They were so historically valuable insurers couldn’t even price them: 40,000 negatives of John F. Kennedy and his family taken by his personal photographer, Jacques Lowe. Lowe kept the negatives secure for decades, finally depositing them in a bank vault at the World Trade Center. When the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, just months after Lowe’s death, the vault became part of the rubble.
Miraculously, the vault was found. But it was empty when Lowe’s daughter, Thomasina, went to claim it early last year.
“I was bewildered. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing,” she recalled. “I was grateful that my dad hadn’t had to bear this; it would have destroyed him.”
But thanks to new technologies, Lowe’s work was not completely gone.
“Remembering Jack: Intimate and Unseen Photographs of the Kennedys” was published this month, on the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. It is a book of images culled from existing prints and never- before-seen contact sheets.
Photographer Bob Adelman, a longtime friend of Lowe’s, began working on a book of Lowe’s work shortly after he died in May 2001. Adelman went through all the contact sheets Lowe kept in his downtown Manhattan studio.
He planned to pick the images for the book from the contact sheets, then print them from the negatives stored in the safe. With the negatives gone, “I was pretty discouraged,” Adelman said.
But not deterred.
Adelman and Thomasina Lowe thought there might be another way — and they consulted technicians on whether good reproductions could be made from the small contact sheet images.
“It was a real shot in the dark,” Lowe’s daughter said. “We were really kind of hoping for the best.”
What they got exceeded their expectations. Advances in printing and digital technology resulted in a slew of quality images with remarkable clarity.
The contact sheets themselves, some bearing the red pencil marks Jacques Lowe used to identify the images he planned to print, also have been included in the book. Printing the entire sheet gives viewers the advantage of seeing images that came right before and after the shot selected by Lowe for printing; it has the effect of a movie reel.
Many of these outtakes have never been seen by the public; of the more than 600 black-and-white photos in the book, half are previously unpublished.
“It’s sort of interesting to see the pictures in context,” Adelman said. “It gives the reader kind of a feeling of a home movie.”
Some of the images give a rare glimpse inside the Kennedy family and Lowe’s connection to the entire clan. Many depict cherished private moments: a three-picture set of Jacqueline Kennedy playing with baby Caroline; Bobby and Ted Kennedy throwing a football at the family compound in Hyannis, Mass.; John F. Kennedy tossing daughter Caroline into the air; a portrait of the young couple with toddler Caroline chewing on her mother’s pearl necklace; a bare-chested Bobby pulling his daughter, Kathleen, on a donkey.
Public events also capture tense private moments, as seen in photos of the family awaiting the outcome of Kennedy’s Senate re-election: the Kennedy brothers engaged in serious conversation; a suspenseful moment of the entire clan in front of the television set.
The final photo is a dramatic shot of John F. Kennedy’s coffin just before it was lowered into the ground. The book ends with a farewell note by author Tom Wolfe, a close friend of Jacques Lowe.
The book’s publication has helped Thomasina Lowe deal with the loss of the uninsured negatives.
“It feels restorative for me, knowing that the negatives have been destroyed and this national treasure has been lost,” she said.
“Remembering Jack” is among a group of new books marking the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. They include “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings,” by Thomas Maier; “Four Days in November: The Original Coverage of the John F. Kennedy Assassination,” by the staff of The New York Times; and a compilation of quotes and anecdotes, “The Uncommon Wisdom of John F. Kennedy.”