My Kennedy Polaroids: Instant History |



JFK Polaroids

In 2013, there’s so much instant photography all around us that nobody bothers to call it “instant photography.” And it’s not just the photography that’s instant: At every public event of note, the audience includes people with smartphones who snap pictures and share them with the world, no wait required. It’s increasingly easy to forget that life was ever any different.

Back in 1960, though, instant photography was still remarkable, and still synonymous with Edwin Land‘s twelve-year-old invention, the Polaroid Land Camera. It was a pricey hobby — even the cheapest Polaroid cameras cost around $70, or more than $500 in current dollars — and considerably more cumbersome, complicated and glitch-prone than it would become in the 1970s, when Polaroid’s even more remarkable SX-70 camera came along. Instant-photography enthusiasts were far outnumbered by ordinary folk who used conventional film and couldn’t see what their snapshots looked like until they came back from the photofinisher days or weeks later.

On April 23, 1960, a Land Camera owner attended the 1960 Pear Blossom Festival parade in Medford, Oregon. The Grand Marshal that year was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination; our Polaroid photographer captured the senator’s visit in at least two instant pictures.

Five decades later, those two photos wound up in a case at an antique mall in Portland, on the other side of the state. In late December, as I antiqued during my holiday break, they caught my eye — and when I flipped them over and saw POLAROID stamped on their backsides, I had to have them. There they are at the top of this post.

The John F. Kennedy in these instant snapshots is the same confident, smiling, well-coiffed figure familiar from a thousand other pictures I’ve seen. (All in a historical context — I was born slightly over four months after his death.) But these aren’t prints or scans or reproductions of any sort. The photos themselves emerged from a camera which had been held a few feet from their subject, looking almost exactly as they do today; they document Kennedy’s visit to Medford, but they were also part of it.

Here’s a better look at one of the pictures, in which the senator is apparently posing for our anonymous photographer. I don’t know for sure where it was taken, but the most logical guess is that it’s the lobby of the Medford Hotel, which was the location of a post-parade luncheon. The pictures were taken with Polaroid’s amazingly speedy Type 47 film, introduced in 1959 and rated at 3000 ASA, which would have let our shutterbug take this interior shot without the use of a flash.

John F. Kennedy in Medford

Pierre Salinger on TIME covr

Pierre Salinger on the cover of TIME’s October 16, 1964 issue.

The partially-visible man at the far left, in necktie and belted trenchcoat, seems to be Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary during both the 1960 campaign and his presidency, and later a European correspondent for ABC News. (I should have been able to figure that out on my own, but presidential historian David Pietrusza, author of 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon, identified him for me.) I’m not sure who the lady standing to Senator Kennedy’s left is.

And the bowtied gent in between Salinger and the lady  –  why, that’s Wally Watkins, the man who drove Kennedy in the Pear Blossom parade. Born in 1926, Watkins was a local businessman, involved at the time in real estate and timber. Almost fifty-three years later, he’s still a resident of the Medford area today. (Thanks to Paul Fattig of Southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, who’s profiled Watkins in the past, for putting me in touch with him.)

Here’s Wally Watkins behind the wheel, driving JFK through downtown Medford.

JFK in Medford Pear Blossom Parade

Why did Watkins drive Kennedy’s car? Because it was his car  – Watkins happened to own a beautiful cream-colored 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark III. “I had one of those convertibles where you could fold the top down in back so a guy could sit up on top back there,” he explained to me. A friend of his at the Pear Blossom parade thought it would be the ideal vehicle for the Grand Marshal and asked Watkins to play chauffeur.  ”I said ‘heck, yes, I’m a Democrat anyway,’” Watkins remembers.

Polaroid Pathfinder 110A camera


A Polaroid 110A Pathfinder camera, manufactured from 1957-1960 and one of the models which may have been used by our Kennedy photographer.

April 23 also happened to be opening day for the fishing season; before the parade opportunity came up, Watkins had been planning to go fishing with his son at Oregon’s Klamath Lake. He admitted as much to JFK, who, he says, told him, “I’ll make it up to you, don’t worry.”

And indeed, Kennedy later sent Watkins a letter inviting him to his inauguration. “But I didn’t go,” Watkins laments. “I figured that he’d be elected twice, and I’d go to the next one.” It was not to be, but Watkins did get to meet Robert F. Kennedy, who campaigned in Medford eight years after his brother had — and only six weeks before his own assassination.

Back on April 23, 1960, Watkins didn’t know that the man in the back of his convertible would become one of the twentieth century’s most iconic figures, but it was still a big deal for a leading presidential candidate to visit Medford, a city with a population of 24,000. JFK made the visit as part of a two-day campaign trip to Oregon, which also included stops in Portland and Eugene at high schools, a Methodist church and a company called Ozark Industries. His itinerary indicates that he arrived in Medford at 9:30 in the morning and was gone by 3:30pm.

I’m glad that our Polaroid photographer recorded part of JFK’s time in Medford, but there are subtle signs that he or she may have been less than an expert Polaroid user. The Land Camera prints of the time were  alarmingly fragile, prone to both damage and fading. The company addressed these basic flaws by bundling each roll of film with a tiny squeegee which the photographer was supposed to use — immediately — to swab down photos with a pungent protective chemical coating. Leer más “My Kennedy Polaroids: Instant History |”