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David Hume Kennerly
David Hume Kennerly

Barack Obama:
The Official Inaugural Book

David's latest book
Also check out David Hume Kennerly's web site

David Hume Kennerly
David Hume Kennerly (1970's)

Some highlights from David Hume Kennerly's amazing career as a photojournalist. In 1968 he photographed Robert Kennedy at the California Presidential primary moments before he was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel. He covered Vietnam for UPI where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He was President Gerald R. Ford's personal photographer. After Washington, Kennerly covered some of the biggest stories of the 70s and 80s for Time Magazine, including Egyptian President Sadat's trip to Israel, the mass suicide at Jonestown, and he was able to take exclusive photos of President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev's first meeting in Geneva in 1985.

Five Presidents - Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon
Chris/Larry: Can you tell us how you got started in photography?
David: I was born and raised in Roseburg, Oregon, and developed an interest in photography early on. I recall watching a garage burn down near my house when I was 12 years old, which is a pretty exciting event if youíre a kid. Then a photographer from the local newspaper crossed the police line to take pictures. It made an impact on me - a camera can take you to places that other people canít go. What a concept! Since then Iíve gone plenty of places other people couldnít go, and have even taken a few risks along the way to get there.
Chris/Larry: You certainly have taken risks in your career. You won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for your coverage of the Vietnam War. Would you have any advice for future combat photographers?
David: I wouldnít encourage anybody to go do that, or discourage them for that matter. Itís really something that comes from within. Modern combat photography has changed so much except that you can still get killed doing it. In Vietnam, you could pretty much go wherever you wanted to go if you were crazy enough to want to go there. The military was more than happy to provide the ride. Now itís much harder to get to the fighting. The U.S. Military these days facilitates this by ďembeddingĒ photographers with combat units, and photographers can definitely see some action, but itís harder to get to it. My main war was Vietnam, and you could ďembedĒ yourself whenever you wanted to, wherever you wanted to, and the military was happy to have you there. Now days in places like Iraq and Afghanistan itís doubly dangerous. You canít even walk down the streets of Baghdad as a foreigner without some risk, which makes it really difficult to appreciate the local culture.
Chris/Larry: What would you say the toughest assignment you ever handled was?
David: A real tough assignment is trying to get something that seems impossible to achieve, and it doesnít even mean you have to come under fire to get it.

In that regard, I think one of the most challenging assignments Iíve had was getting inside Reagan and Gorbachevís first Summit in Geneva 1985. That was a big scoop, and to this day, it stands as one of the best ones that Iíve had. Every other member of the press was kept away from the behind-the-scenes action, but I figured out how to get inside by playing my contacts. Because of that, I got the exclusive photos of the two leaders sitting by the fire in that Geneva boathouse. It created quite a stir among my colleagues, and didnít make me any new friends!

