A black & white candid photograph shows President John F. Kennedy meeting a line of young men and women. The photo caption reads: “August 9, 1962 —–Six hundred and three Peace Corps trainees preparing in the Washington area for overseas assignments visited President Kennedy on the south lawn of the White House. The President welcomed the trainees with special pleasure because they had “committed themselves to a great adventure.” He repeated his hope that Peace Corps Volunteers would return to careers of service in the Government. After informal conversation with the trainees, the President on the spur of the moment ordered a special tour of the White House for the trainees.”
It is an iconic image representing the hope, aspirations, dreams and idealism of the 1960’s led by President Kennedy. The image is just one of many iconic images taken over the course of the photography career of Rowland Scherman. Scherman worked as a photographer for the newly created organization. His photographs helped illustrate to the nation what this new agency was all about.
A website featuring the photos of Scherman is descriptive of his eclectic career: The introduction reads: “A multimedia exhibition of the iconic photography of Rowland Scherman. Teen idol. First Peace Corps photographer. Grammy Award winner. Freelance work for Life, Look, National Geographic, Playboy, Paris Match and more. Look-you will see over forty years of fabulous photography on display. Listen-you will hear Rowland’s narrative and historical audio clips. Learn-about the people and events of the tumultuous 60’s.” Following is the link to this website. http://www.snapstour.com/
Here is how Rowland Scherman describes how he came to be the first Peace Corps photographer:
Like so many others, I was thrilled by JFK’s inaugural speech. Although I wasn’t a “professional” photographer, I made a few dollars doing portraits out of a makeshift studio or “on location” on the streets of New York City. I shared a crappy little darkroom with a friend. But JFK’s words made me think that I could be something more, could reach a higher potential, if I volunteered my work and myself for the betterment of my country, instead of simply chasing a buck. Yes, I thought, my services just might somehow be useful to the new administration. I found out whom to see about a job with the Peace Corps, took a bus to DC, and announced my availability to be their official photographer. “I want to be the Peace Corps photographer,” I said. “I believe I can help you. I want to help.” ”We don’t need photographers, kid,” the interviewer, newsman Tom Matthews, said. “We need doctors, farmers, nurses, technicians. Besides, look at all the press we have covering us already.” Sure enough, the building was crawling with reporters and cameramen, as everything pertaining to the Kennedys and the early days of the New Frontier was newsworthy. But the Peace Corps was in its infancy: No one understood right away that it was only an idea–and what there was was only tables and chairs, confusion, and Sargent Shriver.
Matthews bellowed from down the hall: “Where’s that kid with the camera?
I wore my Leicas under my jacket for some reason. I moved my lapel back to show them and said, “Here I am.”
“Come on! And address her as Your Majesty, OK?”
So I followed him to Shriver’s office. Her Royal Highness really wanted to be a hippie, I think, but she was every inch a princess also. She wore a pink pill box hat, her hair was perfect, and she was radiantly happy. Sargent Shriver at age 40 was one of the best-looking men on the planet. I took a few snaps of Sarge and the Princess smiling at each other, and they turned out pretty great–but how could I miss? They were both young, dynamic, and attractive and those qualities showed in my pictures…anyone could have done it.
A couple of days later, I had been signed to join the Public Information arm of the newly-formed agency, and worked there for more than two years. I photographed the staff at work, Sargent Shriver on Capitol Hill asking the Congress for funding, the volunteers in training, and whatever else was needed when a camera was required. Our film, as I dimly recall, was farmed out to and processed by a generic government photo lab that did a lousy job. When I complained about it, they said, “Well, what do you need?”
I said, “An enlarger, some trays, the chemicals, and a dark room. I need a darkroom.”
A day or so later, all the gear I had mentioned was sitting outside a little storage closet that had running water. So I built the Peace Corps a darkroom, the second (and the smallest) of maybe ten darkrooms I have built over the years.
My victory, at first, seemed a phyrric one. I did not, it should be stressed, get the chance to go overseas and see the volunteers in action, which I already knew was what people wanted to see. That came later. I was just back in a crappy little darkroom.
How appropriate that the person responsible for making a visual record of the first days of Peace Corps to be someone so talented and creative. JFK and Sargent Shriver both had a knack for finding the best people for the job and letting them do it. Peace Corps was well-represented at the beginning, which is probably one of the reasons it succeeded and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The gallery of photographs by Scherman on the website includes images of iconic figures from the 1960s, from musicians Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan,to public figures Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Name an iconic person from the 1960s and there is probably a great photo of that person by Scherman.
It is appropriate that Peace Corps was his first major subject. What is more iconic of the 1960s than Peace Corps? Many of those great people in his photographs are no longer with us. The Peace Corps, however, is still going strong. And Rowland Scherman is still taking pictures.