new insight, David Lubin GRD ’83 discussed photographs from the life, presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. at a Morse College Master’s Tea Wednesday.
Analyzing history through media, Lubin explained exactly why, nearly 40 years after Kennedy’s assassination, many images of the 35th president and his family have become indelible parts of America’s cultural scrapbook. Lubin compared numerous photos of the Kennedy family to earlier works of art, describing similarities between idyllic photographs of the young Kennedy couple sailing in Massachusetts with paintings by Winslow Homer.
Both mediums emphasized American innocence and optimism, he said.
After showing a photograph of Kennedy forcefully pointing out at the crowd during his 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall, Lubin displayed an image of a statue of Caesar Augustus. Over 2000 years after that statue was made, Kennedy was a similar example of a vibrant and revered leader, Lubin told a visibly startled audience.
Lubin said photographers probably did not have earlier works of art in mind when they photographed Kennedy and that such similarities are the result of “patterns of consciousness” that run across history. But he said Kennedy, the son of a media mogul, recognized the importance of being photogenic and charismatic in 20th century politics.
Lubin reminded the audience that Kennedy — whose physical ailments have become more known in recent years — often used a wheelchair and crutches while in office. But he had no images of a sickly Kennedy to show because the president forbade the media to photograph him in a weakened state.
“He was probably the first American president who had an ability to play the mass media,” Lubin said. “And he is still the most media-savvy president our nation has ever seen.”
Lubin said Kennedy’s ability to symbolize America’s youthful vitality and strength during the Cold War encouraged worried Americans and sent a powerful message to nations behind the Iron Curtain.
Rob Lalka ’05 said he was fascinated by the parallels Lubin drew between photographs of the Kennedy family and older works of art.
“What was most interesting for was to see these images that are part of our own world compared to art from as far back as the classical times,” Lalka said.
The audience appeared to be somber but interested when Lubin presented still frames of Kennedy’s actual assassination. Using extreme close-ups of Jacqueline Kennedy, he illustrated to the audience what he interpreted as her metamorphosis from cheerful wife to horrified widow. He also said the magnification of John F. Kennedy’s unrecognizable head after the assassination was itself a piece of abstract art in the 1960s.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were the first events since the Kennedy assassination to have as profound an effect on Americans’ consciousness, Lubin said. But he said the photographs from the Kennedy era suggest his death was a much more personal loss for Americans.
“People knew [Kennedy],” said Lubin. “He was in their living rooms. Lots of the images we see from Sept. 11, although devastating, are of people that never fostered relationships with Americans the way [Kennedy] did.”
Diana Cieslak ’04 said Lubin gave her a completely different way to look at images she had known very well.
“Usually, you look at images like this as factual representations of history,” Cieslak said. “It was interesting and exciting to see them interpreted as pieces of art.”
Lubin received a doctorate in American studies from Yale and is a professor of art at Wake Forest University. He is the author of “Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images.”
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