Reagan and Gorbachev
Chris/Larry: How did you manage to get where no one else could go?
David: The one guy in the Reagan press office who was the most helpful was the one person that the other photographers disregarded and felt had no power. I knew he did. His job was to deal with photographerís requests, but they always tried to go over his head. Every time they did that the people they went to would always kick it back to him, heíd get mad, and they wouldnít get their pictures. The photographers refused to believe that he was the main man. I always liked him and appreciated what he did, and knew he could pull it off. It was just a matter of knowing how the system works, thatís all. Sometimes the best solution is the easiest solution, and the one that you donít believe can ever work.
Chris/Larry: Well, youíve had some remarkable inside experience. Perhaps some of your most famous pictures came from your years as Gerald Fordís White House Photographer. You had remarkably open access to the President. Can you tell us a bit about that?
David: I covered Gerald R. Ford from the day that he was picked by President Nixon to replace Vice President Agnew who had resigned. John Durniak, Time magazineís picture editor, assigned me full time to cover the VP, which was unheard of up to then. It was certainly not clear back in October of í73 that Nixon would be out by the following summer of í74. Durniak and the Time editors just took a chance, and because of that I got to know the Fords really well. When Ford became President, he asked me to join his administration. I was 27 years old, was the chief photographer, and ran the White House photo operations.
Chris/Larry: You were smart enough when you had gotten that assignment to ask for exclusive unlimited access. What made you want it that way? You were a young photographer at the time, but yet you put yourself in the right position and said the right things.
David: I loved being a Time Magazine photographer, but I was also interested in the White House job if it became an option. I didnít, however, want to lose the freedom I had as a globetrotting shooter to become some kind of a photographic eunuch controlled by a bunch of White House staffers just for the glory of becoming the presidentís photographer. With that in mind, I laid it on the table for President Ford, who had only been in office a few hours. He asked me how I saw the White House photographerís job, (which had not at that point been offered). I looked him in the eye and told him that to do it I needed to report directly to him, and to have total access. He smiled and said, ďYou donít want Air Force One on the weekends?Ē The President agreed to my terms, and I entered the job without having any superior other than Ford who of course was everyoneís boss! Throughout that short period of two-and-a-half years, he stood by his word to me about the unprecedented access, which allowed me to photograph some extraordinary situations.
Chris/Larry: Did the President express interest or curiosity of what you were actually capturing? How engaged was he with your actual output or what you were doing.
David: The president let me do my thing. Heís probably the least vain person Iíve ever worked with, so to that degree he didnít care how he looked in the photos. I donít think it even crossed his mind. He had more important things to deal with. That definitely made my job easier, but it was a unique situation. He was happy that I showed him for who he was, and because he was comfortable with himself there was no conflict. I did my job, he did his.

Henry Kissinger
Chris/Larry: You also were credited with getting access for a lot of other photographers. That certainly helped you cement some friendships.
David: My predecessor Ollie Atkins was Nixonís photographer. He was a role model for what I didnít want to be. Unfortunately for Ollie any number of people could tell him what to do, (or not do), and I felt bad for him. I refused to be in that situation. It was also frustrating not having access to the Nixon White House for we outside photographers at the time. Very few ever got in there to shoot anything substantive.

One of the first things I did as the White House photographer was to create access for my colleagues who wanted to do inside stories. They just had to call me up and say, ďWeíre doing a story on economics, could I get a few minutes to photograph the president?Ē I would pass that on to the Mr. Ford, tell him, ďWally McNamee of Newsweek, Dirck Halstead of Time, or Frank Johnston of the Washington Post would like to come in.Ē He would most often say fine. They would then accompany me to take pictures. It was perfect. There has really never been anything like that before or since, and itís really because of my relationship with the President, and his positive attitude about photographers. He liked them. I also wanted to share the wealth with my buddies, and he made that possible.

Richard Nixon
Chris/Larry: Tell us what you see in the journalism market now.
David: The journalism market, as we know it, is heading for extinction. Many great newspapers are folding. The Rocky Mountain News, for instance, just stopped publication. Their photo staff won two Pulitzers in the last five years for their photography. I wouldnít be a bit surprised driving down an off-ramp and seeing a photographer standing there saying heíll shoot for food. Itís a really serious situation out there.

Michele and Barack Obama
Chris/Larry: Do you see anything taking the place of traditional journalism, anything that would give photographers both access and way to publish these important events? Is the web capable of doing that, or do you just see it going away?
David: Iíll give you an example of how bad it is. Obamaís first overseas trip to Europe and the Middle East would normally be covered by Time, Newsweek, and the wire services. Newsweek didnít send a photographer, and that does not bode well for the magazine business. When I heard that, it gave me great cause for concern, and makes me wonder if Newsweekís days are numbered.

The printed page is becoming a diminishing resource. I get the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times everyday, and they are shrinking both in physical size and content. When I was talking to Dirck Halstead in Austin the other day, he was worried that he wonít be getting his New York Times if the Austin Statesman goes out of business because they print the Times in that area.

I have young kids, and they donít read the newspaper, everything for them is online. Because of the expense of putting out newspapers and magazines, I think their days are numbered. I would not have thought that five years ago, but I sure do now.

