The American President: Photographs from the Archives of The Associated Press
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Through October 27, 2013
Currently on view at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is The American President: Photographs from the Archives of The Associated Press. This special exhibit, featuring 71 photographs, is on the seventh floor of the museum and is included with museum admission. The American President is open through October 27, 2013.
The American President is a wonderful collection of images by photographers of The Associated Press (AP). These men and women have had better than average access to the presidents of the United States than most Americans. But unlike White House photographers, which became common place during the Kennedy era, AP photographers only have access when the president allows it. Still, AP photographers can get a lot closer to a president, especially with a telephoto lens.
The American President starts immediately after the wooden elevator ramp. To the left is Washington Rushmore (1940) a beautiful black and white photograph. The large profile image of George Washington in granite is juxtaposed with the tiny men, scaffolding and guide wires. And with President Washington comes one of the few problems with the exhibit: the photographs are not in chronological order. There are a lot of great photographs on display, so knowing which photograph came when might not be an issue.
Under the original Texas School Book Depository sign are three very telling photographs. Two are of multiple presidents and one is of the AP White House photographers. This may be the only time in the exhibit that the AP photographers are more interesting than the presidents. White House Photographers (1918) was taken during the Woodrow Wilson administration. There are a dozen men lined up with both still and movie cameras with the White House in the background. All the men are in suits and hats. All the men are using the latest and greatest photography technology of the time. This is the most telling of all the photographs and worth a second and third look.
The true star of The American President is the Lincoln Gardner Portrait (1863) by Alexander Gardner. This mesmerizing image was taken a mere two weeks before President Lincoln gave his most famous speech in Gettysburg, PA. The large photograph has a strong center focus on Lincoln’s eyes and a gradual blurriness around the edges. This style of photograph could easily be reproduced with a Holga camera or Photoshop, yet it was created with a very basic camera from the 19th century. And it’s beautiful. Seeing the Lincoln Gardner Portrait makes the whole exhibit worth the trip.
Next to Lincoln is Theodore Roosevelt and Press at Sagamore Hill (1912). This photograph is a crisp image of former President Roosevelt and members of the press. Roosevelt, the youngest un-elected person to hold the office, exhibits his adventurous nature by wearing riding pants and military boots. He is clearly the center of attention.
The American President has numerous iconic photographs. These include Truman Dewey Headline (1948) (the headline read “Dewey Defeats Truman”), Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley (1970), and George W. Bush Aboard Aircraft Carrier (2003) (with “Mission Accomplished” banner). The exhibit also has some fun photographs including Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower (1956) (the First Lady is wearing “I Like Ike” glasses), Lyndon Johnson Dog Ears (1964) (Johnson is lifting his beagle up by the ears), and Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra (1981) (the president is trying to cut in).
Because this is The Sixth Floor Museum, the center of the exhibit is all about President Kennedy. The most telling of all the photographs is Kennedy Motorcade (1963) by Ike Altgens. Kennedy Motorcade was taken right after the final bullet struck and most likely killed the president. Secret Service agent Clint Hill has already climbed on the back of the limo and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is standing over her slain husband. This is the most chilling moment in time ever captured on film.
There are two other photographs nearly as chilling as Kennedy Motorcade. They are Reagan Assassination Attempt Sequence (three photos) (1981) and Reagan Assassination Attempt, Wounded (1981), both by Ron Edmonds. The first image is a series of photographs showing President Reagan waving to the crowd, looking toward the commotion and then being shoved into the limo. The next photograph shows the aftermath of the assassination attempt. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty and press secretary James Brady all lay on the ground wounded. The gunman, John Hinckley, Jr., is under a pile of agents and police, most with their guns drawn.
As much as I love this collection of photographs, I also question some of the images, or lack of images. First, The American President does not show every president ever photographed, which would have been more on point. The first president photographed was John Quincy Adams after leaving office. President James Buchanan was the first current president photographed during his inauguration. There are no photographs of presidents Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley and others. I can only assume the AP didn’t take photographing the president seriously until the early-20th century.
Second, some of the images are really bad choices. Two images that really stick out are Florida Recount (2000) and Obama Handshake (2011). Yes, I know the Florida recount was a big deal in 2000. I was there. But this is not a presidential photograph. It’s a news photograph. And I know getting the Medal of Honor is a big deal too, but I don’t need to see the soldier’s robotic looking hand to understand his sacrifice. And I liked one or two additional Kennedy photographs. I would love to see more Kennedy, so why not make an all AP Kennedy photography exhibit.
So those are my only complaints. I had a great time looking at the collection. I walked through the exhibit two or three more times and enjoyed seeing different things each time. I highly recommend seeing this exhibit. The American President: Photographs from the Archives of The Associated Press is a wonderful collection of photographs. The exhibit will be on the seventh floor of The Sixth Floor Museum through October 27, 2013.
The Visitor Center
The last time I was at The Sixth Floor Museum, the Visitor Center looked like a war zone. Before you go, consider buying tickets online. Otherwise, you will need to purchase tickets across the street at the Museum Store + Café at 501 Elm Street. For more information about The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza visit www.jfk.org.