Stanley F. Stearns, the photographer who captured the image of a young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his late father, a picture that instantly evokes memories of the Camelot era, died of lung cancer Friday at Hospice of the Chesapeake in Harwood, his family said. He was 76.
A former United Press International photographer who later ran a studio for 40 years in his native Annapolis, Mr. Stearns snapped the president's son outside a Washington cathedral as the family left the funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963. The endearing photo of the toddler, who turned 3 the day his father was buried, ran on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
"He was very proud of that photo and talked about it a lot," said David Anderson, a friend and founder of the Professional Photographers Organization of Greater Annapolis. "He had many copies of the image, but I think it always irked him that UPI had the rights to the image."
Mr. Stearns often shared the story of how his editor assigned him to cover Kennedy's funeral procession. He and dozens of other photographers were crammed into a cordoned-off space outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. He focused his lens on the veiled first lady and her children, while many others concentrated on the caisson carrying the president's body. He said he watched as Jacqueline Kennedy whispered to her son. He had just the right angle, as the little boy raised his hand in a salute from the church steps.
Instead of sticking with his assignment, he rushed back to UPI's Washington bureau to develop the photo, while his editor threatened to fire him. The photo would later be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It came in second to the photo of gun-wielding Jack Ruby as he shot Lee Harvey Oswald the day before the president's funeral. Mr. Stearns won $25 from the wire service for the "Photo of the Month."
In a 1999 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Stearns, who covered the White House through several first families, said he felt a strong connection to John F. Kennedy Jr.
"Covering the White House during the Kennedy years, I had a son just two years younger than John-John," he said.
Mr. Stearns, the son of jewelry store owners, began working at what is now the Annapolis Capital when he was 16 and a student at Annapolis High School. A Brownie camera, a bar mitzvah gift, sparked what would be a lifelong interest.
"Just last week he was telling me that he had to choose between music and photography," said a niece, Karla Bowles of Syracuse, N.Y. "It was difficult because he was a good drummer and played in a band. But he absolutely made the right decision. He was great in his field and in his time."
Mr. Stearns served in the U.S. Air Force before joining UPI in Washington. His home in Eastport is filled with images of presidents and politicians, including Ms. Bowles' favorite portrait of President Richard M. Nixon with his two daughters.
"He could focus so well on faces and capture just the right expression," Ms. Bowles said. "He never wasted film."
Mr. Stearns left photojournalism in the 1970s to open his Annapolis studio on Maryland Avenue. He later moved the business to his home and was still shooting photos until illness forced him to curtail his life's work.
"He loved what he did and tried to make every shot count," said Mr. Anderson. "He liked to say he didn't take pictures. He created images. He was old school and called today's photographers machine gunners. Anybody can snap a picture, but he made his photos tell a story."
Mr. Anderson said his longtime friend kept up with technology and shared what he had learned with fellow photographers. Although Mr. Stearns was initially reluctant to make the switch to digital photography, he entered the digital world and enthusiastically continued his career with the latest equipment, Mr. Anderson said.
Barry Rollins was studying photography under Mr. Stearns, and the two frequently went on the road to shoot. The two had planned several trips for this spring.
"He didn't just take pictures," Mr. Rollins said. "He created art. A true artist knows when to hit the shutter on his camera."
Golf came close to photography as a lifetime passion, said those who knew Mr. Stearns. He always lived on or near a course and kept his clubs ever ready in the trunk of his car. He proudly claimed six holes-in-one, Ms. Bowles said.
"He played all around the world and was still playing last fall," Mr. Rollins said.
Services will be held at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Hardesty Funeral Home, 12 Ridgely Ave., Annapolis.
He is survived by his son, Jay Stearns of Crownsville; a brother, Allan Stearns of Naples, Fla., and four grandchildren. His marriage ended in divorce.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun