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David Hume Kennerly: A Window on the Presidency

PhotoMedia's 2007 Photography Person of the Year: David Hume Kennerly PhotoMedia's 2007 Photography Person of the Year: David Hume Kennerly
© Karen Ballard / Redux

For more than 30 years, David Hume Kennerly, former staff photographer for President Gerald R. Ford, has enjoyed unprecedented access to our nation’s leaders.

The night that Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, he approached David Hume Kennerly about being his personal photographer. "I didn't want to report to anybody but him," Kennerly stipulated, "and I wanted total access to everything that was going on."

"What?" replied Ford. "No use of Air Force One on the weekends?"

Sarcasm aside, the new president apparently respected Kennerly's ground rules because, the next day, Ford offered him the post. More than 30 years later, in October 2007, Kennerly is set to release his latest book, "Extraordinary Circumstances: The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford" (University of Texas Press), a collection of Kennerly's photographs, along with comments from Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others on the political happenings depicted therein.

The project would make a satisfying bookend to Kennerly's extraordinary 45-year career as a photojournalist, if only he were at the end. In fact, he continues to work at the highest level and with passion – not so much to reinvent himself as to invent new uses for his photojournalistic sensibilities. These are just some of the reasons he was named PhotoMedia's 2007 Photography Person of the Year.

Born in 1947 in Roseburg, Ore., and raised there for most of his childhood, Kennerly took up photography around age 10 as an antidote to quiet, small-town life. "Photography gave me a different way of seeing," he says. "I think the ultimate reason I did it was that it really opened doors into other worlds."

Aside from taking a high-school photography class, Kennerly was mostly self-taught. His first published photo, taken at a high-school baseball game, appeared in the school newspaper in 1962. He describes it as "a very lousy shot of a base runner crossing home plate." Even so, "it was a momentous event to see a picture I took reproduced in a publication," he says. "It represented a ticket out of there for me."

At first, "out of there" turned out to be only as far as the Portland suburbs. When his family moved to West Linn during his junior year in high school, Kennerly parlayed his school-paper experience into a position helping to teach a photography class. Next came work at local weeklies and then staff photographer jobs at The Lake Oswego Review, Oregon Journal and The Oregonian. The naivety of youth accounts, in part, for his early success, Kennerly says with a chuckle: "It never occurred to me I couldn't do this."

Influenced early on by photographers at The Oregonian, including David Falconer and Leonard Bacon, the 20-year-old Kennerly joined United Press International (UPI) in 1967, and "out of there" quickly took on a new meaning: UPI sent him to Vietnam. In 1972, the scenes he captured of the war earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

When Kennerly returned stateside after Vietnam, he joined Time magazine and covered Washington politics, including taking a photo of Ford the day he was selected to be vice president, an image that ran on Time's cover. His work with Ford over the next several months generated the relationship that eventually led Ford to invite Kennerly to be White House photographer.

Breaking down walls

Ford lived up to the photographer's conditions. "I had total free rein," Kennerly says, "which was pretty unusual." Not everyone on the president's staff was as accommodating as Ford. "They thought I was too much of a wild ass," says Kennerly. "And I was. But I was a professional wild ass. I took my responsibility seriously."

Although some credit Kennerly with defining presidential photography, particularly because of his ability to get behind closed doors, he seems not completely comfortable with this designation. The person who really defined the art, he says, was Yoichi Okamoto, President Lyndon Johnson's photographer. "He was allowed remarkable access by Johnson," thanks mostly to LBJ's vanity, Kennerly says. "His behind-the-scenes photos really set the bar that anybody afterward would have to try to reach." Others are more outspoken about the impact of Kennerly's work, especially during the Watergate years, when the country felt imperiled by the secrecy and scandal surrounding Richard Nixon's administration.

"David worked very hard to make sure there were as many visual voices as possible recording what was going on, so it wasn't just him pushing some message out the door that everybody had to agree to," says Sandra Eisert, his photo editor at the time and a collaborator on many projects in the ensuing years. Kennerly facilitated access to the president for dozens of other photographers and substituted handouts of his shots only when there was no way logistically to get other photographers in. "That magnified Ford's sense of openness, and it also created a sense of transparency that I think was important for the country's healing," Eisert says.

The availability of multiple viewpoints confirmed to the public that the pictures they were getting, both literally and figuratively, were the truth. "Without that," Eisert says, "Ford's job would have been 10 times harder."David is one of the most genuinely nice people," she adds, "and he has helped scores and scores of photographers." What's really going on?
As for photographers' access to the current President Bush, Kennerly says it's on par with access during the Nixon years, which he characterizes as "dismal."

"On a scale of one to 10," he says, "it's about a two."

