'Life' photographer calls JFK his most charismatic subject

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on November 21, 2013 at 6:27 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 22 at 5:46 PM

HOUSTON -- Bob Gomel is one of those guys you could talk with all day.

As a photographer for Life magazine, he has met more legendary figures than he can count. The hallway of his west Houston townhouse is lined with his photographs of the famous and infamous, pictures he personally took that sometimes seem vaguely familiar from the old magazines where they were first published. Off the shelves of his library, he pulls books showing the iconic magazine covers he shot.

The Beatles splash around in a swimming pool ("They were delightful, well-mannered, soft-spoken and unaffected.")

Marilyn Monroe sits at a dinner table in a ballroom ("Enigmatic and distant.")

Muhammad Ali throws a playful punch at Gomel’s camera in front of a Broadway marquee for "The Great White Hope" ("What a charming guy and what a great sense of theater.")

But of all the historic figures he has photographed during his long career, he remembers one subject as the most charismatic man he ever met.

"Charisma is a word that possibly was invented for John Kennedy," Gomel said.

The longtime photojournalist moved to Houston decades ago for work in advertising and the energy industry. But as the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approached, his old employers at Life contacted him for permission to republish some of his pictures from the days following the death of the president. 

And at long last, Gomel—who recalls keeping a professional detachment during those stunning days—finally felt in his heart what he saw through his camera.

"I have to tell you that, two weeks ago when this book came out and I was reading it, tears finally came out of my eyes," he says. "I had my emotional reaction to the assassination 50 years later."

The young photojournalist first met Kennedy when he was a still a U.S. senator harboring an unbridled ambition for the presidency. Gomel covered JFK’s campaign from the long slog of primaries through what was then the closest election night in presidential history.

His fondest memory comes from the weeks when Kennedy was still the president-elect, when he and another photographer—Jim Atherton of UPI—staked out JFK’s Georgetown home to watch for potential cabinet members arriving for job interviews.

"The president opened his ground floor window," Gomel remembers. "He said, ‘Jim, Bob, come on inside, we’ll watch the football game together.’ So in we went and they set up TV trays. And we were served steak and baked potato. And the next thing I remember was being shaken awake by my friend Jim Atherton. And he said, ‘Bob, wake up. Navy won. The president’s left the room. I think we ought to go outside.’ I fell asleep on the president in this little TV room!"

What followed for a little more than a thousand days was a time of glamour that Gomel was often called upon to document for Life magazine. Photographers, like much of the rest of the nation, were often "mesmerized by their attractiveness," Gomel remembers.

When Kennedy traveled to Houston in September 1962, Gomel photographed the president at Rice University as he delivered his ringing pronouncement that "we choose to go the moon." He later shot pictures of Kennedy touring facilities constructing the spacecraft that would fulfill that promise.

Alas, of all the photographs Gomel took of the president he had befriended, his most famous picture was shot from high above the floor of the U.S. Capitol rotunda, showing a shaft of light shining down upon the commander-in-chief’s flag-draped coffin. The image is seared into the memories of millions of Americans from that generation, many of whom saved the magazine in which it was published as an everlasting memento of that harrowing week.

"Maybe he won’t go down as one of the very most important of our president’s," Gomel says. "But he’s certainly one of the most revered."

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