In an age of intense political division, the photographs in “Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe” at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville take us back to a different time.
Jacqueline Kennedy dubbed it “Camelot” after a popular Lerner and Loewe Broadway show of the early 1960s showing King Arthur’s idyllic, principled rule. In many instances, this timely exhibition provides an insight into the reality behind the Camelot facade, offering a vision of the anxiety of the campaign trail, hostile audiences and contemplative moments different from the national cohesion we might expect.
Whether it was entirely accurate or not, that notion of Camelot would not have existed without its stage manager, photographer Jacques Lowe. The Kennedys’ personal photographer took 40,000 photos of the first family, in the process turning them into enviable celebrities and capitalizing on their good looks, charm and magazine-worthy performance of harmonious family life. Fleeting glimpses can be seen of British nanny Maud Shaw’s legs in the margins of certain images, implying some help in maintaining that perfection.
Whether on the presidential campaign trail, or in the private chambers of the White House, Lowe’s images of the Kennedys suggested access and intimacy even though today they read as a highly mediated vision of private lives. Access did not always guarantee intimacy for a family as formal, and as coached for a life on the public stage, as this one. The Kennedys were, after all, not only remarkably telegenic, but undeniably media-savvy with an innate understanding of how consensus-building could be achieved in the sort of photographs that offered the American public a feeling of intimacy with the first family.
On rare occasions, the images feel like a genuine peek behind the facade. An image in an Oregon diner of Jackie and John on the campaign trail feels humble and human and shows the Kennedys as close to “ordinary” as they were ever likely to come. Similarly, an image of Jackie relishing a surreptitious cigarette and cocktail on her sister Lee Radziwill’s London apartment balcony is an insight into the sophistication of the first lady that often had to be held in check, lest it alienate middle America.
The critical microscope that Jackie Kennedy was under is especially troubling — a scrutiny that has certainly continued with subsequent first ladies. Even Lowe offered some unsolicited but telling insight into Jackie’s looks in his effort to sum up her appeal: “If you want to take her apart, there are many things wrong here,” remarked Lowe of her imperfections, though despite those flaws he concedes, “She looks stunning.”
Lowe’s photographs, whether they are taken as gospel or as a highly orchestrated rendition on the Kennedy myth, illustrate a time when a president and his family could inspire a kind of adulation it is hard to imagine ever returning to American life. In a larger sense, the images are also telling documents of a different time in matters of style and decorum, the days of swimming caps and unpretentious, simple clothing and a kind of social restraint rarely seen today. Those prone to nostalgia may find themselves filled with longing for the kind of civility that seems lost to us now.
The images themselves have been reproduced and restored from original prints and contact sheets after Lowe’s original negatives housed in the World Trade Center were destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
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