Lawrence Schiller has traveled the world, bringing history into focus, from the front lines of politics and pop culture.
He’s photographed Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali — and Lee Harvey Oswald. He also directed part of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” His 11th book was “Marilyn & Me: A Photographer’s Memories.”
And now he’s coming to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art at 1 p.m. March 23, to discuss the golden age of photojournalism and his work amassing the touring exhibition, “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times.” The collection of 77 photographs captures the charismatic president’s life, from his infancy in 1917 to his death in November 1963.
Kennedy was a key player in the golden age of photojournalism in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and Schiller was on the forefront at home and abroad, camera in hand.
“Kennedy opened the door. He was the first Paul Newman of politics,” Schiller said by phone from his home in Newtown, Pa., near the point where George Washington crossed the Delaware River. “And that was the beginning of the Kennedy era.”
The world was changing, and so was technology, ushering in a new way to gather, record and deliver news.
“You have to look at how we communicated coming out of World War II,” Schiller said. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt really established radio as a form of communication, with his Fireside Chats.”
People still gathered around the radio to listen to news, serials and soap operas. But the tide began to turn for photographers when the bulky large-format press cameras gave way to smaller models that were more mobile and easier to handle.
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“In essence, photojournalism started to come alive in the early to late ’50s,” Schiller said.
National Geographic and Time magazines became the educators of the world, he noted. “And LIFE magazine became the visual educator of the world,” he added.
Smaller cameras allowed photographers to shoot more quickly, use more natural light, and ship the film faster — all contributing to the rise of photojournalism.
Schiller started in the late ’50s, working as a photojournalist for a local newspaper, the La Jolla Light, in La Jolla, Calif. His star began to rise as he collected awards for his work, and before he finished college, he was traveling the world on assignment for the French magazine Paris-Match, as well as Life.
“I started to meet all the great photographers of that era,” he said. “I remember meeting Margaret Bourke-White, the woman who had the first cover of Life, the first cover of Fortune magazine. I remember her telling me in the elevator — I was only 21 at the time — ‘Remember Larry, you just better be alive when you die.’ That was her advice to me. ‘Don’t die in a hospital.’
“This was a period where everybody communicated. You’d pick up the phone — you had to call collect in those days — but it was a one-one one relationship with subjects. Celebrities didn’t have hair dressers and business managers and PR people running around.
“I remember photographing Jack Lemmon once. I was very tired, and he knew that I had to drive like 40 miles. ‘Sleep on the (expletive) couch Larry.’ Do you think that would ever happen at Kim Kardashian’s house? No, even though I know the Kardashians — known them even before they were born.
“So that was the golden age of journalism,” he said, “and there were like 40 or 50 of us worldwide who covered everything.”
The Kennedys were willing subjects, and Schiller photographed Robert Kennedy before turning his lens on older brother John, when they were young senators.
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He also photographed Richard Nixon “a lot,” and Nixon would try to set up the shots, ordering Schiller around.
“(John) Kennedy didn’t care how you photographed him, where you photographed him, whether it was from behind, whether in front. (The whole family) knew the power of an image, and they weren’t afraid of the visual image,” Schiller said. “I think the father instilled that in them.”
Just as photography has evolved over the years, so has his career.
“I reinvent myself every 20 years,” he said. “That’s why I’ve got five kids, five wives, five grandchildren, and all the wives get together on Hannukah and Thanksgiving. One of them, sadly, passed on. We’re all like one family, and my first wife stays over at my house when she comes to visit some of the grandchildren.”
When Schiller grew bored with photojournalism — “It was just different heads on the same body” — he became a motion picture producer and director, picking up an Oscar and seven Emmys. Then Norman Mailer taught him how to write. “And I’ve written five New York Times best-selling books,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I just enjoy the challenge of doing something I’ve never done before,” he said.
“Who would say, ‘Larry Schiller, you’re going to curate the centennial exhibition of JFK at the Smithsonian.’ Well, I’ve never done that before. When the Smithsonian sat down with me, they were scared (expletive), excuse my language. And before they knew it, they had seen something that they normally would never have done themselves. It just knocked them out.
“Coming up with that logo of JFK walking, that’s just out of the ‘Mad Men’ era, the way that’s done. To have that era in the American Art Museum in the main hall — they loved it, because it brought, again, the television audience into the Smithsonian. When I invented that logo, I said to my art director, ‘I need a logo, an image that is going to appeal to the people of today.’ I’m not interested in the people who are 60, 70 years old. Even though I’m 80, that’s the way I think.”
He had 43,000 photos from which to choose, all on a highly organized database. From there, he narrowed the field to 5,000, then about 600.
At that point, he and his wife, Nina Weiner, founding president and chairwoman emerita of the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation, sat down at the dining room table and laid out the exhibit pieces.
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“It was easy,” he said. “ ... It’s not difficult if you know the subject. You have to have a certain amount of taste, you have to understand how to present images that look fresh, even if they might have been seen before.”
The response has been “extraordinary,” he said, with people lining up and the down the street to see the exhibition in Springfield, Ill.
He hopes viewers take away a couple of points to ponder.
“Don’t be afraid of youth, number one,” he said. “Believe in the person, not necessarily his heritage, because that’s what people did with Kennedy. They didn’t worry about his Catholicism.”
He also points to Kennedy’s famous charge in his inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
“And if we want this to be a country that will be the right home for our children and grandchildren,” Schiller said, “then that’s what we should take away.”
If You Go
• What: Lawrence Schiller lecture: “JFK & The Golden Age of Photojournalism”
• Where: Second-floor auditorium, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 1 p.m. March 23
• Admission: Free; regular fees for gallery admission
• Speaker’s website: Lawrenceschiller.com
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