Chris/Larry: In 2000, you did a self inspired project of taking a photo a day, and that turned into the book ďPhoto du JourĒ. Tell us about self-assignment and the discipline of keeping it creative.
David: I refer to Photo du Jour as a self-inflicted assignment. It was a whimsical effort that became a very difficult process because I had to shoot pictures every single day of the week. I used a Mamiya 7 II camera, which is a medium format camera that looks like a Leica on steroids. I only used the 43mm lens, which is equivalent to 21mm on a 35 camera.

It was a political year which I was covering, but I wanted to show the road outside of the political campaigns. I didnít want to shut my eyes to the world we were passing through with the candidates as I had done so many times, but instead I wanted see what was going on the other side of the ďbubble.Ē

There are a lot good political pictures in the project, but the offbeat pictures from whatever town I was in really worked. The Smithsonian did a 150-picture exhibition from the book in 2003, and itís probably the work Iím most proud of overall. Itís a one-year photo essay.

Iím a Canon ďExplorer of LightĒ which is their elite group of photographers. People like myself in various areas of photography that they consider to be hotshots, and Iím honored to be there because I do use Canons. Iím particularly evangelical about the Canon 5D Mark II which I think is Godís gift to photography! Itís the best camera thatís come down the line in the digital era.

Anwar Sadat
Chris/Larry: Youíve been quoted as saying ďIn photography, everything can be taught except how to see.Ē How did you learn to see?
David: You can learn lighting and other technical expertise in school, or assisting someone who knows what theyíre doing. But the way you see things is unique to your background, how you were brought up, what your mother taught you, and being around people that have a sense of humor and irony. Why does Jim Nachtwey only take pictures of the dramatic difficult part of life in a way thatís so compelling? Why does Elliot Erwitt shoot pictures that make you laugh? Itís because thatís how they see it. I donít know how you could teach somebody to be funny if theyíre not. Itís a natural gift for the most part, and if you are lucky you will discover that you have that gift. I think youíve either got it or you donít.
Chris/Larry: There has been a great revolution on both sides of the camera Ė the side where the shooter is actually in action, and then the evaluation and distribution. How has that affected your career?
David: Digital photography is a bit of a curse, but Iím an old dog that has learned new digital tricks. Iím very much up on technology, which is part of being a professional. If you look at it simply, digital is just another delivery system, and is not changing how I see things, or how Iím going to take a picture.

I think one of the serious problems in digital photography is that we are sacrificing the professional picture editor. Like any good writer needs an editor, so do photographers. Nowadays if youíre a wire photographer you edit on the spot. Photographers arenít generally their own best editors. My whole career has been based on being saved by good editors, and theyíre harder to find now. These are things being affected by the world of digital photography, but digital is here to stay. Anyone can pick out the no-brainer photos, but when it comes to the more subtle aspects of photography, youíre better off having somebody whoís not emotionally involved step in and look at your photos. Youíll be surprised at what you missed.

A lot of good photos are being lost because they were edited or deleted prematurely, or missed entirely because you were looking in the back of the camera as a good moment happened. Try not to be so interested in what you just took!

Robert Kennedy
Chris/Larry: So much of our understanding of our times and ourselves has come through iconic pictures in the media. Since papers are folding and journalism is shifting, do you see any direction, or potential for some other form of marketing or business for photographers?
David: We can only hope that photographers are still going out into the wild to take pictures of things you wouldnít normally see unless they were there to record it. Thatís part of whatís great about the profession. Thatís why I went to Vietnam and why other photographers do what they do. But the current economics of it are tough. Just the idea of Newsweek not sending a photographer on Obamaís first Presidential trip is a bad sign, and itís because itís really expensive to run a photo department, and to have shooters out there on the road.

Present economics are getting in the way of what used to be a phone call in the middle of the night wanting me to be somewhere exotic the next day. We arenít getting that kind of phone call these days. Itís now up to the ingenuity of the individual photographers to find new markets. Anybody can put out pictures on the Internet now, and anybody can have opinions and write or blog about them. But nothing changes the truthfulness of photography, what it is, and what it represents.

