Jack Kightlinger, the US Army Signal Corps photographer who was assigned to the White House in 1967 and visually chronicled five presidencies from Lyndon Johnson’s to Ronald Reagan’s, tragically died on Monday when the car in which he and his wife were traveling was struck by a truck in his hometown of Flat Rock, North Carolina. Kightlinger, who was 77, perished at the scene; his wife died a day later.
Kightlinger was in California supervising a Signal Corps lab when he was asked to come to Washington, and, after competing against several other lensmen and taking two polygraph tests, was assigned to cover President Johnson. Less than a year after he began working at the White House, on July 31, 1968, he found LBJ sitting, listening to a tape recording that his son-in-law Charles Robb, one day to be a Senator from Virginia, had sent from Vietnam, where he was leading a Marine infantry company. Johnson’s head was bowed; one arm drooped down, in a gesture of utter exhaustion; a month short of sixty, the thirty-sixth President looked like a far older man. Kightlinger pressed the shutter and took a photograph that over forty years later is still the unsurpassed image that symbolizes the infinite responsibility and pressures of the Presidency.
After President Nixon entered the White House, Kightlinger tended to get the less “historic” assignments, working almost exclusively in black and white. But while few of his images from the Nixon era are as widely known or iconic as those of the late Ollie Atkins, Kightlinger still had a knack for capturing unexpected sidelights of the thirty-seventh President. One such photo, depicting Nixon bowling in the White House lane (which President Obama once talked of turning into a basketball court, though I believe that notion’s been put aside), hung on the wall of my old office for over a decade. (Correction: I just checked Google Images and found that the aforementioned photo was taken by Atkins in color, although Kightlinger’s b&w image of RN bowling can be found here.) Kightlinger also took some fine photos of the President meeting and greeting crowds on his trips around the country.
Kightlinger continued working into the Ford, Carter, and Reagan presidencies; indeed, one of his photos of Ronald Reagan was selected to appear on the latter’s commemorative stamp in 2005. After retiring, he settled in his native state, and, on occasion, would talk to local newspapers about his years when he watched history in the making, and helped bring it alive for generations to come.