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Photojournalist Stan Stearns, took ‘salute’ photo at JFK funeral, dies at 76

Photographer Stan Stearns, whose photo of John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin during the funeral cortege became an icon of the 1960s, died March 2 at 76

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“One exposure on a roll of 36 exposures,” Stearns said once. “As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. Everyone I talked to had been concentrating on Jackie and the caisson.”

Confident he had the day’s best picture, Stearns returned to the UPI office in Washington without going to the funeral itself.

“The bureau chief almost had a hemorrhage,” Stearns said 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.’ ”

As a staff photographer, his only extra compensation for the picture, reprinted many times over the years, was $25 for “picture of the month” at UPI, Stearns said.

The Washington Post cited that photo, along with those of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima during World War II, a South Vietnamese general’s street-side execution of a suspected Viet Cong, and a picture of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack as among the most definitive images of the mid-20th century.

Alison Nordstrom of George Eastman House photography museum in Rochester, N.Y., said the image was “a combination of familiar tropes and familiar sentiments with figures who felt known to us.”

In 2006, articles about news photographer Joe O’Donnell claimed that O’Donnell had taken the photo, but numerous former colleagues and historians rushed to correct the story on Stearns’ behalf.

Stearns was born in Annapolis, where his parents owned a jewelry shop. His received a Brownie Flash Six-20 camera as a bar mitzvah present and was working at the Annapolis newspaper as a photographer by the time he was 16. He was an Air Force photographer and then went to UPI. He ran a photography studio in Annapolis from the mid-1970s until his death. The JFK Jr. photo can be seen on the studio’s website.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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