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JFK’s life remembered through rare Jacques Lowe photographs


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The Newseum in Washington D.C. is marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, by putting together a display of rare, intimate images of JFK and his family, captured by late photographer Jacques Lowe. The “Creating Camelot” exhibition premieres at the Newseum today, is on view through January 5, 2014.

The so-called “Camelot era” could never be better remembered or celebrated than through photographer Jacques Lowe’s images. His intimate, behind-the-scenes shots of America’s first family’s unguarded moments, contributed to setting up the Camelot myth in the popular imagination.

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President John F. Kennedy clapping, as his children danced in the White House’s Oval Office. Credits: Jacques Lowe

Bringing lost history back to life

Alas, almost all the 40,000 negatives documenting the Kennedy’s off-duty lives were destroyed during the 9/11 terror attacks, being housed by safety deposit boxes at the World Trade Center, at that unfortunate time.

“There are no words to describe how attached my father was to his Kennedy negatives. They defined who he was as a person and as a photographer. When he moved to Europe in 1968, he purchased an extra plane ticket so they could sit at his side while traveling. Later, back in New York again to set up his studio, he tried to have them insured, but no insurance company dared. Those images were priceless, their value beyond calculation. So he stored them in a fireproof bank vault in the World Trade Center,” wrote one of Lowe’s daughters, Thomasina, in the introduction to Remembering Jack, a book published in 2003 on the 40th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

However, at the time of the attacks, 1,500 of Lowe’s contact sheets and prints were being stored in a different place, thus escaping destruction.

The Newseum “Creating Camelot” exhibition showcases 170 of the rescued images. Needless to say, restoring them was intricately laborious. Seven specialists spent more than 600 hours working with fading contact sheets, old prints and rumpled proofs, in order to salvage the iconic images. Coincidentally, the best photos were also the most damaged ones. The contact sheets were often scratched and covered with Lowe’s notes and indecipherable pen marks, each adding numerous days to the restoration process.

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John F. Kennedy reacting to the news that Congolese leader Lumumba had been assassinated, in 1961. Credits: Jacques Lowe

Jacques Lowe: from escaping Nazi Germany to knocking on the Kennedy’s door

Jacques Lowe was born in Köln (Cologne), Germany on January 24, 1930. As of his Jewish background, he and his mother were compelled to hide during World War II, finding shelter at a restaurant outside their hometown. Lowe managed to flee Nazi Germany and came to New York in 1949. Following scarce studies of journalism and design, he became photographer Arnold Newman’s apprentice in 1951. Shortly afterwards, he won LIFE Magazine’s contest for young photographers, which led to him being discovered by Roy Stryker. Undertaking various assignments facilitated by Stryker, Lowe went on to contribute to magazines such as Jubilee, Time, Life, Look, Newsweek and Stern.

He was a barely 26-year-old freelance photographer with a newly opened studio in the New York city, when he befriended Robert Kennedy, after being commissioned to photograph him. At that time, Robert Kennedy had just been appointed as counsel on the Senate’s McClellan committee. From then on, Lowe was invited at the Kennedy’s homes for picture-taking-weekends. Impressed with the young photographer’s work, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy asked him to photograph “my other son, John”, who in the summer of 1958 was planning to run for president.

As John F. Kennedy’s campaign photographer and then the presidential family’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe managed to capture approximately 40,000 truly commendable images. The examples are numerous, but we’ll confine ourselves to give you just a couple.

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President John F. Kennedy, together with wife Jackie, and daughter Caroline. Credits: Jacques Lowe

Lowe’s legacy

In the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, Jacques Lowe couldn’t take the excruciating pain brought about by his friend’s death and decided to give up photography and move to France. He did just that, for about 18 long years. But just as a snake can’t help being a snake, Jacques Lowe couldn’t help being a photographer. In 1984, he returned to New York and, subsequently, to photography. He worked for New York Times and People Magazine and extended his work to television, contributing to many Kennedy documentaries on ABC, NBC and CBS.

Jacques Lowe’s 71-years life-span has resulted in over 30 books, numerous exhibitions (many of which held in permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, NY; le Musée de l’Elysée, in Lausanne, Switzerland; and the European Center of Photography, in Paris), over 150 major magazine pieces and covers and several prime-time television documentaries and guest-appearances.

Fifty years have passed since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Jacques Lowe’s iconic images of JFK’s life have now been pulled from the 9/11 ashes, to be given back to the American history.

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