Annapolis native and photographer Stan Stearns, who took the iconic photograph
of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's caisson-borne casket Nov. 25,
1963, died early Friday morning from lung cancer. He was 76 years old.
Stearns, who started his photography career at this newspaper, was working for United Press International on the day of President John F. Kennedy's funeral, three days after the young president was assassinated in Dallas.
He was assigned to follow the president's widow and an entourage of world leaders as they made their way from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral for the funeral service.
Herded behind a cordon with scores of other photographers across the street from the church he concentrated on Mrs. Kennedy.
He saw her lean over and say something to her son. A second later John-John stepped forward and saluted his father. It was his third birthday.
Stearns raised his camera and snapped the photo felt around the world.
Stearns learned from the press gaggle he was the only one to get the photo of the salute and rushed back to UPI's office convinced he had the shot of the day. He was right.
The photo remains one of the most searing images of post-war America and to this day can evoke emotions of that dark weekend in those who experienced it nearly 50 years ago.
Filmed television coverage also caught the moment but for many worldwide it was Stearns' still image that captured the moment for history.
In 2007 a controversy erupted after an obituary for another photographer, Joe O'Donnell, mentioned he, not Stearns, had taken the famous shot. Apparently O'Donnell had made the claim. Photographers scrambled to Stearns' side to prove he had taken the photo.
By the mid-1970s Stearns left the breakneck pace of Washington and opened a studio photography business in Annapolis. The shop opened first on Maryland Avenue, then moved to West Street and finally Main Street, before he moved it into his Eastport home.
Area photographer David Anderson founded the Professional Photographers Organization of Greater Annapolis in 1998 and quickly got to know Stearns.
"He came to our very first meeting and we became friends immediately," Anderson said.
He said his friend was very particular about his work. "He prided himself saying he did not take pictures, he created images."
Anderson noted Stearns liked to use ambient light as often as possible and tried to eschew digital photography for as long as he could but eventually succumbed to the new technology.
"He also talked about what he called machine gunner photographers who would take 100 frames just to get one good one. Stan tried to make every shot count."
Stearns' son, Jay A. Stearns, lives in Crownsville and is also a photographer. He operates Landmarks Photography.
He took to photography at his father's knee and recalled his father's quick transition from press photography to the studio business. "He wanted to start at the top and he did. He shot Marvin Mandel and Gladys Knight and the Pips, and everyone in between. He had a gift and made it into a profession."
Stearns' house was full of the great photographs of world leaders and others. Presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and of course the most famous one of JFK Jr.
Stan Stearns was born in Annapolis on May 11, 1935, son of William and Lillian Stearns.
He attended local schools and graduated from Annapolis High School in 1954.
Though he had no formal photographic training he acquired talent early. At age 14 he won a prize from the Annapolis Camera Club for a photo he took at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington.
When he was 16 Stearns kicked off his career with a job at this newspaper, then The Evening Capital.
After a stint as a school photographer for a Texas firm and four years in the U.S. Air Force as a photographer for Stars and Stripes, he came home and kept knocking on the door at the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun trying to land a job.
With some help from Annapolis photographer Marion Warren he finally landed at United Press International going to work in Washington at the end of the Eisenhower administration.
Stearns passed away at the Hospice of the Chesapeake's Mandrin House in Harwood where he had been for the last few weeks, a relative said.
Services for Stearns will be held at Hardesty Funeral Home on Ridgely Avenue in Annapolis on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. He will be buried in the Maryland Veteran's Cemetery in Crownsville.
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