Wednesday 18 October 2017

When Stan met Jack

Stan pictured at work in the 1960s
Stan pictured at work in the 1960s
Stan Shields took his chance and advanced towards JFK to take this iconic picture.
Shields, photographed in Galway

Anita Guidera

It took 45 years for legendary Galway photographer Stan Shields to gain recognition for the incredible shot he took of US President John F Kennedy from the front of the open-topped limousine.

The picture of a slightly bemused looking JFK eying the photographer looming over him in the car as he is flanked by two trenchcoat-wearing bodyguards, was originally cropped to only show the US president.

It was when the full shot was revealed years later that the true remarkable nature of the picture was recognised.

Shields had just joined the 'Connacht Tribune' the previous September and had only been taking pictures for six months when the career-changing moment presented itself.

"I was only 20 and it was just a matter of getting the pictures. I didn't feel any excitement really to be honest. I even got his autograph that day but I had it lost within a week. But I will tell you one thing, when you were talking to him he captivated you completely," he recalled.

His brief was to take his camera and head for the sportsground where the helicopter was to land. Shields' mentor, Jimmy Walsh, had the more important task of photographing events in Eyre Square where the US president was to address the crowds.

When a fearless Shields jumped over a security rope in the landing area to get a closer shot of the US president being welcomed to the city by the mayor and the bishop he was challenged by security staff but was unfazed. Just before the US president got in his car with Taoiseach Sean Lemass, the wily cub photographer caught his eye and winked at him.

"He winked back and smiled. I pointed to the camera and pointed to him and he nodded his head as if to say yes, so I went up to take a picture.

"Everyone else were taking pictures through the back door but Lemass was between me and him and I didn't want Lemass in the picture, I just wanted him.

"I decided I'd get into the front seat of the car as though I was taking a picture of a bride and groom in the back. I opened the front door. There were two fellas standing there. I went to lift up the camera and 'bang' a fella jumped on top of me.

"I said 'I'm only taking a feckin' picture' and a voice said: 'It's ok Jim, he's a friend'. It was the president. The two lads let me go so I took the picture, shook hands with him, thanked him for coming and told him I hoped he enjoyed his day."

Minutes later Shields found himself with the other photographers on the back of a lorry as it drove in front of the presidential car as it made its way towards the city and Eyre Square.

Along the way, a bride and groom stepped out from their wedding reception in the Warwick Hotel and were rewarded by a quick-thinking Kennedy who leapt from the open-topped car and dashed over to kiss the bride.

In Eyre Square lady luck smiled on Shields again when none other than the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, came to his rescue.

Shields found himself trapped in the throngs with no obvious way of exiting in time to make it back to Salthill and complete his brief by photographing the departure.

"I thought I would probably lose my job but Pierre Salinger, whom I had met a few weeks earlier, told me I could exit through the brown doorway and avoid the crowd but there were conditions.

"I was told I had to let my camera hang, not put my hands on it and not look left or right or I would be dead before I hit the ground. I've never forgotten that," he said.

So for the second time that day, the 20-year-old met the president, this time introduced to him by Salinger.

Upon leaving Eyre Square he was able to cycle out to Salthill in time to picture the helicopter lifting off.

Back in the darkroom later he blew up the picture of Kennedy in the back seat of the car but another of his shots, that of Kennedy waving from the helicopter before he left, made the front page.

"It was only years later when I looked at it again that I realised that the original version was much better, especially with the two lads looking at me," he said.

In a colourful career that has spanned over five decades, Shields has photographed Hollywood legends such as Montgomery Clift and Richard Burton, Pope John Paul II, South African leader Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

"I will never say I'm good but I have been very, very, lucky in my career," said the photographer. Recently he was awarded a Master of Arts Honorary Degree by NUI Galway.

But the JFK visit to Galway still stands out as one of the highlights in his mind.

The most poignant moment of the day came in a conversation he had with a member of the Secret Service, while he was waiting in Salthill for the president to return for his departure.

"I just started talking to a fella in a trenchcoat and I asked him 'what's your greatest fear?' He said 'a sniper' and I said 'who'd ever think of shooting that man, one of the greatest men I ever met'.

"Even to this day I would say he was one of the greatest men I ever met."

Irish Independent

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