I've just purchased that new book of photographs by Richard Avedon, THE KENNEDYS: PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY. While I had little to do with producing these photos way back in 1961, I do remember the event. At the time I was a second assistant to Avedon, and assignments like this were usually reserved for the first assistant and studio manager Frank Finocchio. My turn came the following year. I did, however, do some of the darkroom work on the Kennedy assignment while Frank made the finish prints.
What I found surprising about the book is the amount of text devoted to Avedon and especially to his photographic techniques. There are contact sheets of several of the complete rolls of 120 film, straight prints made from selected negatives, Avedon's finish prints from the same images, and examples of the extensive amount of retouching. Unlike the more "purist" photographers such as Ansel Adams, Dick required that his prints be heavily manipulated for maximum emotional effect. I learned these techniques from Frank, and took over when he left in early 1962.
It was Jacqueline Kennedy who agreed to the Harper's Bazaar photo session as J.F.K. himself was not very interested in appearing in a fashion magazine. Sensing this, Dick Avedon offered to also do photos for the more mainstream Look Magazine, which was acceptable to the president-to-be. The outdoor-casual Look photos differ greatly in both attitude and style from the more formal indoor studio portraits taken for Harper's Bazaar, even though they were both taken at the same place in Palm Beach, Florida on the morning of January 3, 1961.
In 1966 Avedon donated all of the Harper's Bazaar photos from that session to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which now owns the copyrights on them. The Look photos vanished when that magazine went out of business but were rediscovered among Jacqueline Kennedy's papers in 2006.
Avedon was a great admirer of the Kennedys, and had previously photographed Jackie for Harper's Bazaar in 1958. So it was with great shock that he received the news of J.F.K.'s assassination. On November 22, 1963 we were in the middle of a sitting in his New York studio at 110 East 58th Street. I went to call our color processing lab to have them pick up the load of exposed film, but the phone didn't work. Neither did any of the other phones. So I went downstairs to an office below us and asked to use theirs. Those didn't work, either. I immediately thought that the phone line to the building was out of service, so I went outside to use a pay phone on Park Avenue. As that also didn't work I noticed a great deal of commotion in the streets, and ran back upstairs to turn on the radio. Then we heard the terrible news.
Avedon spent the next day wandering the streets, photographing people's emotional responses to the sad event.