By Bill Dobbins
The photographic career of David Hume Kennerly is amazing in its scope and the degree of his accomplishments. Looking at it in perspective, it seems clear that he came along as just the right point in history when his talents could best be so fully realized.
And that his kind of opportunity for photographers simply doesn’t exist today.
There are eras in history in which certain kinds of careers are possible that wouldn’t have happened earlier or later. Elvis and The Beatles came along just at the beginning of the emergence of certain kinds of music. Their careers can never be duplicated. No novelist is going to make the same kind of impression on the culture as did Ernest Hemingway. Coming along as he did at the beginnings of “modern art,” Picasso had opportunities not available to any modern painter.
If Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had come on the scene five years earlier or later they would likely not have become such superstars dominating the computer and tech world. They happened to hit just the perfect window of history.
Over the course of the last 180 or so years, there has been a constant evolution in the technology of photography and various changes have made new opportunities available to photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson could not have perfected his “decisive moment” techniques in the age of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady using the available wet-plate view cameras. It took the invention of the 35MM Leica and the proliferation of print publications with the ability to print photographs to make his career possible. The style of incredible Hollywood studio portraits of George Hurrell, shot in BW on large format cameras, became passe in later years as publications came to prefer a more informal look to photos of the stars.
Without much market for this kind of photography it became increasingly rare.
David Hume Kennerly started out shooting photos for his high school and local newspapers in the early 1960s (as did I, as a matter of fact). He was high school newspaper and annual photographer his junior and senior years (1964 and 1965) at West Linn (Oregon) High School.
At 19, right out of high school, he became a staff photographer for The Oregon Journal in 1966, This was the era in which print journalism was reaching its zenith. Television had not yet become the dominant communication source it would later develop into and the home computer and Internet were just part of an imagined future. Life and Look magazines brought picture stories to millions. Newspapers, both local and national, were powerful means of disseminating information – including photos.
The 1960s saw an incredible amount of excitement and innovation in the culture. The counter culture, including hippies, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Woodstock – and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll – flourished and developed almost over night. This period saw the beginnings of the age of truly mass media and celebrity as well, an evolution that has continued to this day. In 1962, Daniel Boorstin published a book called The Image, defining what he called “pseudo-events” compared to things happening that really mattered – and being the one of the first to point out that “heroes are famous for having done something, celebrities are famous for being well-known.”
The 1960s was a time when image came more and more to become more importance than things and events themselves and when reality became defined by what kind of images the public saw. Especially at that time, before the public had access to a huge number of different communication streams as they do today, the still photograph.
Boorstin was as prescient in his vision of the future as Arthur C. Clarke has been in the 1940s predicting the earth would eventually be surrounded by communication satellites in orbit.
Kennerly had the obvious talent to flourish in this era so target-rich for photographers. He also apparently had the right kind of personality because so many doors became open to him that would have remained closed if he has had a less attractive personality. There are two things that help make success happen – being able to do something very well and dealing with people in a way that convinces them to let you do them. You can become successful without having both of these qualities but it becomes a lot more difficult.
Kennerly moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1967 as a staff photographer for United Press International where he did photos of Senator Robert Kennedy taken just before he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennerly moved to New York for UPI, where his assignments involved everything from shooting celebrities and politicians to doing sports photos of the New York Mets. He was still in his early twenties and out shooting photos on a daily basis, perfecting and his developing his abilities and working on the 10,000 hours it takes to become a master of a trade.
In early 1970 Kennerly was transferred to the Washington, D.C. bureau of UPI. He became a member of the traveling press pool covering President Richard Nixon but this was the height of the Vietnam war and he felt he was missing out by not being there to photograph Kennerly said, “I felt like that scene in Mr. Roberts where Henry Fonda, an officer on a supply ship, watched the destroyers sail into battle while he was stuck in some South Pacific backwater port.”
Eventually Kennerly got his opportunity and was sent to Saigon in early 1971 as a combat photographer for UPI. Remember, there was no cable TV back then and most Americans saw only television coverage of the war on nightly news programs like that of Walter Conkrite. But still photos of the war in newspapers and magazines were ubiquitous and were highly influential when it came to changing American public opinion about the conflict.
But in his last assignment for UPI before leaving the US, Kennerly shot photos of the Ali-Frazier fight that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Nowadays, photographers need for the most part to be highly specialized to get work. Back in the day it was an advantage to be able to shoot everything – from combat to sports to celebrities or whatever. And there have been few photographers with the ability to cover a wider variety of subjects than David Hume Kennerly.
After returning from Vietnam Kennerly shot for Life Magazine. And when that magazine went out of business as a weekly, for Time. Again, look at the range of markets that existed for photographers in the past. Through the 50s to the 70s there was UPI, the AP, newspapers, Time, Life and Look – and more besides. In the 60s a magazine like Life might pay thousands of dollars for a major layout – the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars today.
This why a lot of young men who might have dreamed of being novelists earlier on decided instead to become photographers. This was seen as an exiting, glamorous and lucrative profession. When the movie Blow Up came along in 1966, a fictionalized drama based on the career of real-life photographer David Bailey, it had a similar effect in promoting the profession of photography as did Top Gun for naval aviation recruitment.
Eventually, Kennerly became the photo bureau chief for UPI in Southeast Asia. His assignments including traveling to The People’s Republic of China, one of the few photographers on the scene. Later he returned to Washington during the time of major events like Watergate and the resignation of Spiro Agnew. When Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president, he selected David Hume Kennerly as his personal official White House photographer.
