NEW HAVEN — The title of “A Great Crowd Had Gathered: JFK in the 1960s” dates from well before the ’60s. It comes from the Irish ballad “James Connolly,” about the revolutionary leader executed by the British after the Easter Rebellion. The song is, among other things, a testament to the endurance of mourning, that mother’s milk of Irish cultural identity.
The show runs at the Yale University Art Gallery through March 30.
“A Great Crowd Had Gathered” is a smallish show — just 40 images — but it manages to do four large things. It looks at JFK. It looks at his assassination. It looks at how the impact of the assassination lived on visually as a kind of collective mourning, James Connolly-style. It looks at the role of photographic images in all three.
Looking at Kennedy is, as the saying goes, easy on the eyes. He really was the matinee idol as president. “Great Crowd” includes a rare Robert Frank photograph of him with Richard Nixon. The image is a marvel of composition, facial as well as visual. We see three noses in succession: Kennedy’s, Nixon’s, and some unidentified guy’s in back, with someone else’s ear, also unidentified, to break up the rhythm. Kennedy, the rest of him no less than the nose, is fairest of them all.
The images related to the assassination are mostly news photographs, among them some of the most familiar of the last century: Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president on Air Force One; Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; Oswald posing in his backyard with the rifle that would be the murder weapon; and so on. Most of these images are the original pictures that came over news wires, with captions printed beneath the lower border. The effect is jarring, though not inappropriate, when seen in proximity to gelatin silver prints by the likes of Frank, Cornell Capa, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus (a portrait of Oswald’s mother), and Lee Friedlander.
Nearly two-thirds of the photographs in show were taken by Friedlander. They appear, along with nearly two dozen others, in a new book, “JFK: A Photographic Portrait” (Yale University Press). After Kennedy’s death, Friedlander kept seeing the dead president’s picture — in display windows, people’s homes, a truck cab, carried by protesters, shown on a drive-in movie screen — and started taking pictures of the pictures.
These images — sometimes touching, more often absurd, always incongruous — are the core of the show. A few predate the assassination: eight photographs Friedlander took of a Columbus Day parade and rally in Newark that Kennedy attended (though he’s in none of them). One of the images shows top-hatted officials waiting to greet the president. It recalls Frank’s photograph of similarly chapeau’d politicos at a public event seven years earlier in Hoboken (what is it about New Jersey?).
It’s not just Friedlander who photographed images of JFK. The ’60s saw the birth of media self-awareness, a point implicit in “Great Crowd” (the great crowd could as well refer to images as people). Thirty-two photographs in the show include some sort of image of Kennedy: in a photograph, on a TV screen, on a movie screen, and so on. The height of this self-referentiality comes in one of the news photos from Dallas. It shows a frame of the Zapruder film that shows photographers photographing the presidential limousine. So you have in one place four levels of image-making. That must be some kind of record.
Not all the commemoration of Kennedy is reverent. The man hawking photos in Winogrand’s “Dealey Plaza, Dallas,” from 1964, looks as though he’s a lot less interested in mourning than in making a buck.
The show begins and ends with Winogrand — and with the human back. It starts with the famous shot of Kennedy, seen from behind, delivering his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, his face visible on a television monitor. The final photograph shows tourists at Cape Kennedy, in 1969. All but one is seen from behind. The exception is a woman photographing Winogrand photographing her. Some halls of mirrors are more mirrored than others. A great crowd gathered, and an even greater crowd photographed.