Kennerly acknowledges that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted some understandable contraction, but there's more to it than that. "George W. Bush likes photographers, but doesn't necessarily like them around when he's trying to work," Kennerly says. "His ability to concentrate when there are people in the room taking pictures is impaired – and I totally understand that. Some people can ignore it, and other people can't."

Ford could, which made him a welcome subject. "Of course, everyone lets you in because it serves their purpose to some extent," Kennerly says. But photojournalists tend to be discreet and relatively benign, he says, as long as they know that they're not being manipulated. "We want to feel that what we're seeing in the room is what's really going on," he adds. "That's basically all we ever ask."

This doesn't exactly mean that a photojournalist is objective, he explains, though he doesn't try to make his subjects look either good or bad. To Kennerly, being a photojournalist means combining his experience of an event – what he hears and feels – with what he sees through his lens, and trying to relay that full experience through an image.

"Those pictures didn't take themselves," he says about the shots in "Extraordinary Circumstances." He, of course, was the other person in the room, and it's the photographer's point of view that helps bring about a powerful image. In Kennerly's case, that point of view is often remarkably well informed. A student of history and an avid reader, "he is an extraordinarily smart guy, and he really does his homework," Eisert says. "More than being an outstanding photographer, he is a great journalist. He understands what's going on in the world; he understands who's making it happen."

When he meets the politically powerful, he knows who they are, and, as a result, he is in a position to make a direct connection with them. Later, he can use the cachet he's built to gain access at the times when it's really important.

Photo du jour

In the days during and since his official post at the White House in the 1970s, Kennerly has managed to photograph an impressive array of world leaders and historical moments. Among his most popular images is a 1991 picture of presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon, standing in a row during the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. As is typical, he looked for the not-so-obvious angle. "I got off to the side to take that picture, where most people took the head-on shot," he explains.

One of his favorites is his portrait of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in profile, framed by the Great Pyramids of Giza. His famous political subjects also include Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro, Emperor Hirohito and Deng Xiaoping.

When Robert F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1968, Kennerly was there to cover his speech at the Ambassador Hotel the night that Kennedy was assassinated. In 2000, on assignment from Newsweek, he covered the presidential run of John McCain ("the most accessible candidate by a long shot," Kennerly declares). The long run-up to the 2008 presidential election reminds him of a photo he snapped more than three decades ago of now-candidate Hillary Clinton, then low-level lawyer Hillary Rodham, when she served on the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry staff considering the fate of Nixon. As the 2008 election ramps up, he'll be covering the race for NBC News, where he's a contributing editor.
Kennerly served for a decade as a contributing editor for Newsweek, and has been a contributing correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America" and a photographer for George, Life and Time magazines.

His interests range beyond politicos. In 2000, he set a goal of taking a photo a day as an exercise to see if he could still see the world with a different perspective through his lens – in the way that first made him love photography. "That was a self-inflicted assignment, which is how it felt after a month or two," he recalls. Despite moments of anguish, the results evolved into "Photo du Jour: A Picture a Day Through the First Year of the New Millennium" (University of Texas Press). Kennerly says the book contains "some of the best work I've done."

Amid shots of McCain and other political luminaries are numerous intriguing images of the merely ordinary: a Waffle House restaurant in Florence, S.C.; a crow landing with panache on a seaside deck in Oregon; the exquisitely scrunched-up face of Kennerly's son, Nick, during an ear checkup by the doctor.

While working on "Photo du Jour," Kennerly traversed more than 250,000 miles. Just last year, he racked up about 300,000 more, he says. Clearly, he's not slowing down in his 60th year.

Making history

After visiting 130 countries over his career, Kennerly has amassed an archive of more than a million images. That archive lives at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for American History. The center, which holds Walter Cronkite's archive as well, has worked to document the history of American news media. Its director, Don Carleton, had known Kennerly personally for many years. When Kennerly suggested in the early 1990s that such a historical repository ought to include photojournalism, the idea clicked.

"I've always believed in the power of photography to capture information a historian can use," Carleton says. "You can read a photograph like you can read a diary."

Kennerly's collection formed the foundation of what has become a much larger photojournalism archive, and he's been an active player in its development.

What makes Kennerly's work stand out is more than his "good eye," which is a given among great photographers, Carleton says. "It's how you get the photograph, and it's the narrative you're trying to capture. He's not so aggressive as he is clever and skilled."

Kennerly devises a strategy, cultivates relationships and positions himself thoughtfully. "I don't think you can teach that to anyone," Carleton says. "It's innate in him. He was born to do this. He gets into where he needs to get into, and then he becomes invisible. And that's what makes subjects comfortable with him.

"David's sense of history is also important," he adds. "He knows the subjects he's covering, and that informs the photographs in subtle ways. He has a full understanding of the importance of this material to history, and he thinks about that as he works."

