American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times at Penrith Regional Gallery

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To celebrate 100 years since the birth of President John F. Kennedy (JFK), exhibitions are popping up all over America and in other places around the world. I was absolutely not expecting an exhibition at Penrith Regional Art Gallery and Museum. I was shocked to see that they were displaying photographs of Kennedy in an exhibition titled: American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times. Penrith is approximately one hour by train from Sydney CBD. The journey was worth it to see the exhibition.

I was so excited to see how a regional museum tackled his presidency and how they selected to display the photographs. In total, there were four rooms and a small hallway. Each room represented a different theme covering the early years, the presidential campaign, and his time as president. It was in the cutest little house inside the gallery complex. You felt as though you were literally walking into someone’s place. Once inside, the video playing footage of the Kennedy campaign etc, transformed the space entirely.

It was a perfect size for an exhibition. I spent around 45 minutes looking at the display, but, you could easily see it all in only 30 minutes. To start, there is a thematic panel welcoming visitors to the space explaining how Kennedy and the media were inseparable. His presidency really was in this ‘golden age of photojournalism’ (one of the many reasons why I find his presidency so fascinating). You are then informed that the Kennedy family conveyed a new vision of America – one filled with change and opportunity. It was a very interesting way to introduce the exhibition. It conforms to how JFK is regarded today – as the hopeful President who never had the chance to complete one term of his presidency.

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After reading the panel there is no set way to see the photographs. It makes sense to start in the first room on the left that depicts the early years of Kennedy up until his presidential campaign. Now I have seen multitudes of photographs of his presidency. I’ve visited the JFK Library and Museum in Boston a few times and have researched his presidency for many assignments and just out of interest. There were so many photographs I had never seen before which was seriously exciting. I liked how they covered his early life before launching into his thousand days in office. Also, the photographs weren’t just of him. They have made a great effort to select images that also depict the social, cultural, and wider political issues America faced under his presidency. For example, there was a powerful image of the Birmingham Riots.

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The rooms were all curated with such care. The photographs were well positioned and did not clutter the space. Often I feel galleries are too sparse or too cluttered so it was nice to feel a balance. My favourite room was right down the back of the house also on the left. The image of JFK and Robert “Bobby” Kennedy sitting on a bed contemplating everything is one of my favourite images of his presidency. It was used on the book cover for “Brothers” by David Talbot. It is just a stunning photograph capturing the hidden history behind the public face of JFK that eluded to nothing but confidence.

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I also enjoyed the room that looked at the youth of Kennedy including family photographs and photographs of his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier. There was a small thematic panel exploring the family dynamic of the Kennedy family which is complex, tense, and filled with misfortune.

I also wanted to share a couple of photographs I had never seen before. The first is of Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in June 1963. Mere months before his assassination. The photograph depicts Kennedy at Checkpoint Charlie, looking at the wall with a crowd of East Berliners seen in the background. It would be fantastic to have this image on display at the Kennedy Museum in Berlin!

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Another image I had never seen before was one of JFK sitting in a chair writing something while children crowd around the window outside. It is such a fun photograph and I spent a little while contemplating whether or not it was entirely staged. Clearly the majority of his photographs as President have been staged to conform to a certain image. This one, however, looked more natural than the others.

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Finally, another highlight image was not of JFK himself, but, of the voting booth during the election. You can only see the legs of those inside the booth. Again, this is a quirky image and a great addition to the exhibition space.

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The only real critical thought I had throughout my visit was that occassionaly there were obvious spelling mistakes on the labels. There was one glaring word in the introductory panel that did not fit in the sentence. I did only notice these errors post-visit while I was looking through my photographs.

Overall, I had a great day spending time with the photographs of Kennedy in Penrith. I would highly encourage those with even a slight interest in his presidency to make the journey and see the exhbition for yourself. Out of all the photographic exhibitions of Kennedy I have seen, this one ranks amongst the best. Everything from the location to the video sound permeating the rooms allowed it to be a great tribute to a fascinating President.

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