John-John Salute, 1963

November 25th 1963 was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s third birthday.

Instead of celebrating it, he was outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C., saluting his father’s coffin after the funeral mass. He had been practicing before: the late president was scheduled to visit Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran’s Day, and Jackie wanted John Jr. to salute and participate in the ceremony. The boy could only do it with his left hand, but a Marine colonel taught him how to do a proper salute with his right hand at the beginning of the funeral.

A few photographers and newsreel reporters captured the moment. The above photo (in its entirety or in its cropped form) is the most reproduced version. Despite its field of view was blocked by the honor guard, the black-and-white photo which reflects the sombre atmosphere took precedence over other color photos taken that day. One photographer, Joe O’Donnell, even cropped it and claimed that he took that photo and sold copies of them. [link].

Photographers had about two seconds to take the photo from the time John Jr. lifted his arm to salute to the time he put it back down, and two photographers made the shots that were widely circulated: New York Daily News’ Dan Farrell and UPI’s Stan Steans.

Farrell had a bulky Hasselblad 1000 and had to take the photo from about 150 feet away. The roll of film he used allowed for 12 exposures, and the salute was the only image on the roll. Farrell recalled: “I took a deep breath, I’m holding this crazy camera and I’ve got it pinkied, and I tripped it with one shot. That was it, a one-shot deal.”

Farrell said she leaned down to whisper to her son, “She said, ‘John, salute.’ He didn’t respond at first. I took a deep breath. She said, ‘John-John, salute.'” Then, the boy old let go of his mother’s hand and saluted.

Stearns’ photo was more widely distributed. He recalled how he came to take the photo:

It was a “world beater” for UPI. I was chosen to walk with Jackie and the world leaders from the White House to St. Matthew’s for the JFK service. When we got there I had to go behind the ropes with the other 70-odd photographers. All squeezed in an area for 30. Wow! UPI photographer Frank Cancellare squeezed me in next to him…. I had the longest lens, a 200mm. … I just watched Jackie. She bent down and whispered in [John-John’s] ear. His hand came up to a salute. Click! One exposure on a roll of 36 exposures.

As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. They were concentrating on Jackie and the caisson. At this point I made a decision to walk the film into the bureau. I knew we had photographers along the way and at least four at the cemetery. They could do without me.

When I walked in the office George Gaylin [Washington Newspictures Manager] almost had a heart attack. I have never seen a man that mad. He turned red then white. Yelling and screaming that I did not go to Arlington. I kept telling him I had the picture of the funeral. He was yelling that he had rolls and rolls of film from umpteen photographers covering the funeral. While Harold Blumenfeld [Executive Editor for News Pictures] and Ted Majeski [Managing Editor for News Pictures] were trying to calm him down, Frank Tremaine [Vice President, General Manager for News Pictures] grabbed me by the collar and said: “You better have the picture of the funeral or you’re fired.”

Knowing it was going to be a big enlargement, and knowing my job was on the line, I went into the darkroom with fine grain developer to develop the film. Unheard of at UPI. It took 17 min. I could hear Gaylin pacing outside the door muttering. When the negative was washed and dried I went to Gaylin’s desk. He looked at it and yelled! “He does have the picture of the funeral.” He quickly showed it to Ted Majeski and Harry Blumenfield on his way to have it enlarged and printed. The rest is history….

When the photo was transmitted the credit was UPI/ by Stan Stearns. Back then that was almost unheard of. Reporters got a byline, photographers got zip. The photo was used worldwide. Full page in some newspapers and magazines. A few with credit to UPI/Stan Stearns. Life [magazine] used it with no credit. I called the Life picture editor about the credit. He said would correct it in the future. He did. Well, in 1999 when JFK, Jr. died, he either had moved on or no one looked at the credit or they got it direct from Corbis. The credit was Corbis-Bettman on the cover of Life and Time.

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