Photographs capture history but look posed


November 19, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

These 1954 photographs of John and Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington are obviously of great historical importance. They record a relatively quiet and otherwise unrecorded period in the history of the then newly married couple, when they were living fairly modestly in a Georgetown house.

The Kennedys obviously gave the photographer, Orlando Suero, their cooperation; and in several sessions, he captured a great deal of their private life, plus some more formal shots such as the two standing before the Capitol.

Why, then, does this work not move us more? Whatever one's opinions about Kennedy's politics, it is surely impossible for almost any American not to be to some degree emotionally involved with this handsome young couple whom we know to be destined for greatness and tragedy. But surprisingly little of that feeling is evoked by these photos, interesting as they are.

I think it's because, however casual many of the moments captured, many of these photos don't really look natural. They remind me of the Edward R. Murrow television program "Person to Person," which was supposed to take us informally into the homes of the famous, but which often looked awkward and artificial.

With the Kennedy pictures, it's seldom that the Kennedys seem really before us; instead, we appear to be given a couple of people playing the role of married couple: Jackie as housewife, straightening a picture or placing a bowl of flowers before a wedding snapshot or lighting the candles for a dinner party; Jack and Jackie out back, he reading, while she digs in the garden; Jack learning to paint, with Jackie's help; the couple dressed up for a formal occasion, she straightening his black tie.

These photos (or many of them) are so obviously posed that this "behind the scenes" glimpse of the glamorous young couple's private life seems like a for-the-camera show. And the prints made for this show (through January 18)only reinforce that impression.

Suero's whereabouts are not known now, so photographer Frank Armstrong made prints from the negatives for this show. A group of prints by Suero also exist in an album. Comparing them, the Armstrong prints are darker, richer, more dramatic, more artful than Suero's; they are more beautiful as photographic prints, but they sacrifice something of the documentary quality of Suero's work and make the Kennedys look even less natural.

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