Capturing the Kennedys

Thomasina Lowe
01 October 2013

For five years, John F Kennedy spent nearly every day with his official photographer, Jacques Lowe. To mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Thomasina Lowe introduces her late father's archive

Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. My father was born with a camera in his hand. He often used to joke about the fact that his mother had wanted him to be a baker and had discouraged him from pursuing his passion for photography. As far as she was concerned, if you could bake bread you would never go hungry. With photography, there was no such guarantee. It was only once he reached notoriety as the Kennedy photographer that my grandmother would boast about her son, the famous photographer, and my father would smile, a wry smile. In my father's words, ‘I always knew I wanted to be a photographer. I felt I had no choice but to be a photographer. I could think of doing nothing else.'

My father, Jacques Lowe, was born in 1930 in Cologne, Germany, to a Russian Jewish mother and a German father. His early years were tumultuous. Once the Nazis began hunting for Jewish children in the schools, he was forced into hiding in the German countryside with his mother. He was nine years old and never returned to formal education. After several difficult postwar years, he and his mother emigrated to the United States. He was 19 years old. It is hard to imagine how nine years later, fate would conspire to bring together two men, my father and Bobby Kennedy, and how this chance meeting would literally change the way history would be viewed. 

In the years leading up to this meeting, my father pursued his passion as a photographer in various ways. He worked for a variety of magazines: Life, Look, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, Coronet and Paris Match. This was a great era for photojournalism when eight to 12 pages were routinely given to one feature, allowing both the photographer and the journalist great creative licence to tell the story in its entirety. My father also worked as personal assistant to several photographers, primarily Arnold Newman, who my father credited as teaching him how to paint with light. It was in the darkroom, where he spent entire days, where he refined his skills as a photographer.

By the time my father met Bobby Kennedy in 1956, he had become a successful photojournalist. In his role as chief counsel, Bobby Kennedy was becoming a minor celebrity in Washington and my father was commissioned three times in the same week by different magazines to photograph him. At the end of the third session, Bobby Kennedy quipped, ‘We should stop meeting like this. People will start talking' and then invited my father back to his home in McLean, Virginia, to meet his wife and children. From that chance meeting, a friendship grew between the two men. My father would spend many weekends at Bobby's home, which he described as a photographer's paradise: in his words ‘a happy madhouse' full of children and a menagerie of animals.

Never parted from his camera, my father in his own quiet way took many photographs during his time with Bobby Kennedy and his family. A year later, as a show of thanks for his hospitality and friendship, my father gave Bobby Kennedy a set of 124 choice prints. Bobby later gave a second set to his father, Joe Kennedy, as a birthday present. Joe Kennedy was so impressed with his gift, he asked my father to photograph his other son. ‘Which one is that?' my father asked. ‘Jack,' came the reply. 

When reminiscing about his Kennedy years, my father always used to say that his first meeting with Jack Kennedy did not go well. Returning to Hyannis Port for a rest after ten days of campaigning, it was always my father's impression that Joe Kennedy had not given Jack any notice that a photographer would be there. He was icily polite and my father found it hard to reach him. Jackie and her one-year-old daughter Caroline joined the session, which helped lower Jack's defences. But my father returned to New York thinking he had bungled the job. He felt the contact sheets confirmed his disappointment, and with reluctance he sent them off with no expectation of hearing again from Jack. Several weeks later, to my father's great surprise, Jack Kennedy rang him asking him to come over to talk about the photographs. This second meeting was very different from the first. Jack, wrapped in a towel, greeted my father at the door in a relaxed mood. The setting was very informal, and after apologising for his surly mood at the last session, Jack praised my father for being able to produce such beautiful pictures under difficult circumstances. The portrait of Jack, Jackie and Caroline with her mother's pearls in her mouth has since become an iconic photograph. In this meeting, my father warmed to Jack Kennedy and certainly Jack saw in my father the potential to build on what he had seen in those first photographs.

Some weeks later, Kennedy won the Massachusetts election and overnight became a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in the 1960 presidential campaign. As his engagements increased, my father was asked — with very little formality and practically no direction — if he would like to come and document what he saw. Eager to get it right, my father asked for some direction but none was given. 'It's up to you. You're the artist. Get on with it.' 

My father found this lack of direction very frustrating. He was daunted by the prospect of getting it wrong, but in a way this lack of direction allowed him the creative freedom to document all that he saw, both the public and private lives of the Kennedy family, without any restrictions. This is when my father's life changed forever as a photographer. Teddy Kennedy once said my father played a critical role in explaining the Kennedy family to the rest of the United States. 

And the rest is history, as they say. After Jack and then Bobby were assassinated, along with Martin Luther King Jr, my father, like so many Democrats, fled America for Europe, disheartened and full of sorrow. John F Kennedy had inspired people to serve their country but with him gone, my father lost his direction and sense of purpose. He used to say he put down his camera the day Jack Kennedy was shot, and didn't pick it up again until he returned to the US nearly 20 years later, when he rekindled his working relationship with the Kennedy family.

I was born during his European retreat. Surprisingly, my father spoke little about his Kennedy years. I understand now that he found it too painful to relive his precious memories. My father was a modest man and never boasted about his time with the Kennedys, so I grew up thinking what he had experienced was normal. When he did open up, it was usually late at night. On a balmy evening, nestled in his Tribeca loft, after a stroll home from one of his favourite restaurants, he would pour himself a glass of wine and without much prompting, he would start talking. 

He spoke about Jack and Bobby, and the rest of the Kennedys as if they were an extension of his own family. These were not acquaintances of his — he loved them, each and every one. He laughed when he recalled Jack's wit and wicked sense of humour, like the time he invited my father into a top secret meeting of military officers without warning them that a photographer, with clearance, would be joining them. He marvelled at Bobby's courage and humanity, like the time he insisted on going ahead with a scheduled talk to a group of African Americans only days after Martin Luther King was shot, and the riots had broken out in the streets. Man to man, he spoke to my father of his own grief about the loss of his brother. But instead of inciting the rage felt by many men and women at the loss of their hero, he drew out their commonality and their humanity. My father felt privileged and blessed to have known the Kennedys so well. While in Bobby Kennedy Jr's words: 'Jacques was a wonderful friend. I feel like I lost a member of my family when he passed away. He was a guy who really was the keeper of many of these memories.'