I think the Internet and other vehicles of delivery are where weíre at, and hopefully we will always have print publications. But we have to get used to the fact that the majority of our work is going to be online. Thatís not a satisfying way for me to look at photos, however. I like holding them in my hand or seeing them on the wall. That isnít an old-fashioned attitude.

Bill Clinton
Chris/Larry: So, how are you adapting?
David: Iím just trying to figure out how to make it more interesting, and how to find other work. In the commercial area big companies are cutting back, particularly on photography. The last thing book publishers budget for are photos. I get calls all the time, ďOh, weíd really like to use these pictures, but we donít have any money left.Ē I said, ďWell, then, call someone else. Donít call me.Ē If thatís how you regard photography, then youíre talking to the wrong person. I love photography, especially other peopleís work.
Chris/Larry: You have been shooting for 40 years, how do you bring that to market?
David: My hundreds of thousands of photographs sitting in boxes and cabinets arenít doing me any good until theyíre scanned, properly organized and captioned. Again, we come down to economics. If I hire somebody full-time to scan my pictures, I have to pay them a lot of money, and they can only do, 25 or 30 a day if Iím lucky. Or if you have hundreds of thousands of pictures, and send them out for five or ten bucks a scan, itís prohibitively expensive to get the work done. When I found ScanCafe and started working with them it was a landmark moment for me because I now have thousands more pictures scanned than I wouldíve been able to otherwise afford. and they do professional caliber work. Iím an advisor to them. Like Canon cameras, I wouldnít endorse anything that I didnít use personally, and I donít endorse anything at all other than ScanCafe and Canon, and thatís it.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
Chris/Larry: Scanning also gives you backups of your film originals.
David: Iíve lost photographs. I had a flood in my garage when I was out of town, and fortunately, my wife saw what was happening and was able to rescue most of them. Hereís a worst case scenario: Jacques Lowe had incredible photographs of the Kennedys over the years and particularly John F. Kennedy and the kids and his family. His negatives were in the World Trade Center in a bank vault. What couldíve been safer than that? They were all vaporized, and they hadnít been scanned. All of those pictures except for the prints that were elsewhere or in books are gone. Donít let that happen to you!

Iíve also become evangelical about this subject, and it wasnít because of ScanCafe per se. Itís just that they are one good solution, and one I could recommend to everybody, including my fellow photographers. I have almost a thousand pictures being scanned with them at any given time and it doesnít need to be done overnight. From the time you send them out to the time you get them back it would be about five or six weeks. But if theyíve been sitting in your garage for 20 years, whatís the difference?

Chris/Larry: The only fear there would be the possibility of loss or damage in transit as well.
David: I think loss and damage in garage, attics, deterioration or damage from mice, is a much larger problem. Iím sending key images to ScanCafe because of their excellent track record on getting them out and back. Honestly, I would tell anybody to do it, professionals or amateurs alike, because itís not only economical, but the quality is so good that thereís no reason not to do it. For the pro the value is getting those pictures into a stream where they can be sold. for the majority of the people itís preserving family photos, and being able to share them. Iím just trying to ring the bell a little bit!

Hillary Clinton
Chris/Larry: What do you see in the future?
David: Iím not totally doom and gloom about the business. There will always be photography. But I think the single biggest issue is where itís all going, and whatís going to happen trying to get there. Technology has changed everything. I remember when Life Magazine folded in 1972, and it was blamed on television. You just have to evolve along with the technology, and adapt with it to make a living. Thatís the big issue right now pertaining to my particular end of the business.

One thing that that the future holds is more time at the computer. For every hour Iím shooting there are another two or three hours of editing and Photoshopping. Itís not as much fun as it used to be, when we just ďshoot and shipĒ, and then go to the bar and laugh at the reporters who had to file their stories. Well, now youíre there filing right alongside them. The workload has just gone way up for the photographer.

The great thing about photography is as long as you can still walk and see halfway decently, you could still do it. Thatís exactly what Iím doing.

Check out David Hume Kennerly's web site

David endorses ScanCafe as a scanning solution


Contents of the Interview © 2009 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
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