For freelance photographer Jim Judkis, shooting Fred Rogers behind-the-scenes for magazine stories in the 1970s and ’80s resulted in some of his most memorable assignments. Judkis was impressed by the attention to detail he saw on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at WQED, and by the depth of Rogers’ connection with children he met in the community.
But after the stories ran – in People, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine – Judkis moved on to his next gigs. And he forgot about the hundreds of images he’d shot of Rogers at work.
Three decades later, Judkis got a call from producers of a new documentary on Rogers, who’d died in 2003. They were looking for photos. Judkis recalled those old negatives and contact sheets. Two of the images ended up in the Oscar-nominated 2018 doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And now, 60 of the photos – most previously unpublished -- will be featured at Pittsburgh’s American Jewish Museum in the exhibit “The Loving Kindness of Fred Rogers: Photos by Jim Judkis.”
Judkis worked on the exhibit with museum director Melissa Hiller. In a statement, the museum, located inside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said the photos dovetail with its mission. “Judkis’ photographs are especially poignant because they capture Mister Rogers’ true nature and draw us into his world, reminding us to be kinder to our neighbors and ourselves.” (The JCC sits just blocks from Rogers’ long-time home in Squirrel Hill.)
In all, over the several years the assignments spanned – the Inquirer shoot was in 1985 – Judkis spent about six days in Rogers’ company. About half of the documentary photos capture Rogers and his crew at work on the show at WQED’s studios, in Oakland. Most of the rest depict him in the late 1970s, meeting children at Carnegie Mellon University’s day-care program and at what’s now The Children’s Institute. (The latter was then called the Home for Crippled Children.)
“This show constitutes the best of everything, a total picture of Fred,” he says.
About two-thirds of the images were shot on black-and-white film, and at least one of those is iconic. It depicts a young boy beaming as he grasps Rogers’ face with both hands. The photo went viral in 2012, after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. It was also one of two of Judkis’ photos used in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Judkis recalls that the boy, whose name was Tommy, was unusually demanding of his famous visitor's attention. But as photos of Rogers interacting with other children indicate, there was nothing unusual in how Rogers related to Tommy.
“He just locked onto every kid and gave them real attention. Just really because he cared,” says Judkis. “That’s just his nature.”
Fewer than a dozen of the photos in the exhibit have been published, says Judkis. He adds that what sets these photos apart from most images of Rogers is that they are candid and unposed.
“I hope people get a real appreciation for Fred Rogers, a much deeper personal appreciation and awareness of him,” he says. “The images cohere together and give a real picture of him as a person that we couldn’t get any other way, other than through the camera’s eye.”
Other favorites of Judkis’ include his black-and-white portrait of Rogers for Pittsburgh magazine; he recalls requesting that Rogers “think of something serious.” (He never asked Rogers what he'd thought of.)
“Some people, the camera loves them,” he adds. “Fred was one of those people.”
A color image captures Rogers shot from a low angle as he crouches behind the Neighborhood of Make-Believe’s wooden scenery. His right arm is raised high to operate the hand-puppet character Daniel Striped Tiger, regarded as Rogers’ alter ego. Judkis says the image capture Rogers deeply engaged in his craft.
“The solitude of it, the personal intensity of it, comes through to me,” says Judkis.
Another series catches a swim-suited Rogers doing his daily laps in pool at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, in Oakland.
Judkis, an award-winning photographer, actually wasn’t all that familiar with Rogers and his show when he got the first of these assignments, 40 years ago. But he went on to have a long-term relationship with Rogers himself and the Fred Rogers Company, creating the images for its First Experiences book series.
The exhibit is accompanied by an eponymous photo book.
Judkis says he is heartened by the resurgence of interest in Rogers that accompanied the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as indicated by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the forthcoming film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.
“Members of my generation, baby boomers, are finding Mister Rogers embodies the values that we all kind of want for our society,” he says. “The interest in Fred is genuine and growing.”