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The Presidents' Man

Photographer David Hume Kennerly

Political photographer David Hume Kennerly has been capturing history through a camera lens for more than four decades.

The list of world leaders he has focused on reads like a VIP roster for a Capitol Hill function, and includes all eight of the U.S. presidents who have held office over the course of the last 40 years. That’s right. Kennerly has photographed Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The group presidential photos are compelling, as they tend to show the democratic and republican powers in a relaxed state of camaraderie. And yet Kennerly’s images shot at the forefront of the Washington scene only account for one part of his prolific portfolio. Another part consists of his military conflict coverage that began during the Vietnam War while he was working as a combat photographer for United Press International. His images of the war won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. And in the years that followed, he positioned himself and his photographic equipment close to the front lines of seven more wars, probably prompting James Earl Jones to once aptly quip, “David Hume Kennerly is like Forrest Gump, except he was really there.”

From his award-winning photos, it is evident that Kennerly was there in Vietnam not only in body, but also in soul. Easter Sunday Near Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1972, depicts the utter loneliness of war by causing viewers to experience the haunting feeling of abandonment that can surround a soldier in enemy territory. Seemingly using the oversized cross that hangs around the neck of the shirtless GI, Kennerly raises questions about faith, God, and on a broader scale, even the role religion has played in military conflicts since the beginning of time. When a photographer can convey all of this with one image, he is bound to have an impressive career ahead of him.   

After Kennerly’s two and one-half-year assignment in Vietnam came to an end, he headed to Washington where he was soon appointed President Gerald R. Ford’s personal photographer. The interview went something like this. President Ford: “David, how do you see the job of the White House photographer?” Kennerly: “In order for me to consider it, two conditions would have to be met. I would require total access at all times, and I would need to report to you directly.” The next day Kennerly was offered the job. He was 27 at the time.
While working at the White House, Kennerly was granted unprecedented clearance within the highest echelons of the political arena. His office was in the West Wing, and he stowed his cameras in the drawer of a desk that was stationed outside the Oval Office. Throughout his usually 14- to 16-hour work days, he would shoot pictures of all major and minor events with a fine-tuned eye that could see andreveal the story that would serve history properly.

And with every shot Kennerly took, he solidified personal connections with his subjects. This established rapport would help him gain entrée into many important historical events in the future. Now, it’s worth noting that Kennerly didn’t always have friends in such high places — not that this ever stopped him.  

A Roseburg, Oregon native, Kennerly was hot on the trail of the story from an early age. When a local garage went up in flames, 12-year-old Kennerly ran straight to the blaze to investigate. While other spectators moved back out of danger’s way, Kennerly was ready to hoist himself into the action. As he watched a local newspaper photographer bypass the police line to take pictures, he realized how a camera could provide him with his ticket to the show — the show that was off-limits to the general public.

It was the thrill associated with being on the inside of the drama that accounted for Kennerly’s early interest in photography. Through the years, as he became more of a history buff and started reading indepth about world affairs and their starring characters, he focused his attention on building a historical photographic library of the political realm. He accomplished this and much more with his instinctual ability to capture the essence of the person or event found in front of his lens.

Kennerly has said more than once, “In photography, everything can be taught, except how to see.” And it is no mystery that the way Kennerly sees has made him a commodity to top news publications again and again. While working for Time magazine in the ’70s and ’80s, Kennerly covered leading stories, including Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Israel and the mass suicide in Jonestown. In 1985, he managed to shoot exclusive photos of the first Geneva summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. This photo opportunity was a coup that did not help put him in the good graces of other photojournalists, but Kennerly kept his eye on the goal.

And his Fireside Summit picture proves that he did the job with his usual award-winning caliber. Using the backdrop of the roaring fire to his advantage, Kennerly forces the viewer to remember the strong political divide between the leaders who appear so cozy within their perfectly homey environment. Even Kennerly’s rivals must admit that this image serves history.

If you would like to see other ways in which Kennerly has done history justice, visit Kennerly.com, where you can view and purchase more than 500 of the photographer’s images. Upon perusing the site, you will notice that Kennerly puts his camera down every now and again to write a book or do public speaking engagements. And then he picks his camera right back up again in order to help companies build historical libraries. Kennerly is on the move, always in search of the next great photo opportunity.
 

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