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Book review: 'Shooting Kennedy'

By LOU MARANO

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- As the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches, memorial volumes of many types are filling bookstore windows and display tables. The theme of one is that famous photos of the Kennedys evoke strong feelings largely because they activate latent memories of other powerful images in sculpture, painting and popular culture.

"I'm really interested in image pairings," said David M. Lubin, author of "Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images," which will appear early in November. Lubin, Charlotte C. Weber professor of Art at Wake Forest University, believes we are all immersed in a visual culture with inescapable artistic lineages.

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Everything we say and do is influenced by past eras, he said in a phone interview from Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Thousands of images got snapped. The ones that really had longevity are those that photo editors recognized as having dramatic compositions and powerful lighting effects -- things that had been established for us over the centuries by visual artists."

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The time frame of the book is 1953-63. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

"I'm trying to show how during that 10-year Cold War period a plethora of representations from high culture, middle-brow culture and low culture are all swarming around and influencing the way history-makers such as John F. Kennedy behave," said Lubin, "and how the society at large perceives Kennedy and the other historical actors through these pre-existing representations."

Lubin views his approach as transhistorical rather than ahistorical. He said the juxtaposition of images from different eras does not contravene history.

"I don't see myself as Jungian," said Lubin. "I'm not into archetypal, ahistorical forms. But it seems to me highly historical that at any given moment, such as 1963 America, people's behavior is heavily influenced by representations that have filtered down from a diversity of historical ages."

Still photography calls up statuary and paintings in ways moving images do not. Take, for example, the famous UPI photo of John-John Kennedy saluting. Lubin viewed the archival film footage at the Library of Congress, which shows Jackie leaning down and whispering something in the little boy's ear.

"And then she stands up, and then he does the salute," said Lubin. "There's a kind of contrivance that the iconic still photo doesn't give us."

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Lubin doubts Kennedy would have been the kind of legendary hero he is had it not been for Life and Look magazines, which flourished during the golden age of the still image.

Asked if he thought Kennedy was subconsciously aware of how he held himself, Lubin replied: "Yeah, very much."

Lubin pairs Paul Schutzer's photo of a luminous John Kennedy with his arm extended against a distant throng at the 1961 Inaugural Ball with the famous statue of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.), the first Roman emperor, found in the ruins of Augustus' wife's villa at Prima Porta. This, in turn, is paired with the Greek bronze youth of Antikythera (ca. 340 B.C.), whose arm is similarly extended.

It doesn't seem to matter that during Augustus' lifetime, and for almost two millennia thereafter, the Antikythera youth lay at the bottom of the Aegean Sea. What matters is that Augustus and Kennedy each was the most powerful man in his world.

"The Greeks gave us a language for male beauty and heroism," Lubin told UPI. "And the Romans gave us a visual language for gravitas and moral superiority of authority."

The professor said these things are as much a part of our language today as words of Greek and Latin roots.

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"My method is often to say: Here's how these things are different. Here's how they are alike. What can we make from that?"

Neo-classical art, especially that of French revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), figures heavily in the book. For example, Lubin compares the famous photo of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One -- flanked by Lady Bird and Jackie -- with David's "The Oath of the Horatii" (1786).

Lubin's favorite pairing in the book is the Altar of Augustan Peace -- which depicts the Julio-Claudian imperial family circa 10 B.C. -- and the photo of Jackie and her children standing with the extended Kennedy family outside St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington.

He also twins a shot of Jackie and the children walking down the steps of St. Matthew's with Benjamin West's "Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus," a 1768 painting Lubin calls "one of the foundational works of American art, as well as one of the earliest examples of neo-classicism."

On the altar, Germanicus appears as a toddler. He was a wildly popular young general whom the Roman populace had expected to become emperor, but he died on while a diplomatic mission to Asia Minor in 19 A.D.

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Although Lubin does not draw this parallel, Germanicus' widow -- the dignified but high-strung Agrippina -- disconcerted the emperor Tiberius in much the same way Jackie disconcerted Lyndon Johnson.

Maybe this is a parallel too far. But that's the problem with academic exercises such as Lubin's. They are contagious and addictive. The brain is a pattern-matching organ, and it can go on drawing parallels past all utility.

Is it really useful, for example, to note that despite the obvious differences between Jackie Kennedy and Doris Day, "they each played a major role in an assassination movie"?

And linking JFK, slain in the open limousine, with David's 1793 painting of the vicious Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his bath, probably obscures more than it illuminates.

Predictably, the brie-and-Chablis politics of the professorate mar an otherwise stimulating book. Among other leftist tropes, Lubin ominously notes that John Kennedy "was a 'fellow traveler' of the right-wing anti-Communists without being one himself."

In fact, JFK was a fierce Cold Warrior whose untimely death at the hands of a defector to the Soviet Union, followed by his successor's bungling of the Vietnam War, cut the Democratic Party from its moorings.

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Lubin is entitled to his exaggeration when he says that Abraham Zapruder's 26-second home movie, which recorded the assassination, captured the instant when "the lights went out in American history." It's hard to convey to young people the sense of confidence that was lost at that moment.

"Shooting Kennedy" is a carefully researched and emotionally evocative treatment of a cultural and political watershed.

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