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August 26, 2005

Kennedy, Hitler and Gandhi - Christie Davies looks at photographs of a crook, a monster and a saint at The World's Most Photographed at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

The World's Most Photographed
National Portrait Gallery, London
6th July - 23rd October 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays until 9pm)

Of the world's ten most photographed individuals in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition three remain interesting today - John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Adolf Hitler and Mohandas K. Gandhi - a crook, a monster and a saint. Each had a major impact on history - and you can also say that of another of The World's Most Photographed, Queen Victoria. Well done Robin Muir, a wonderful exhibition.

I had expected a set of worshipful comments to accompany the Kennedy photographs. Instead they are blunt, truthful and to the point; the world has at last realised that Kennedy's entire life was a lie. He convinced the voters of the American boobocracy that he was a man of "superhuman robustness, a human being of enviable athleticism and tireless energy". The reality was that he was a chronically sick, crippled and defective man who at times was kept going by means of daily injections of amphetamine. The curator notes that he had Addison's disease and had been close enough to death to receive the Last Rites on three separate occasions. It is worth adding to this that he took steroids for long periods and his back was wrecked with osteoporosis and that Kennedy also had repeated doses of the clap or rather, non-specific urethritis, which gave him a painful burning sensation when the piss was taken out of him. No wonder he had no sense of humour. He had acquired it through his promiscuity and disregard for safe sex and no doubt passed it on to other women. The reckless disregard for consequences that characterised his political career was also exhibited in his private life.

None of this was brought out in the photographs of him. The corrupt Kennedy family saw to that. Given that Kennedy had many political enemies, some of whom were as unscrupulous as he was, it is surprising that they did not exploit his physical weaknesses through photography. I doubt if even Nixon would have sent the newspapers photos of Kennedy chatting with the pox doctor's clerk but surely someone could have captured JFK's general frailty on film without being noticed. Kennedy was able dishonestly to put out photographs of himself playing ball with his family as if he were fit, when in fact he couldn't move without pain.

Why does all this matter? Politicians do not need to be fit and most of them aren't. Some of the best of them Adenauer der Alte, Churchill, Morarji Desai, Michael Howard, Kekkonen, have been very old. It matters because Kennedy made it a central part of his image that he was new and young and fit and full of beans when in fact he was decayed and decrepit and full of diarrhoea and taking a cocktail of mind blurring medicines that would have blurred his judgement. The corrupt Democrats sold America a dud car. The world had to live with the consequences.

"He did not allow photographers to expose his secrets", says the curator. But how was he able to prevent them? Photographers hide. Photographers have telephoto lenses. The answer lies in the hegemony of the liberal mass media in America. If there had been a hint of incapacity or promiscuity in relation to Barry Goldwater, they would have gone digging for dirt. Just recently the New York Times has been probing the adoption papers of John Roberts, President Bush's candidate for the Supreme Court who has two young blonde children adopted in Latin America. They must have been hoping for the headline, "Roberts adopted bastard descendants of German war criminals". It is called liberal integrity.

The only photo implying Kennedy's physical incapacity in the exhibition is one showing him in a rocking chair when President elect in 1960, the only kind he could comfortably sit in but even then he looks folksy rather than disabled. There is, though, a photo that should have given away his compulsive promiscuity but it was never exploited by the press or by his opponents: Mrs Florence Kater demonstrates outside the Evening Star, 1960. Kennedy was having an affair with Mrs Kater's lodger, Pamela Turnure, who was also Jacqueline Kennedy's press secretary. The redoubtable Mrs Kater staked out Turnure's apartment to get proof. The Washington Star published a picture of her demonstrating with a placard outside the office of its sister paper, the Evening Star but you can not read the words and they did not run the story that would have explained the photo.

