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An American scrapbook

David Hume Kennerly set out to capture the changing face of U.S. society by taking a photo a day in 2000. The results of his quest are at the Smithsonian.

October 21, 2002|Eddy Ramirez | Times Staff Writer

Washington

Prominently displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industrial Building is an enlarged black-and-white photograph of an ad for a drive-in movie theater in Baker, Idaho: two giant smiling potatoes on the back of an old Chevy pickup truck.

Like others on display there, the photograph is a humorous snapshot and -- in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly -- a reflection of what America was in contrast to the rest of the world at the turn of the 21st century.

"They capture a different place, a different time," Kennerly said earlier this month at the opening of his photo exhibition titled "Photo du Jour: A Picture-a-Day Journey Through the First Year of the New Millennium."

Kennerly, 55, has covered eight presidential campaigns and shot 35 covers for Time and Newsweek. His early photographs captured some of the most searing images of the Vietnam War, winning him the 1972 Pulitzer.

In 2000, however, he took on a decidedly different project. That year he traveled across 38 states and seven countries, taking black-and-white pictures that are in turn amusing, breathtaking, in some cases even mundane. Although the idea came as a whim, he said, the goal was to record life and culture around the world, especially in America, so later generations would always have a sense of where they came from.

Using a 43-millimeter single-lens camera, Kennerly photographed ordinary people, including his own children at his Santa Monica home, as well as world events such as Bill Clinton's unprecedented visit to Vietnam. Mostly, the photos show vistas of rural and urban America, all leading up to the drama of the presidential election.

Kennerly traveled more than 250,000 miles, shooting a photograph each day. Though he jokingly refers to the collection as "a scrapbook of my wanderings," Kennerly is quick to point out that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his photographs have gained more meaning.

One of Kennerly's favorite photographs shows a desolate parking lot in South Carolina. No people. Only corporate logos. Holiday Inn, Exxon, Pizza Hut, Econo Lodge, the Waffle House. The focal point is a sign on a utility pole advertising a traveling circus.

"It shows what's wrong with America," he said, noting the irony of the sign. He points to another favorite -- a shot of a Macon, Ga., auto shop called "Love of Christ Detail Shop." Sounding defeated, he said: "With all these franchises going up, I doubt we'll see these kinds of places much longer."

In an eerie way, he said, certain photographs that seemed void of much meaning before Sept. 11 now speak volumes about how much life has changed. On Jan. 2, 2000, Kennerly captured a distant shot of the U.S. Capitol from behind a steel fence.

"It's not the same place anymore," he said.

Kennerly was the White House photographer for President Gerald Ford after returning from Southeast Asia in 1974. He had unrestricted access to shoot Cabinet meetings with Ford and several of the major political players serving in the current Bush administration. "It was a different world then," he said. "I've seen it change so much."

But not every photograph in his collection bears witness to a distant past.

One picture captures the splendor of Santa Monica's palm trees. The streets of New York City and Washington, D.C., are shown bustling with people and traffic."I never missed a day," Kennerly said.

He came close in early July, though. Unable to leave his bed after knee surgery, he made a last-minute decision to photograph his two younger sons, Nick and Jack, shown standing at his bedside, staring at his leg. In the following days, he shot the sunset reflected on his bedroom window, even a fern in his backyard.

"It was this obsessive drive of mine," he said, laughing. "I would wake up in the morning and didn't know where I was going to end up at the end of the day."

The presidential election would mark the end of his yearlong journey in a dramatic way, he said. He covered Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain's bid for the presidency until McCain announced the end of his quest in Sedona, which provided one of the exhibition's most stunning panoramic photographs.

Then, on election night, he shot what he considers the most striking political photograph of his career. Staring transfixed at the television, George W. and Laura Bush anxiously await the results on election night. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stands behind them looking on in disbelief as news of a tie is declared.

Former President George H.W. Bush is in the background attending to a telephone call while all the Cheneys can do is listen in. "The whole thing was like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," Kennerly recalled.

"This is an important body of work with interesting perspectives from someone who's so tightly focused on photojournalism," said Michelle Delaney, exhibition curator and collections manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "For [Kennerly] to take a step back from his daily routine and point his camera in different directions was really an interesting concept."

Delaney, who had worked with Kennerly, arranged to bring the show to the Smithsonian, where it will be until Dec. 29. It coincides with the release of Kennerly's book, also titled "Photo du Jour," which features 515 photographed images.

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