The earliest of the three dozen photographs in “Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys” is from 1957. It shows John and Robert Kennedy during a Senate labor subcommittee hearing. The show runs through Dec. 20 at the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott College.
The relationship between Tretick and the Kennedys didn’t really develop until 1960, when he was the United Press International pool photographer covering the Democratic nominee during the presidential campaign. His work made enough of an impression that Look magazine hired Tretick and assigned him to the White House.
“Capturing Camelot” has its share of political and historical photographs: speeches and rallies in 1960, a Kennedy-Nixon debate, the Vienna summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, conferring with his brother the attorney general during the desegregation of the University of Mississippi, meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis, posing with the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington.
But it’s the personal photographs that stand out: the president chauffeuring his nieces and
nephews in a golf cart at Hyannisport; Caroline Kennedy, wearing sunglasses, holding up a postcard of her father; the president, with his wife, reaching out to brush her hair (Jacqueline Kennedy called it her favorite photograph of the two of them together); John F. Kennedy Jr., hiding under his father’s desk in the Oval Office. “When I shove off,” Tretick would later say, “that’s probably the only shot I’ll be remembered for.” It’s not the only one, but it’s surely the most famous.
That the Kennedys were so photogenic became a commonplace almost as soon as the family entered the national scene. Tretick’s photographs remind us of how dynamic they were, too — or, what is not quite the same thing, how good their dynamism translated to photographic paper. All that talk back then about youthful vim and vigor (or “vigah”) can be seen in action in so many of these pictures. It’s a big reason why these images remain so fresh and interesting half a century after they were taken.
The camera loved John F. Kennedy, and as a beloved should be, he was alert to his partner’s needs. Tretick called him “one of the few politicians I know of who actually looks at the picture credits in papers and magazines.” It wasn’t vanity so much as professionalism. Kennedy cared about looking good because looking good, especially in an increasingly media-dominated age, was simply good politics. So on the one hand Kennedy was happy to cooperate with photographers. On the other hand, he strove to avoid being photographed in situations he thought
made him look bad: eating, grooming, wearing a hat, being emotional, even playing golf (that was something associated with Ike, who was old and old-fashioned, not Jack, who was young and modern).
Tretick prided himself on getting a picture of Kennedy wearing an Indian headdress during the 1960 campaign. The picture is in the show. Note that the grinning man on the left is George McGovern, that year’s Democratic nominee for the US Senate from South Dakota. “It only stayed there about an eighth of a second before he lifted it off,” Tretick recalled, “but the eighth of a second is all you need.” He sent a clipping of the photo to Kennedy, with a note, “You gotta be quick.” The unfazed candidate replied, “There will be better days.” There certainly were, as “Capturing Camelot” shows.
“Robert Gill: Off-Season Vol. 1,” which runs through Oct. 24, makes for a nice contrast with the Tretick show. It consists of 20 color images of domestic and quotidian life. Gill, who teaches photography at Endicott, isn’t interested in star power. He’s interested in the dignity and quiet strength of dailiness. So we see a house on pilings, a bathtub, a gumball machine, a pickup with flowers covering its bed. There’s nothing romantic about those flowers being there; the title of the photograph is “Cemetery Truck.” But neither is there grimness or scorn. Dignity is a form of moral beauty, and beautiful is the word for many of these pictures. One looks forward to “Off-Season Vol. 2.”