There is no particular harm done by a leading politician having a bit on the side. FDR often did. Eisenhower's affair with the woman who drove him round in the army was good for his morale as was that of our own dear John Major with the stunningly attractive and desirable British Jewish princess Edwina Currie. But Kennedy did not care who he screwed, it could be Marilyn Monroe who also has a section in the exhibition, a gangster's moll belonging to one of his mob friends, a teenage intern to be exploited or a scrubber off the streets. Kennedy was reckless even as regard to state security and his own personal security as when he had romps with Ellen Rometsch, who was quite possibly an employee of the Stasi. His bodyguards and security clearance officers were in despair over it. An eager begum in a burka could have snuck in with a bomb in her knickers. It was the same arrogance, recklessness and showmanship that led to his death in Dallas. Why did he not borrow one of J Edgar Hoover's bullet-proof cars for Texas? Kennedy needed an open car like he needed a hole in the head. Even then it was his back that killed him, for his immobility meant that after the first shot, he was unable to evade the second and fatal shot by crouching out of the way.

In the exhibition there is the inevitable photograph (by Wayne Miller, 1963), JFK shot to death, New York, 22nd November, 1963. A handsome high mulatto woman in a black dress reads a hard white newspaper whose front page is a single big black headline. Two moderately frum men in dark hats are to the side, one checking his change to make sure the newspaper vendor hadn't held back a dime or a quarter. There is no sign of shock and grief on any of the faces. The face of the woman looking at the inside pages is merely that of an alert and intent reader. It is the best photograph in the entire exhibition, a tribute to Wayne Miller's technical skill, his eye for the moment and his skill in seizing it.

It is also worth pausing at Jacques Lowe's Kennedy on the telephone, The White House, 1962. Kennedy's hand is held to his forehead, his face simulating grief. He has just been told of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Congo. It is significant that it was taken by his favourite, omniscient photographer who was completely trusted. It looks posed, almost like a studio photograph. Would Kennedy really have been so distressed at the death of Lumumba, the madman who had a university named after him in Moscow? Or was it that they both belonged to the top-person's trade union, that world brotherhood that transcends ideology?

Cuban refugees from oppression who know that Kennedy guaranteed their island a communist future and Vietnamese tourists whose grandparents died in Kennedy's war will enjoy this section of the exhibition. It exposes the lie that was Kennedy, a lie that ran throughout the entire Kennedy dynasty, a generation to generation fault-line of arrogance, a weakness for drugs and alcohol, and a ruthless and reckless promiscuity. An evil brood indeed and no friends of Britain.

The same may be said of Hitler. The Fuehrer was the subject of millions of photographs and used it to manipulate his people. There were collectors' cards of him as if he were a film star, as indeed he was. Both Hitler and Hoffman made a great deal of money out of these photographs and also out of the sales of the war-time collections such as Mit Hitler im Westen, Mit Hitler in Polen.

After the second world war Hoffman was given a long prison sentence for being a profiteer. It is difficult to see why, unless he was involved in the production of the disgusting photographic propaganda put out by the General Government (the German occupation regime in Poland), photos that both humiliated and denigrated the Jews and yet also purported to show how well they were being treated.

If Hoffman was not involved in producing these images, then it is difficult to see why Hoffman, even though he had been a Party member since 1920 and mixed in high Party circles, should have been prosecuted. It may be disgusting to become rich from making flattering photographs of Hitler but it hardly puts you in the same league as I.G. Farben or Monsieur Renault or IBM.

Nor will it do to say that because Hoffman was a bad man that he was a bad photographer. The curator accuses Hoffman of producing "compositions of banality all the easier for the millions to assimilate" for propaganda. Such contempt for the sort of people who watch EastEnders is truly heart-warming but the argument merely proves that Hoffman would produce rubbish for money, not that he was without talent, nor that his other work lacked merit.

One of Hoffman's most famous pictures was of the cheering crowd in the Odeonsplatz in Munich on 1914, the day Germany declared war on Russia. Later Hoffman identified Hitler in the crowd, looking ecstatic, put a circle round his head and sent it to him. It was the beginning of an unbeautiful friendship. The picture is in the exhibition but without the circle, leaving visitors to play an exciting game of spot der Fuehrer. His most telling photographs though are Hitler as Political Orator, 1927. Hoffman played back to Hitler recordings of his own speeches in Hoffman's photography studio. Hitler spontaneously began acting out his own speeches wild-eyed and theatrical-gestured. Hoffman published them with the text of that bit of the speech being spoken. Most visitors will look at them and think "You'd have to be pretty desperate to vote for that nutter". Unfortunately they were and they did.

