‘Bobby, Martin & John’: Photos by Stanley Tretick at Southern Vermont Arts Center

Stanley Tretick was a photojournalist from the 1950s through 1980s.  One hundred and fifty of his images are well-displayed at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont, through September 12.  They merit a more than casual look.

Tretick took his best-known photos between 1961 and 1963.  They are examples of being in the right place at the right time and having the wit to know what to do — two not insignificant knacks.

He took two iconic shots.  The first was a black and white of John F. Kennedy, Jr., crawling on the floor of the Oval Office whilst his father confers with staffers.  The second was a color cover for Look of Jack Kennedy in a polo shirt speeding in a golf cart with nieces and nephews hanging on for the ride. 

His pictures of Jack and Bobby Kennedy suggest it was not their youth that most affected us.  It was their unselfconscious caring and affection for children.  The crowd shots of Bobby Kennedy’s Indiana whistle-stop tour show children reciprocated.

Tretick’s shot of Jack on his knees on some airport’s tarmack introducing John John to a new toy was one I’d not seen before.  For me at 17, the tragedy of November 22, 1963, was sharpened each time I saw Jackie by the memory of her miscarriage five months before.  It seemed a harbinger.

Jackie Kennedy does not come across as well in Tretick’s photos as other family members.  Perhaps I am projecting what I now know into the distance and formality between her and her husband.

To me, the most interesting images are the most poorly reproduced.  (I don’t know enough about photography to attribute their grainy quality to Tretick’s film or to subsequent darkroom work.) 

Look assigned Tretick to the March on Washington. in August 1963.  None of Tretick’s pictures is a classic.  But none is uninteresting, and some are riveting.

A group photo at the White House shows the relaxed March organizers with the very uncomfortable President and Vice President who seem to be trying to slip out of the frame.  Their sour expressions contrast with the sly grin on the face of A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the boisterous smile spread across the face of Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers.

I found myself most affected by the photos with Reuther and Randolph.  Today, we — and the SVAC — identify the March on Washington with Martin Luther King.  But it was Randolph’s idea — and huge gamble.  Randolph gets the center of Tretick’s group shots.  The best of these shows the organizers sitting inside the Lincoln Memorial on ordinary folding chairs.  Randolph’s noble head perfectly aligns with Lincoln’s.

Walter Reuther:  who even remembers him today?  But he was a giant whose life also was cut short.  In the late 30s, he survived attacks by Ford Motor thugs; in the late 40s, an assassination attempt; and in the late 60s, a suspicious plane crash.  A second suspicious plane crash killed him and his wife in 1970.  His support for Civil Rights was early, unfeigned and public.  He was the only white on the March’s program.

And, there are other brave men in those pictures from that steamy August day 47 years ago.  I think the only one left alive is now Congressman John Lewis, then the head of the feared Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC).

The photos displayed at the Southern Vermont Arts Center are worth seeing as historical documents.  Most weren’t published.  They remind me how important photographers’ culls are to our understanding of people and events.

The exhibit displays Tretick’s work coherently and to great advantage.  But I have two quibbles with the presentation.

First, the quotations that accompany the pictures are attributed but unsourced.  A solid hour on the internet couldn’t produce, for instance, the remarkable quotations attributed to Walter Reuther.  Second, the recordings played in the gallery of King and Kennedy speeches are distractions from the photographs.

Nonetheless, this is a show worth seeing.

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