BOSTON — It’s an expansive and quintessentially Kennedy photo album.
Here’s a young, shirtless JFK, baring six-pack abs and smirking poolside while striking an un-presidential pose. There’s Rose Fitzgerald not-yet-Kennedy in her Sunday best, long before she’d become the family matriarch and trade girlhood grins for imperious stares. Here’s Kathleen Kennedy, awkwardly twisting upside down in a skirt to kiss Ireland’s Blarney Stone. There’s little Teddy Kennedy on the playground, sporting skinned knees.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has completed an 18-month project to catalog and digitize more than 1,700 vintage family snapshots, and they’re now all viewable online — a photographic fix that’s sure to feed the nation’s continuing obsession with Camelot.
“It’s just fun to see where the camera took them,” said Nicola Mantzaris, a digital archivist who helped compile and catalog the fragile negatives, all carefully stored in subfreezing temperatures to slow their chemical decomposition.
“If you think about your own family photos and in what disarray they are in and just the volume — there’s definitely a universal aspect to this,” she said.
Many of the photos are ordinary snaps of typical American family life in the first half of the 20th century: vacations, holidays, kids mugging for the camera, meals captured ever so slightly out of focus.
But the candid images throw open a new window into a world that few have been able to peer into without physically visiting the presidential library in Boston, and even then by appointment with an archivist.
The collection is the culmination of what presidential historians dubbed the “Nitrate Negative Project,” a nostalgic look back at the Kennedys through the lenses of the affordable cameras and black-and-white film that ushered in the era of amateur photography and family albums. The new technology also laid the foundation for today’s social sharing platforms such as Instagram, complete with a few amusing instances of Kennedys appearing to photobomb one another.
The digitization effort was launched last year to coincide with celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.
“They’re the closest counterpart to a royal family that Americans have,” said Patrick Maney, a Boston College professor who specializes in presidential history.
“There’s a perception that it was a golden age in America, and in some ways it was,” he said.
These photographs fascinate all the more because they were taken before most of their youthful subjects went on to greatness. JFK, captured toothy and goofy in the collection, became the nation’s 35th president, and his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, still guts older generations of Americans.
No less evocative: How one can see in their young faces their adult selves — hints of the impactful public servants and household names they would become.
The flapper fashion of the era, too, captures the imagination: bobbed hair, cloche hats and cigarettes.
JFK, especially, “is still alive in a way,” said Maney, the Boston College expert, who was in high school when Kennedy was gunned down. Although some have suggested JFK’s star power may be dimming just a bit, Maney doesn’t buy it.
“He’s frozen in time,” he said.