Stan Stearns (1935 – 2012)

Stan Stearns, who took the definitive photograph at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, has died, aged 76.

Many photographers were in front of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on that sombre day, 25th of November 1963, cordoned off from the cathedral and the grief-stricken Kennedys, and many captured the emotive portraits of a family that had captivated the nation’s imagination for the previous four years. But the single most famous image of that poignant occasion — that of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket on his very third birthday — was taken by Stan Stearns for United Press International.

Throughout the 1990s and in the 2000s, before internet made such claims easier to verify, another White House photographer, Joe O’Donnell claimed that he took the photo, a claim that was only disapproved after O’Donnell died in 2007. Back then, Stearns 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 ump-teen 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.

By this time Mr. Stearns had moved on too. He quit UPI in 1970 and had been shooting weddings and portraits since.

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