Walter Frentz's photos Hitler exultant at the Fall of France, 1940 and Hitler reflects on his defeat at Stalingrad, 1943, show the high point of Hitler's fortunes and the turning point after which he slid downhill all the way to the bunker. The curator says that Frenz was given a free hand by Hitler whereas Hoffman was kept in line. Yet the pictures taken after Hitler's victory over the wretched and feeble French are very much like Hoffman's photos of Hitler the orator. Here are the same triumphant emotional gestures that look even more absurd in a man in uniform and of course the famous raising of the knee that allied propagandists used to make it seem that Hitler was dancing with joy. It is a short time before but a long way from Frentz's 1943 colour photo taken in an aircraft after Stalingrad, when Hitler was flying to the Wolfschanze, the Wolf's Lair, his headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler, tired and grim, looks blankly out of the window; only his coat is young. The fit young corporal runner of the First World War, the avid Bierkeller battler of the 1920s has suddenly become as decrepit as John F. Kennedy.

Mahatma Gandhi's photographs sit in the exhibition next to Hitler's. Unlike his rival for the Congress leadership, Chandra Bose - who went to Berlin to seek help from the Nazis against the British - Gandhi never really understood Hitler. When in 1938 leading Jews wrote to Gandhi for support he replied that they should challenge the Germans to shoot or imprison them rather than submit to "discriminatory treatment". Voluntary suffering would bring them "inner strength and joy" and if they were all massacred it would be a lasting victory for it would bring the Nazis to "an appreciation of human dignity". As for those who had escaped to Palestine, well they should "offer themselves to the Arabs to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger". The day I visited the National Portrait Gallery was the day of the second Muslim terror bombing of London. The underground was closed, so I had walked there through streets filled with urgent, sirening police cars and officers armed with machine guns. I remembered how my parents, who had been married in London by special licence on Battle of Britain day, had gone from the ceremony to an air raid shelter. I was not inclined to consider Gandhi's views on Hitler on that particular day.

The photographs of Gandhi are wonderful, showing his transition from the smart young London law student in a wing collar in 1888 to the half-naked fakir ridiculed by Churchill. Whenever my father saw the Pope on television being carried on a palanquin and alighting from it in elaborate jewelled robes and triple crown he would compare him unfavourably with Gandhi "doing good in his little loin-cloth". Neither Gandhi nor my father could ever understand that the Pope is a Prince of the Church and the Vicar of Christ and dresses accordingly.

Interestingly both the photo of the young lawyer of 1888 and the commissioned portrait of 1931 of a traditionally garbed Gandhi come to London to negotiate were by the same firm of photographers, Elliott and Fry. The 1931 official portrait is followed in the exhibition by Gandhi and Textile Workers, 1931. A group of mainly female English factory workers are crowded together, each with one hand raised high in salute, cheering Gandhi. Gandhi, both shrinking from and seizing the limelight, is tucked snugly into the front of the crowd, eager female protuberances pressed against his white, cotton-clad back. They had been hurt by his boycott of British goods but they recognised him as a saint. Yet it was to be the dark satanic mills of Gujarat, India's most progressive and industrialised state that would take away their jobs, not Gandhi's silly spinning wheel.

One of the high points of the exhibition is Margaret Bourke White's Gandhi with Spinning Wheel, 1946; one half of the photo is Gandhi in his loincloth spinning, the other half shows as a flat extension of Gandhi himself a rickety, polygonal spinning wheel bigger than Gandhi, its full outline chopped into by the frame of the picture. It is an almost circle cut short by a very definite square. A frame is used with equal skill in D.R.D. Wodhia's Gandhi receiving the Tilak, 1944. Gandhi's head nearly fills the frame, so that the only other thing we see is the thumb of the man planting a greasy dot on his forehead. How like the swarthy Rudyard Kipling Gandhi looked with his greying moustache and gig-lamp spectacles and the strange inclination of the head.

