Photographing a President

Anyone living 50 years ago today and old enough to remember can tell you exactly what they were doing on this day when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. My former TIME Magazine colleague, Ben Martin,TIME Magazine’s first staff photographer, activity that day became part of the historical record.

He was standing in an elevator full of people, including George Hunt, the managing editor of Life Magazine, in the Time-Life Building in New York City. His clothing was blood-stained, having just returned from an assignment in Kentucky where he had gone to cover a story about private game preserves. He had spent the night before with a professional hunter, tracking down a wounded black bear but didn’t have time to change from his hunt clothing before catching a plane back to New York.

In New York, he had gone directly from the airport to the office to drop off his rolls of film. The elevator started up, but before it reached TIME’s photo floor, it stopped and a copy boy, carrying long sheets of paper ripped off the news wire machine, stepped in and announced to those in the elevator:  “The President’s been shot.”

Life’s Hunt grabbed the wire copy from the young man’s hands and quickly read it.  “My God, the President’s dead,” he said gravely.

As soon as Ben reached his floor to turn in his film his boss, Charles Jackson. told him: “Go out there and get some shots on the street, get cleaned up and get back here.” Ben loaded up a couple of his Nikon F s and a Leica and went out to a stunned New York City.

A Widow and Her Children
Ben Martin captured this photo of Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline and John-John as they followed JFK’s casket down the Capitol steps.

Just a few blocks away, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he found a woman kneeling at the altar of that great church, holding a transistor radio tightly up to her ear and clutching her rosary beads in her other hand. He tripped the shutter. The heart-felt image appeared in one of Life’s international editions  and captured what many that day were doing-listening to every bit of news and praying for the President.

Ben was then sent to Washington D.C. to help cover the aftermath there and the funeral. The access he had, recalls Ben, “was amazing.” “I had a New York City press card and my TIME ID card and I walked right in the White House.  I was wandering around when Mrs. Kennedy came into one of the rooms. I got out in a hurry because I didn’t want to be intrusive,” he says. “It was incredible.”

Even more incredible were the images he captured with his camera during those historic days. He photographed nearly non-stop, working 20 hours a day and subsisting on orange juice and bananas. At the Capitol, where Kennedy’s casket lie in state, a Secret Service agent escorted him up into the dome where he shot down on those paying respects to the slain President. He photographed Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John-John, as they walked down together the Capitol steps after the funeral. He photographed Mrs. Kennedy, JFK’s brother, Robert, and his mother, Rose, standing at the graveside. All but one of the photos in TIME from that day were taken by Ben. “It was unprecedented, the access I had,” he says. Access of that kind today is nearly non-existent.

In fact, Kennedy was the first President to have an official White House photographer and hired Cecil Stoughton. It was Stoughton who took the photo aboard Air Force One of the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson with Mrs. Kennedy at his side.

Photographer Ben Martin holds the Clement Cup during a standing ovation at the award ceremony by the Andrew Jackson in Salisbury, N.C. where he now lives. Martin was honored for his contributions to the Historic Salisbury Foundation.  Photo by  by Wayen Hinshaw for The Salisbury Post.
Photographer Ben Martin holds the Clement Cup during a standing ovation at the award ceremony by the Andrew Jackson Society in Salisbury, N.C. where he now lives. Martin was honored for his photographic contributions to the Historic Salisbury Foundation. Photo by Wayne Hinshaw for The Salisbury Post.

The Kennedy’s life in the White House, and on the campaign trail, which Ben also covered, is among the most extensively documented of those who have occupied that office. They were photogenic and recognized the value of the photograph in creating their public persona and popularity.

Others, like Richard Nixon, claimed that his election was lost by a photograph Ben took of him during the famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates. Ben was only one of two press photographers permitted on the set during that debate. His photo showed Nixon with sweat beaded up on his forehead, his tired eyes and slightly disheveled look.   Nixon, Ben remembers, “arrived late to the studio, refused make-up, refused to put on a clean shirt and all that.  Of course, Jack had been there since 4 p.m. and the debate didn’t start until seven.”

Nixon hated that image and for years after, deliberately turned away from Ben whenever he spotted the TIME camera man trying to photograph him.  Finally, in 1985, after Nixon had left office, Ben photographed the former President in his New York office. The picture ran as a ‘double-truck’ image–across two pages–in Life’s story about the then living presidents. It turned out to be one of the ex-president’s favorites.  One evening, when at home Ben received a surprise phone call. “Ben, this is Dick Nixon,” said the caller.  He then asked Ben if they could let “bygones be bygones” (his exact words, Ben says), and if he could use the Life photo as his official photograph. “Of course I said ‘Yes,'” Ben says.

As Americans and others worldwide, remember the tragic events of 50 years ago today, they will be remembering it through the images recorded by photographers like my friend, Ben. It is yet another reminder of how the visual images and photographs both we as professional photographers and amateurs capture today become an important part of history tomorrow.

To read more about photojournalist Ben Martin and see some of his iconic photographs, visit the Waterworks Visual Art Center website at:  http://www.waterworks.org/currentlyonexhibit/benmartin.html.

11 thoughts on “Photographing a President

  1. This is a beautiful post. I so remember that day, Mother Walter told us over the PA system, and our entire class dropped to our knees, some kids crying, some kids praying, and some kids just holding on to each other. Lost sheep.

    It fundamentally changed this country…

  2. Just a note of thanks for all of your posts. You writings and certainly photos renew my sense if the world as I knew it. Often times your posts take me back to my younger life, whether it be my childhood, teen years or my early adulthood. I can honestly say most all are either very fond or very funny memories. Either way I am grateful for your talent. Happy Thanksgiving…. Barb

    1. Thanks, Kathryn. It was great talking with Ben. I just had to write this piece not only because of his contributions to photojournalism but because his perspective of that day in history is one that very few had. And because after that day, everything changed. That kind of access to coverage just doesn’t exist any more.

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