John F. Kennedy is framed by the heads of seven TV cameramen. His hands are cupped in a some kind of explanatory gesture, but his mouth is closed. Perhaps he’s just finished saying something about his chances in the 1960 election, which is just five days away.
The photograph, which shows Kennedy during one of the several successful TV appearances that historians now say nudged him ahead of his rival Richard Nixon in the knife-edge 1960 election, was recently added to the collection of Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. How it got there is a long and convoluted story — a story that involves a U.S. Navy-issue Kodak Medalist 11 camera, a filing cabinet in Saitama and an American photographer and occasional Japan Times contributor who has resided in Japan for the past 30 years.
On Nov. 3, 1960, Philadelphia-native Boyd Harnell was working as a cameraman for Time-Life TV in San Diego when he was asked to cover a press conference that was to be given by the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate for broadcast media only.
“This was the pivotal press conference, because after the earlier televised debates, Kennedy’s political organizers realized that he could reach many more voters by having these TV appearances for broadcast media,” Harnell told The Japan Times.
Harnell used a small handheld 16 mm film camera to record Kennedy’s speech. But the cameraman was also a keen photographer, having cut his teeth at print publications such as the San Diego Union.
“I was always carrying around a (still) Kodak Medalist 11,” Harnell said, mentioning the medium-format camera that during World War II had been used by PT boat commanders — including a young John F. Kennedy — to document combat action in the Pacific theater.
“So, in the middle of the conference, I took out the camera and snapped a shot of Kennedy. I was operating the film camera at the same time, so I could only take one shot,” he said. “All of the other journalists were shooting film, so I think I am the only one who took a still photo of that conference.”
Thinking back on the press conference now, Harnell said it is amazing how close he and the other members of the press were able to get to the candidate Kennedy. “It was pretty informal, and I didn’t see any real security,” he explained.
Over the course of time, Harnell changed jobs, eventually moving into making independent documentary films on subjects such as bullfighting in Spain and the holocaust. That work eventually brought him to Japan, where he began working about 30 years ago, initially for advertising agencies for whom he made more films.
With the passing of so many years and Harnell’s relocation to this country, he eventually lost track of the Kennedy negative, and came to assume it was gone forever.
“I’d tried searching for it a few times in a locker I have back in the States, but couldn’t find it,” he said.
Then, early last year, when Harnell was rummaging around his filing cabinet at his Saitama Prefecture residence he came across a negative case that had fallen under the cabinet. It contained the long-lost Kennedy negative.
Since then, Harnell has had several gelatin silver prints made from the negative and has been sounding out museums around the world about whether they would accept it as a donation. In addition to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and the Kawasaki City Museum, the photo has now been added to the permanent collections of the National Media Museum in Britain, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston. The Smithsonian is also considering acquiring a print.
Harnell explained that the Kennedy Library was particularly interested because few still photos were taken of Kennedy during his all-important television appearances in the lead up to the 1960 election.
Michiko Kasahara, the chief curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, explained that “Harnell’s photo is a work of art and an important document of a historical moment.”
Only 2,213 photographs were acquired by the museum in 2011, and 106 of those were by non-Japanese. The museum’s holdings now stand at just over 28,000 photographs.
The Kennedy photo is in fact the second of Harnell’s works to go into the museum’s permanent collection. In 1992 he donated a series of shots from an even earlier stage in his diverse career, when he was a racing-car photographer in the United States.
Asked if there were likely to be any more discoveries made in or under his filing cabinet, Harnell chuckled. “I have some good skateboarding shots in there, too.”