The curator's purpose in choosing these photographs is to demonstrate how dressing in a traditional and simple rural fashion enabled Gandhi to create a mass movement in a nation of peasant villagers. The curator goes further and implies that this gained him India's independence but this is not the case. In the 1930s the British government conceded Indian self-rule step by step because, apart from Churchill, they thought this the right thing to do. What would have happened to the Koreans or the Vietnamese if a local Gandhi had tried such tactics against the brutal Japanese kempetai or the venal and arrogant French with their savage mercenaries from Morocco and Senegal? It was not that Gandhi was successful but that the British were forbearing.

When the second world war came and Gandhi told the British to "Quit India" they easily brushed him aside, to a large extent ignored him when it came to drawing up a new constitution for India, and locked him and his supporters up without too much fuss. Gandhi had totally underestimated the capacity of the mild British for being tough and resolute in war-time. Even a Blair will turn. The British recruited in India the biggest all-volunteer army ever known. It beat the Italians in Ethiopia, which doesn't count, and helped to defeat the Germans in North Africa and the Japanese on the frontier with Burma. No one took any notice of Gandhi and his non-violent resistance. There was a war on. Gandhi's tactics only work if the other side lets it and Gandhi used to get very peeved when others used it against him. When Gandhi used to go to Hindu temples with his bands of untouchables to force the caste Hindus to admit these outcastes to the sacred interior, the caste Hindus would lie passively on the ground forcing Gandhi and his Harijain army to walk over them and tread on them, a humiliating act of violence for pacific Gandhians. As soon as Gandhiji had left, the dalits were thrown out again and the temple ritually purified to rid it of the pollution they had brought to it.

The Mahatma's move into peasant clothes probably did not further his political goals all that much, though it did establish him as a religious figure, an ascetic holy man in the Hindu and Christian tradition. It should be remembered that he was much influenced by seeing European monks who had come to work in South Africa doing their orare et labore thing and by reading Tolstoy's nonsense. A shrewder politician might have had the wit to switch garments from time to time, wearing sensible, comfortable, local clothes in India and putting on a silly, shiny cylindrical top hat, uncomfortable morning coat, harry stripers trousers and slippery, shiny shoes when going to see the toffs in London. Look how impressive the little Japanese dignitaries of the 1930s looked in toppers; they even wore them on the USS Missouri. Likewise Gandhi should have adopted a cloth cap and clogs for a canter on cold cobbles with the mill girls. Only members of strict religious orders are trapped by their uniforms. Pater Miroslav Filipovic even used to do genocide in brown robes, white pyjama cord and inner city hoody hood.

What in the end did Gandhi achieve? It was only the timing of Indian independence that was in dispute, not the fact - and when it came about, it happened too soon and too quickly and with massive slaughter at the time of partition. Perhaps Gandhi should have grown a beard and dressed like a Pathan. We can see now that the shining thrusting go-ahead India of today has gained greatly from the loss of the Muslims in long seceded Pakistan and Bangladesh, who like the Muslims who remained in India would only have been a source of disloyalty and dissension and of backwardness and discontent. But that is not the point. The point is that there are limits to what clothes and photographs can achieve.

At the National Portrait Gallery there are also pictures of Mohammed Ali, James Dean, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley but they are merely the frivolity of previous generations. So what? For real frivolity I went to see Icons of the Gay Community. Only the sons of Gomorrah understand frivolity.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction, 2004. He has lectured in India and the United States.

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Nice way of looking at these 3 people.

However, you do allow your British nationality to come in the way of objectivity. The British deserve no credit for the relative lack of bloodshed in India. What happened in Malaya and Kenya clearly show British "other side". Clearly Saunders and Dyer were the extremist representative of a large colonial administration. The civilised behaviour in India was due to lack of options - but against the Kikiyu, the normal British self appeared. Talk to Caroline Elks. She will probably tell you more on the British "true picture". More at

It was Gandhiji's control over such a large (seemingly fractured) nation, that gave the British little option but to deal on with Gandhi's terms. The Indian volunteer army received no credit for their role - and co-operated with the British due to lack of opposition from Gandhiji to Indian enlistment.

As Gandhiji clearly advised the Jews, poorer and less organised Indians, in a more repressive South Africa, were able to deal with an regime whose sensitivity to colour and race was greater than Hitler. The South African regime did not however, make any of Hitler's mistakes - and survived for nearly 80 years.

Posted by: Anuraag Sanghi at December 17, 2007 12:05 PM
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