The Digital Journalist
JFK Jr.:
The Man & the Lens

by David Friend

What was it about the lens and the man? Throughout his tumultuous 39 years, John F. Kennedy Jr. maintained a charmed relationship with the camera and, thereby, the country. As revealed in a new book of photographs known and unknown, out this November - John Kennedy Jr.: A Life in Pictures (powerHouse) - JFK Jr., even as a teenager, possessed all of the prerequisites for fogging up film: thick screen-star brows that helped fix a photographer's focus; a strong jaw, dark curls, and sleepy eyes that smote both mothers and daughters; hints of mischief and melancholia that smoldered just below the surface.

More to the point, John Junior was, in his way, born into the photographic frame. He was the son of the most photogenic power couple in U.S. history, coming into the world at the first stirrings of Camelot (within a month of his father's 1960 election). He was filmed almost daily by Washington lensmen. "I first photographed him cradle-trodden," recalls JFK's official Navy photographer, Cecil Stoughton, now 85, who had the run of the West Wing. "Mrs. Kennedy would stroll around the South Lawn with the baby carriage and guys used to sneak shots through the railings of the fence. When she saw them, she'd call the Secret Service to shoo them away. When he got to be toddling around, I photographed him every chance I got - in a tree house, in his snowsuit, on a teeter-totter, on a trampoline bouncing around with [his sister] Caroline."

© Cecil Stoughton
In 1963, John Junior's image became an icon. As the nation grieved, three-year-old John-John, as he was then called, assumed a pivotal and heart-wrenching role in what was, up to that time, television's most compelling live-picture sequence: the funeral of an assassinated president, at which the young boy had the poise to salute his father's horse-drawn casket. In time, John Junior would acquire an almost regal bearing, becoming the equivalent of an American prince, heir to the Kennedy name and presumed to be White House-bound himself. He would also become Celebrity San Pareil - Zelig-zagging between the spheres of politics, society, Hollywood, and journalism; the bare-chested, football-tossing "Sexiest Man Alive" (so People magazine dubbed him). He was that rare breed that seemed to have Kodachrome in his chromosomes, and who got exponentially more handsome, and more photographed, with the years. (His mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, after all, had been the most famously hounded paparazzi target of the 1970s).

The secret of his appeal, says Life photographer Henry Grossman, who would take Kennedy's picture on several occasions, was that "he was John Junior. You looked at him and you looked for John Kennedy. There was the cachet, the aura. Here was the successor - JFK Come Again. One saw possibility... for himself, for the nation. You weren't looking at him in the here and now. You were looking at him for who his pedigree was and [for] who he would become. [He embodied] that Emerson quote, 'Who you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you're saying.'"

Stoughton last saw John F. Kennedy Jr. only three months before he died. (While on a flight to Martha's Vineyard, he perished at the controls of a small plane, in July of 1999, along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette.) The photographer resorts to familial terms when assessing his long-ago subject's allure: "He was our boy," Stoughton notes. "Even if he had peccadilloes, we'd overlook them. I sat at his table [at an event that April]. The electricity was emanating from people to him and from him to people - because he was so damned good-looking. He had the genes. He was handed the good stuff."

It was 42 years ago this month that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, changing the course of American history. Forty-five years after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s countenance first graced a newspaper and magazine page, let's recall, for a moment, what the future once looked like.

Purchase John Kennedy Jr.: A Life in Pictures.

© David Friend

David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, is a contributor to The Digital Journalist. His new book, on the role of photography in our understanding of the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, will be published next fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.