When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly looks back on nearly 50 years of peering at the world through a camera lens, his favorite frame is of Barack and Michelle Obama on inauguration night.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly looks back on nearly 50 years of peering at the world through a camera lens, his favorite frame is of Barack and Michelle Obama on inauguration night.

The president and the first lady are standing in a freight elevator in the White House, smiling as they gently touch foreheads during a rare private moment. She is wearing his suit jacket to ward off the cold.

"That's the one I like the best — the Obamas in the elevator," Kennerly said. "That goes to the heart of what I do, revealing something of people's personalities and who they are. It was a gallant moment. It could have been a high school prom. I love that picture.

"Barack Obama is one of the more fascinating people I've ever photographed. He is a phenom. That he could be elected president coming from a poor background is one of the great things about America."

Before you write Kennerly off as another biased journalist, hear him out.

"I really like Dick Cheney," he said of another politician he's captured with a camera, this one from the other side of the aisle. "What people miss about him is his great sense of humor. During eight years of Bush, he was kept backstage because he outshined Bush in many ways.

"I'm looking forward to his book," he added of the former vice president. "If he writes with that ironic sense of humor, that wry humor of his, it could be a very good read."

The point, he stressed, is that journalists — with or without cameras — can never let their political biases influence their work.

"There are no party lines with me — I am at heart a newspaper photographer, an old-fashioned journalist who believes in objectivity," he said. "And I am as enthusiastic about the business now as I ever have been. I love shooting people."

A Southern Oregon native who now calls Santa Monica, Calif., home, Kennerly, 63, the father of three sons, will be reflecting on his career in "Behind the Scenes of History" on April 15 in Medford. His presentation kicks off the annual Southern Oregon Arts & Lectures series by the Jackson County Library Foundation.

Born and reared in Roseburg, he has captured thousands of images of world history over the years, from the Oval Office where he was the White House photographer to the bloody Vietnam War. He was ringside when Muhammad Ali battled Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden in 1971. And he took some of the last photographs of Sen. Robert Kennedy before he was assassinated.

Kennerly's work has taken him to more than 130 countries. He was there when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took his historic trip to Israel. He saw the horror of the mass suicide in Jonestown. He shot exclusive photos of President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's first meeting in Geneva in 1985. He even shot the final days of the Seinfeld comedy series. His photographs have filled books and graced the covers of such magazines as Time and Newsweek, as well as the nation's largest newspapers.

"My dad was a traveling salesman," Kennerly said. "That's where I got the traveling bug as well as the ability to sell people on the idea of having their picture taken."

With few exceptions, most people aren't too keen on having their photographs taken, particularly candid shots that may not flatter them, he observed.

His first photograph ever published was in spring 1962 when he snapped a baseball action shot for his Roseburg High School paper.

"It wasn't very good," he said. "But it rang my bell, seeing something in print that I had produced."

After his family moved to West Linn halfway through his junior year at Roseburg, he continued looking at the world through a camera. Upon graduating from high school in 1965, he immediately began working as a photographer for the now defunct Oregon Journal newspaper.

"My fascination with RFK began in 1966 in Portland while shooting for the Journal," he said. "I remember following him out to the airport where I saw these two photographers get on the plane and taxi off. I was left standing on the tarmac. I really wanted to get on that plane with those people."

Hired as a staff photographer by United Press International in 1967, he moved to Los Angeles. He took some of the last photographs of Sen. Kennedy on June 5, 1968, in the Ambassador Hotel, just moments before he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

"RFK was on his way to the White House," Kennerly said. "Who knows what would have happened if he hadn't been killed."

UPI sent Kennerly to its bureau in Washington, D.C., in 1970. He was 23 when he took his first ride in Air Force One as a member of the White House press corps.

After covering the Ali-Frazier "Fight of the Century," he became the UPI bureau chief in Southeast Asia, covering the Vietnam war. He earned the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for 14 photographs taken in 1971, which included haunting photographs taken in Vietnam, as well as the Ali-Frazier fight. He was 25 years old.

"My dad never fully understood what I was doing," he said. "But when I won the Pulitzer, he finally accepted that I was on a career path."

Returning to D.C. in 1973, he covered the Watergate crisis. He shot the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew and covered the selection of Gerald R. Ford as Agnew's replacement. When Ford became president after Richard Nixon's resignation, Ford offered Kennerly the position as White House photographer.

Knowing that Nixon's photographer had no access or freedom in that role, Kennerly accepted on two conditions.

"It was a cheeky thing to do, but I thought, what the hell, I agreed with the provisos that I report directly to him and that I would have total access," he recalled. "After all, I was happy working for Time magazine."

Ford accepted those conditions, and the two forged a close friendship.

"He was truly what you saw, very self-effacing with a total lack of vanity," Kennerly said. "He was always very kind. I never heard a racist expression, never heard him talk in a demeaning way about other people. He was the right man at the right time."

Noting Ford was just one of the extraordinary people he met along the way, Kennerly said there are unique people around the globe he still wants to focus on.

"One I'd love to see is the leader of North Korea," he said of Kim Jong-Il. "There are very few Howard Hughes types left. The idea of drawing back the North Korean curtain and seeing the Wizard of Oz fascinates me."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.