The fact that Kennerly became White House photographer is another testament to his personality as well as his photographic skill. Working in that environment, with so many pressures, dealing with so many conflicting personalities and still being able to concentrate on doing the best photographs possible must have been a difficult task. Especially since Kennerly, unlike White House photographer who proceeded him, was given pretty much unlimited access to shoot whatever he thought appropriate. That calls for developing a degree of trust with somebody like Gerald Ford that is highly noteworthy. This relationship can be seen as both a testament to the qualities of Gerald Ford and David Kennerly as well.
Again, look at the arc of Kennerly’s career, the variety of types of photography and assignments at which he excelled and it is obvious there are very few photographers working today who have access to those kind of opportunities or markets. You might say Kennerly was a Golden Boy in a Golden Age of photography.
When Ford left office, Kennerly resigned his job.
“Dear Mr. President,
Effective January 20, 1977, at twelve noon, I hereby resign my position at the White House.
It’s been real!
David Hume Kennerly”
After the White House, Kennerly went back on contract for Time Magazine. In 1995 he became a contributing editor for Newsweek, mainly covering high profile political assignments. In fact, he has had a phenomenal career full of a wide range of accomplishments and all sorts of accolades. To this day he remains active and is a big advocate of digital photography, including the amazing possibilities of smart phone pictures. Like most great photographers, he seems to have adopted the attitude that cameras don’t shoot photos – photographers do. So make best use of whatever equipment or technology is available to you.
But as a fellow photographer, I have to make clear that Kennerly was absolutely the right photographer in the right place with the right personality at the right time. He took best advantage of the opportunities available to him but those who admire what he accomplished and want to follow his example should be warned that times have changed and so has the photography industry and the possibilities it provides.
By all means, be the best photographer you can be and make use of whatever technical means that is available to do excellent work. Realize that doing the job is only possible if others let you do the job, so personality skills are also paramount. But also keep in mind that this is a different world than confronted a young photographer in the 1960s and the challenges and opportunities today are far, far different.
Being a professional photographer in the new millennium, in the digital age, is a Brave New World and will result in kinds of careers that are not the same as those we have seen in the past.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
FEMALE PHYSIQUE SITES
- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, (1972)
- Trustee, The Gerald R. Ford Foundation, (2008-)
- Contributing editor, NBC News (2006 – 2008)
- Contributing editor, Der Spiegel magazine (2008)
- Contributing editor, Newsweek Magazine (1996 to 2006)
- Personal photographer to President Gerald R. Ford, (1974–77)
- National Program Chair for WAMU’s, “Home of the Free Student Photojournalism Project”)
- Contributing correspondent, ABC’s Good Morning America Sunday (1996–98)
- Contributing photographer, George Magazine (1996–99)
- Executive Producer, Portraits of a Lady, HBO (2011)
- Co-Executive Producer, Profiles from the Front Line, ABC reality series with Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertram Van Munster (2003)
- Executive Producer and writer, Shooter, NBC Television Movie of the Week based on his book about Vietnam combat photographers (1988)
- Executive Producer, The Taking of Flight 847, NBC Movie of the Week (1989)
- AFI Directing Fellow, 1984–85
- Contract photographer, Time magazine (1973–74, 1977–90)
- Contributing photographer, Life magazine (1972, 1993–96)
- Staff photographer, United Press International (1967–72)
- Staff photographer, The Oregonian (1967)
- Staff photographer, The Oregon Journal (1966–67)
- Producer, Discovery Channel’s four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers about the White House Chiefs of Staff (2014)
- Executive Producer of CBS/Showtime documentary The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs (2015)
- Contributing photographer, Politico Magazine (2015)
- Contributor, CNN (2016)
- On the iPhone: Secrets and Tips from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer. Goff Books, 2014
- Extraordinary Circumstances: The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford. University of Texas, Center for American History 2007
- Photo du Jour: A Picture-A-Day Journey through the First Year of the New Millennium, University of Texas Press, 2002. Photo du Jour was named one of American Photo Magazine’s Best Photo books of 2002.
- Sein Off: The Final Days of Seinfeld, HarperCollins, 1998
- Photo Op: A Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer Covers Events That Shaped Our Times, University of Texas Press, 1995
- Shooter, Newsweek Books, 1979
- David Hume Kennerly on the iPhone
- 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
- 1986 Overseas Press Club Olivier Rebbot Award for coverage of Reagan and Gorbachev’s 1985 Geneva Summit
- Five prizes each in the 2001 & 2003 White House Press Photographer’s contest
- Named one of the top 50 top Washington journalists in the March 2001 issue of The Washingtonian, the only photographer on the list
- Photo Media magazine’s 2007 Photographer of the Year
- 1997 President’s Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Greater Los Angeles Press Club.
- 1989 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama as Executive Producer of NBC’s The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story
- Overseas Press Club Award for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad (The Olivier Rebbot Award, 1986
- 1976 World Press Photo contest (two first place prizes for Cambodian coverages).
- National Press Photographers’ contest (first place).
- Honorary Doctorate, Lake Erie College, 2015
- 2016 Lucie Award for Achievement in Photojournalism
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THE DAVID HUME KENNERLY ARCHIVE PROJECT
“Last year marked the 50th anniversary of my career. To celebrate, my business partner and wife, Rebecca and I launched the David Hume Kennerly Archive Project. Our goal is to transform a half-century of photographs I’ve made and the myriad of things I’ve collected along the way into a big vibrant archive. The response has been overwhelming. Every major university we’ve spoken to wants to become the home of the Kennerly Archive, and they see my work as a powerful educational resource for future generations. They also see it as a phenomenal opportunity for public events and discussions built around historic moments documented by me. We are currently in negotiations about where it might ultimately reside.”
—David Hume Kennerly