Written by Michelle Chen, CNN
On the night of January 16, 1963, America’s migrant workers gathered outside the Rocky Mountain National Park headquarters of the Pacific Coast Almanac.
Reporter Robert F. Kennedy and photographer Robert Klein were there. They both interviewed activist Clementine Hunter, who’d been involved in civil rights action in Nashville. Hunter became inextricably linked to Kennedy as part of his administration and explained the concept of the “new South” to the world. The photographer, Klein, later described his mission in the caption for the image that came to embody the cause:
“The exchange of cameras by famous photographers when they are accompanied by a political leader is at once solemn and theatrical, and it pays homage to America’s political tradition by calling attention to what seems to be a ceremony of lofty exchange. Robert Klein […) is apparently just one of a group of photographers who are interested in documenting major events. But more interesting to me are the timing and the fact that Robert Kennedy himself was having a very public political life.”
One week later, in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated. In their own ways, Klein and Fisher celebrated his legacy.
Klein’s essay in the Rocky Mountain Almanac is one of the first major images of Kennedy, but Fisher’s photographic essay, “The Waldorf Bellhop,” for Life magazine, remains the most famous and lasting.
The image of Elidrissi, a high school dropout who picked up cleaning at hotels, neatly framed the image of Kennedy and Hunter, with their hands on her shoulders, standing before the Oval Office on a remarkable afternoon. The fleeting image became an iconic moment in American history.
It was selected as the cover of Life magazine in December 1963.
By spring 1964, Fisher followed up with the only follow-up photograph Fisher, by then married, took of Elidrissi at his family’s home in Texas.
He called it “The Black Face,” an ironic reference to the more overt racism Elidrissi had faced — but the director had created a surreal yet effective documentary by combining the striking detail of the photograph with intense ambiance and a white religious symbol forming the otherwise blank white of Elidrissi’s face.