You've probably heard me say before that all photojournalists work hard but the really lucky ones labor all their lives and also leave a legacy of one single shot that becomes iconic, world-famous, part of the Zeitgeist, the culture. For example, Sam Shere's picture of the crash of the Hindenburg, or Nick Ut's of the napalmed Vietnamese girl; Alberto Korda's endlessly reproduced "Guerrillero Heroico," or Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima." The one picture becomes a career compacted, like carbon into diamond; the precious transcendent pinnacle, symbolic of a lifetime of work.
That makes it especially heinous when somebody steals that one picture from you. That almost happened to Stan Stearns, who died last Friday, March 2nd, at the age of 76.
Stan was the one photojournalist covering the JFK funeral who got the poignant shot of 3-year-old JFK Jr., then known as "John-John," saluting his father's caisson and casket as it passed by.
The Washington Post tells Stan's story from that day. First, he asked around to see if any of the other guys had gotten the shot. None had (although television captured it). So he decided to detach from the proceedings and rush the picture back to the UPI's Washington bureau.
"The bureau chief almost had a hemorrhage," Mr. Stearns told the Annapolis Capital in 2009. "I never saw a man turn as white as he did because I was not with the entourage going to Arlington. Then the big boss from New York overheard that and he said, 'You better have it or you’re fired on the spot.'"
He had it.
The picture made the front pages of newspapers worldwide....
The Baltimore Sun quotes David Anderson, a friend of Stan's and founder of the Professional Photographers Organization of Greater Annapolis, who said Stan "was very proud of that photo and talked about it a lot."
Little did Stan know, though, that for years, another photographer was busy taking credit for his most famous shot. That story itself has become part of photography's lore now. Our coverage started in this post and most importantly continued here (with a bit of rare-for-us original reporting), and a follow-up here.
There's a good obituary of Stan at the Baltimore Sun, written by Mary Gail Hare. The picture above is by the Sun's Gene Sweeney Jr.
The New York Times published an obituary of Stan Stearns too. But, fittingly, it also published a discussion of the O'Donnell affair that stands as its obituary editor's "worst nightmare," in Clark Hoyt's Public Editor blog.
Let's have no more of that, at any rate. Let the credit for the John-John picture belong to the man who took it:
Stan Stearns, R.I.P.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.