JFK's In-House Photographer on the White House Years

February 27, 2004

See a Photo Gallery of the Kennedys.

On TV: The Kennedy Mystique: Creating Camelot premieres Monday, March 1, at 9 p.m. ET/10 p.m. PT on the National Geographic Channel.

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy took office on Jan 20, 1961, photography had little to do with defining the image of a presidency. But that changed when pictures of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and their children, Caroline and John-John, demystified the public and personal life of a U.S. first family.

Cecil Stoughton helped shape this era. He began his stint as a photographer in the White House just after Kennedy took office. Many of his behind-the-scenes pictures have since taken on iconic status, having graced millions of newspapers and hundreds of books.

Stoughton's unusual access to John F. Kennedy's private life expanded the public's view of the presidency. The pictures were pivotal in projecting the image of a youthful, dynamic President ushering in a new era in U.S. history. Here he shares "snapshots" detailing his tenure in JFK's West Wing.

How did you land a job as a photographer in the Kennedy White House?

I was working in the Public Information Office for the Army when my boss, Maj. Gen. Chester Clifton, was selected to be the military aide to President Kennedy.

At the inauguration day parade I took a picture of the President waving to all the remaining crewmembers standing on a model of PT-109.

Major General Clifton provided logistical support for the President and was present at all functions. He knew about my photographic abilities and told the President and Jackie that they would be in the public eye and needed someone in-house to capture various occasions and release the pictures to the press.

The advantage of an in-house photographer was that they could control me—if I did something wrong I would end up in Guam the next day!

Why did the media treat JFK differently from other Presidents?

Prior to JFK we had Eisenhower, and there was no need for a photographer. He was about 63 years old and he didn't have the charisma and charm of President Kennedy, and he didn't have a young family that engaged the American public. So the press were not as interested in photographing Eisenhower. Also the art of photography hadn't arrived yet—the press came with these big, bulky, cumbersome cameras that clicked twice and that was it.

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