In our more cynical age, 50 years after the assassination of JFK, why do you think that period still has such a hold on our imagination?
It was an era of a great deal of promise, I think. There was the promise of being able to make a difference. Also, because of how they died, they’ve become mythical characters.
How have you been able to make Jacques Lowe’s work live on?
My father kept a lot of his original fine art prints in his loft, which is just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, so thankfully we had a small collection of a couple of hundred prints and his contact sheets that were safe in the loft.
For a man who had escaped from Nazi Germany, do you think the idealism of the Kennedy administration held an extra power?
My father was an only child and he grew up in Cologne, Germany. He was forced into hiding in the countryside during the war and survived. Being invited to be a part of what was a very big family would have felt quite unique for him. My dad was one of that generation who really believed that America was his freedom. He was 19 when he immigrated in 1949 and he met Bobby Kennedy six years after arriving in America. It’s like a fairy tale.
Your father said that his best times photographing JFK were at night. Why?
The way my father talked about Jack Kennedy was that he was very down to earth. He wasn’t official, in a kind of presidential way, with him. He could just move around, and do whatever he wanted in terms of taking photographs. So maybe once the chaos of the day had settled down he enjoyed a relaxing time with someone who had been his friend before he became President.
Much more is known today about the darker side of Camelot. Does that alter the way you look at some of these photographs?
Regarding his womanising, my dad used to talk about it in a very tongue-in-cheek kind of a way. It didn’t alter what he felt about the man, his political beliefs and what he felt he’d done for the country. My dad was a fairly modern open-minded man and certainly wouldn’t have minded if he did some of the things people said he did.
The difficulties are evident in many of the portraits. Did your father think Kennedy enjoyed being President?
Absolutely. He was at times in excruciating pain but he just carried on, he didn’t let it stop him doing what he had to do… They used to go on these teeny planes during the campaign and fly in all weathers and while everyone else was praying that they would make it to their destination and he sat there revising a speech. He had a very strong resolve.
After photographing the campaign, your father wanted to be President Kennedy’s personal photographer, not the official White House photographer. (He was offered that role.) How do you think the official role would have changed the way in which he photographed the first family?
He knew that by accepting it he would be suddenly constrained in what he could photograph. On the campaign trail he was very much left to his own devices… There were no restrictions and nothing was set up. Usually he’d send off some contact sheets to Jack Kennedy when he was on the campaign trail and Jack would select the images that he wanted.
What did your dad make of the relationship between the sons, and their father Joe?
The first time my dad met Jack Kennedy was a shoot that his father had set up, without really telling him. Joe Kennedy had received photographs of Bobby Kennedy that he [Bobby] had had made for him as a birthday present. Joe Kennedy rang my dad and invited him to come and meet his ‘other son’. My dad’s impression was that he hadn’t even told Jack that there was going to be a photographer. He was there at his summer, weekend home, hoping to have a bit of a break and there was this photographer. I don’t think Jack Kennedy had much choice in the matter. I don’t think it was an easy relationship.
Jacques Lowe died in May 2001. In some ways are you glad that he didn’t live to see his negatives destroyed?
I imagine if he had been alive on September the 11th he would have just run down there and risked his life to try to save them. He was a very young 72. He had lots of things that he still wanted to do but I think that loss would have been unbearable for him.
My Kennedy Years: A Memoir by Jacques Lowe, published by Thames & Hudson on 23 September at £24.95. Jacques Lowe: My Kennedy Years, Proud Chelsea, 26th September–24th November 2013. www.proud.co.uk
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