David Hume Kennerly has an impressive circle of friends. Ansel Adams? “He and I became great friends.” The late Senator John McCain? “I knew him really well.” Bob Woodward? “Really well.” This isn’t just gratuitous name-dropping; it’s the territory of the job.
“My career has been about photographing people making decisions that impact our lives,” says Kennerly, who served as a photographer for the Oregon Journal and the Oregonian before taking on the gig of contributing photographer at Time and Life magazines. Over the past 53 years Kennerly has enjoyed extraordinary access to the people, places, and closed-door conversations shaping America.
Born in 1947 in Roseburg, Kennerly vaulted from West Linn High School yearbook photographer to, by age 25, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the Vietnam War and 1971’s Ali vs. Frazier “Fight of the Century.” He went on to chronicle the country’s most familiar faces: the pursed-lipped, stiffly waving stance of an impeached Richard Nixon departing the White House for the last time; the audacious grin of Betty Ford poised to waltz atop a presidential table (he served as official White House photographer, the fourth ever, under Gerald Ford); the love-struck look that passed between the Obamas en route to their first Inaugural Ball.
At 71, Kennerly is on contract with CNN and busy cataloging his archive of work, hoping to give it to a major university. He has photographed 12 presidential elections and is gearing up for number 13 in 2020.
“I’ve been in the room for some major events of history over the last 50 years,” Kennerly says from his home in Santa Monica, California.
Beyond his images, though, mum’s the word. “President Ford told me that my tombstone should read, ‘Here lies the worst source in Washington.’”