Reportage of another kind

After four decades, Kennerly's enthusiasm for photography hasn't waned. Still, he says he's not as interested as he once was in taking pictures of presidents and wars. In recent years, he's applied his photojournalistic sensibility and skills to other types of projects. In 2005, Washington Mutual hired Kennerly to travel the United States and document the bank's corporate culture. He took shots of the company's employees in action and its new Seattle headquarters, the WaMu Center, while it was under construction.

"What I gave them is what I saw," Kennerly explains about such projects. "Those same pictures could have been run in a magazine. It was like an extended business assignment. I'm not really doing anything different than what I normally do. It's sort of my sensibilities brought to a commercial setting."

Kennerly also chaired "Home of the Free: A Student Photojournalism Project," which was underwritten by WaMu in 2002. Student photographers in New York, Chicago and Denver planned and carried out assignments to photograph local officials and civil servants. "It was basically a civics lesson in sheep's clothing," Kennerly says. "They learned a lot from photography about themselves and the people around them, which is what it did for me."

More recently, in 2007, Kennerly took on another corporate-culture project, snapping shots for New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which reflect the facility's people and services. The most dramatic story he covered, and one with a strong reportage feeling, he says, was that of New York City fireman Eugene Stolowski, whose spine was surgically reattached to his skull after he tore the connecting ligaments while leaping from the fourth-floor window of a burning apartment building. Kennerly photographed him and fellow firefighters cooking at their firehouse, where Stolowski still works. New York-Presbyterian used the images in an advertising campaign.

Kennerly's other nonpolitical projects include documenting the end of the television program "Seinfeld," a Newsweek assignment that became the book "Sein Off: The Final Days of Seinfeld" (HarperCollins), a collaboration between Kennerly and the show's cast. "Being a ˜Seinfeld' fan myself, I really enjoyed it," says Kennerly, who had full access during the shooting of the last two episodes. He tackled a similar, though less in-depth, assignment when another NBC show, "Friends," went off the air. This year, he shot the premiere of the movie "Ocean's 13." Although it's not what he usually does, he says the event was fun.In 1984, Kennerly moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three sons. There he studied and-like every other person within a stone's throw of Hollywood-tried his hand at directing. ("I'm a good photographer; I don't think anyone would argue with that. I was not a good director," he admits.) His other forays into TV and movies include an appearance in "The Godfather: Part III" as a party photographer.

Kennerly was also executive producer of the made-for-TV film "The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story," for which he earned an Emmy nomination. He also wrote and produced the TV movie "Shooter," based on his book of the same name, about combat photographers in Vietnam. It won an Emmy for outstanding cinematography.

Kennerly is on the board of the Eddie Adams Workshop, where he's been an instructor for years. He's also on the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) €"Atlanta Board of Visitors, and he lectures to SCAD photography students.

Life after Life

These days, Kennerly chooses not to make a living solely with photojournalism. Instead, he works on a variety of other projects to support what he calls his "photo-journalism habit."

Certainly, he's seen a lot of change in the field. As the last contract photographer brought on by Life, he was part of the end of an era.

"The death of Life [was] by no means the death of photography, but because it's expensive to send photographers all around the world, there are very few getting the kinds of assignments we got 20 years ago," he says.

"For one thing, there are no really good American photo magazines, period. Time is about as close to it as you can get, and yet Time is a news magazine. It is controlled by and caters to the writers," he says. "I don't think there's a commitment to photography the way there used to be," he adds, at least in part because publications lack the budget to support it.
With the advent of digital technology, he is now part of an era of another kind. Kennerly describes himself as "a dedicated Canon user," primarily using the Canon 5D with a 17-40mm lens and a 70-200mm lens. "The 5D is God's gift to photography," he says. "It's probably the best all-around camera I've used."

The digital age is about more than producing efficient, lightweight cameras – it has changed photojournalism too, he says, because photographers can beam up images by satellite phone from anywhere. More disconcerting to Kennerly, the technology has turned photographers into editors. Photo editing is a profession in itself, and a valuable one, says Kennerly. "Any good writer will tell you they need an editor," he says, "and the same goes for photographers." Eisert, of course, couldn't agree more. Not only was she Kennerly's White House photo editor, she was, in fact, the first White House photo editor. There was no such position before Kennerly created it, she says, and there has been one ever since. 

"That's one of the things that was really extraordinary about David in the White House situation-for a photographer to say, ˜I need an editor,'" she says. "A lot of photographers appreciate editors, but David really understands the importance of it."

A good photo editor, someone whom photographers trust and who understands their missions and styles, can help them make more productive use of their time by sifting through their results so they can be out shooting. Besides, Eisert asks, if you're in the business of communicating to others, don't you want somebody who can help you know whether you've hit the mark?There's no question, as millions of viewers over the past 45 years can attest, that Kennerly most certainly has.

Laurie Fronek
Story Author: Laurie Fronek

Laurie Fronek is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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