I was sad to see an obituary in the Washington Post this morning about longtime news photographer James Atherton. I never knew him personally, but my godfather, who for decades served as superintendent of the U.S. Senate Press Photographer’s Gallery, did know him quite well, so I’ve always heard stories about him.
Since my background is in news, I’ve always been so taken with really great news photography, and Atherton was certainly among the best.
It’s a shame that so often we don’t get to study someone’s work until they’ve died. I’m just glad The Post included a great gallery of images from Atherton’s career along with his obituary online. Here are some of my favorites:
I found a wonderful interview with Atherton that was recorded in 2008, in which he describes this image as “what I call my greatest Hail Mary,” he told The Candid Frame blog. That’s because the camera was perched in a bracket on top of a bamboo pole, and he used a cord the snap the shot of Martin Luther King delivering his famous speech. “You shoot blind,” he said, “so you pray a little” that you’ll get the shot.
“I had such a love-hate relationship with him,” Atherton said in the Candid Frame interview, referring to President Kennedy. “You couldn’t like him and do your job, so if he did something dumb, you would make [the picture], you wouldn’t hesitate.”
Atherton was photographed here shooting behind Kennedy as he delivered a speech in the summer of 1963. He said he was always looking for clever angles to shoot the news, because he was constantly competing with a scrum of other photographers each day, most of whom shot photos from the same angle and perspective.
Atherton also spoke of cropping as an art — coming really close in on a scene, or a face, to get to the core of an image’s meaning. I found another version of the above photo in the Corbis archive — uncropped with a much wider angle.
Pretty interesting difference in perspective, huh?
Here are some images that are cropped mightily to capture the emotion and personality of some of the 20th century’s most memorable political figures:
Atherton’s heydey most certainly intersected with my grandmother’s — Dorothy McCardle was a reporter with The Post’s Style Section, covering the first ladies, embassies, and Washington’s official party circuit from the Kennedy to Ford administrations. On top of that, my mother, Marcia Maddox, worked in Lady Bird Johnson’s press office. And my godfather Maurice and godmother Lanny Johnson were another rich source of stories behind the scenes of history. Lanny STILL covers presidential inaugurations for GermanTV here.
So news relics from those decades are especially dear to me; images from those times are a family album of sorts, as it’s hard to differentiate between what I’ve read, and the stories I’ve heard from my own family.
I think I’m going to have to give Lanny a call now, and go over to her house in Chevy Chase to see the wealth of what Maurice left behind, a lifetime of equally special imagery from last century’s political figures.
But for now, let’s celebrate the work of James Atherton, and remember that news photography can rise to the level of art in an expert’s hands.