One photo shows the handsome young politician playfully tossing his toddler daughter into the air. Another shows the child kissing him on the cheek as his beautiful wife looks on.
Those and other photos of John F. Kennedy and his family are the focus of an upcoming exhibit at Omaha’s Durham Museum. “Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe” showcases images taken by Kennedy’s personal photographer.
The photos capture Kennedy as a U.S. senator in the late 1950s through his early years as president. Lowe took roughly 40,000 photographs of Kennedy and his family, pictures that historians say helped create the Kennedy image of youthfulness, energy and glamour that still fascinates people five decades after his death. The show at the Durham is a traveling exhibit on loan from the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy gave Lowe intimate access to him and his attractive family, historians say, because he knew such personal photos in newspapers and magazines would boost his popularity and captivate the public.
“That was the intention,” said Mark Scherer, associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It did mark a real change in the use of images to convey the message the (politician) was trying to advance.”
Lowe had plenty to work with. A war hero from a wealthy and powerful Boston family, the good-looking Kennedy projected vigor and confidence. His elegant wife, Jackie, and their playful and photogenic children, Caroline and John Jr., provided Lowe a charming family for his lens.
The museum chose 2016 for the JFK exhibit to coincide with the presidential election, said Jessica Brummer, spokeswoman for the Durham.
She said presidential exhibits are popular at the Durham and that the public has a fascination with Kennedy in particular. “His image and legacy stick out in our mind.’’
Lowe, who died in 2001, had an insider status with Kennedy that caused news photographers to grumble about being left out. Lowe, for example, was the only photographer present when Kennedy, a day after being nominated as the Democratic Party candidate, offered the vice presidency to Lyndon B. Johnson for the 1960 election.
Lowe was born in Germany and was a 26-year-old freelance photojournalist with a studio in New York City when he connected with the Kennedy family in the mid-1950s while on a magazine assignment.
He first took pictures of Robert Kennedy, who at the time was making a name for himself as legal counsel for a U.S. Senate committee. Joseph P. Kennedy, the family patriarch, liked the pictures so much that he asked Lowe to photograph “my other son,” John, who in the summer of 1958 was a young senator planning to run for president, according to Lowe’s obituary in the New York Times.
Lowe eventually became the full-time campaign photographer and then personal photographer of Kennedy and his family. Although he was offered the White House photographer’s job, Lowe declined.
John Powell, an exhibits writer at the Newseum, said that while Kennedy encouraged Lowe to take photos of his children, Jackie was sometimes reluctant. She wanted to protect the privacy of her kids, and occasionally, tension arose between her and the president over releasing images to the media.
The exhibit at the Durham includes more than 70 images taken by Lowe, including one with an Omaha connection.
In August 1959, Lowe snapped a photo of Kennedy looking confident and at ease as he sat on a backyard patio near 90th and Hickory Streets in Omaha, surrounded by dozens of reporters, photographers and adoring Democrats.
Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, wasn’t running for president — at least, not officially. It wouldn’t be revealed until much later that in a private meeting at the home minutes earlier, JFK and statewide supporters had secretly mapped plans for him to enter Nebraska’s potentially pivotal 1960 Democratic primary.
The photograph would become one of the most reproduced and recognizable images of Kennedy — an image whose use would fatefully frame both the hopeful beginnings of his campaign and the tragic end of his life.
Within months, that picture would appear on JFK buttons, bumper stickers and campaign posters as he campaigned across the country.
In July 1960, it was printed on delegate buttons and splashed over the convention hall as Kennedy accepted his party’s nomination.
It would appear on red-ribboned buttons at Kennedy’s Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration.
And then after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, it would appear on the prayer cards given to mourners at his funeral.
Powell said Jackie believed that Camelot — the mythical kingdom of King Arthur featured in a popular Broadway musical — was the perfect symbol of her husband’s presidency.
One of the musical’s songs includes the line: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known, as Camelot.”
Lowe’s photographs, Powell said, played an important role in shaping the Kennedy Camelot mystique, one that still lingers today.
Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe
What: Exhibit featuring more than 70 images of President John F. Kennedy and his family by his personal photographer
Where: Durham Museum, 801 S, 10th St, Omaha
When: Feb. 13-May 8
Cost: Included in museum admission: adult, $11; children, $7; seniors, $8
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