Childhood Collection Captured JFK Tragedy As it Unfolded

Growing up in Patterson, N.J., a half-century ago, Robert Cumins dreamed of going to the White House and seeing John F. Kennedy. He did, in the last year of the president’s life. That meeting fed an obsession that resulted in perhaps the largest collection of photographs documenting the presidential assassination, or almost any presidential topic, ever put together by a single individual. Mr. Cumins’ childhood scrapbooks of hundreds of images, many of them UPI wire photos sent out in the days following the tragedy, will be the centerpiece of the Oct. 19 “Icons of Photojournalism” sale at Swann Galleries.

“I’ve never seen as large, as comprehensive a photo collection devoted to any subject,” said Daile Kaplan, the director of photographs at Swann Galleries. And since news wire photographs–often uncredited–were typically thrown away after use, many of these fading images have not been seen since the era of Kennedy’s election, 50 years ago next month. 

The collection began not long after Mr. Cumins, in 1963, sent a telegram to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, requesting an interview with him for his high-school newspaper. “I was determined,” Mr. Cumins, now a photojournalist, told The Observer. “I thought if I can’t get to the president, I’ll get to the one guy who was closest to him in the journalistic world.” Mr. Cumins got his interview.

In February 1963, the teenager traveled with his mother to Washington, D.C. A reporter from the local newspaper, the Patterson Evening News (now defunct), came along to cover his adventure. Mr. Cumins got more than his interview with the press secretary: He was invited to attend receptions for the president of Venezuela, who was in Washington meeting with Kennedy at the time, and, at the end of the week, covered the president’s press conference. Mr. Cumins was 14. By the end of that year, Kennedy was dead.

In the days following the assassination, the publisher of the Patterson Evening News, aware of the young man’s fascination with the president, saved all of the UPI wire photos of Kennedy that came through and gave them to him. Mr. Cumins arranged them into a series of a dozen photo albums, on the block Tuesday at an estimate of $25,000 to $30,000.

Arrayed on a table at Swann Galleries, they still give off the vibe of a childhood scrapbook: stapled together, containing handwritten page numbers and misspellings. A series of images from the funeral of the Texas governor, John Connally, contains the heading “The Connally’s.” Pieced together from Unifax (an early facsimile fax machine) transmissions, the now sepia-toned material is delicate and fading.

They are astonishing, though, in their intricate reconstruction of the assassination’s narrative–the motorcade, the funerals of both Kennedy and Connally, the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the rise of Robert Kennedy. Nothing is overlooked. Of the assassination, Mr. Cumins remarked, “I’m still haunted by it.”

Mr. Cumins would go on to a successful career as a photojournalist. His image of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center appeared on the cover of People magazine (and is also available at the Swann sale). Many of the lots on offer are similarly disturbing, including prints of Murray Becker’s photo of the Hindenburg disaster ($1,400 to $1,800) and Eddie Adams image of the imminent execution of a Viet Cong prisoner ($3,000 to $4,500).

Swann Galleries is one of the few auction houses to make a market in press photography. “These images become the center of personal and collective memory of war and trauma,” Ms. Kaplan said. “This is how we take in history.” Childhood Collection Captured JFK Tragedy As it Unfolded