Because the President’s limousine passed almost exactly in front of Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder on Nov. 22, 1963, just as he was playing with his new film camera, and precisely at the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a nearby books depository, his silent, 26.6-second home movie has become the focal point of America’s collective memory on that weird day. For many of us, especially those who weren’t alive when it happened, we’re all watching that event through Zapruder’s lens.
Other footage from the scene turns up here and there, becomes fodder for documentaries (like this new one disproving the “second shooter” theory). But Zapruder’s film is still the canonical ur text of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the most complete and most chilling visual record. In many ways, it prefigured all sorts of American pastimes, from widespread paranoia about government to a loss of faith in photographic truth and the news media, from the acceptance of graphic violence to newer concerns about copyright. The author Don DeLillo once said that the little film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” Without the 486 frames of Kodachrome II 8mm safety film, our understanding of JFK’s assassination would likely be an even greater carnival of conspiracy theories than it already is. Well, maybe.
In the numb, confused hour that started with the gunshots, Zapruder—a Russian-Jew whose parents had immigrated to Brooklyn in 1906 and who had moved his family to Dallas, where he ran his own sportswear company—would connect with Forrest Sorrels, an agent of the Secret Service’s Dallas office. After securing a promise from Sorrels that the footage would only be used for an official investigation, the two of them began a feverish rush to develop the film.
Together, they drove to the television station WFAA for help, but their equipment wasn’t sufficient. In the late afternoon, the film was taken to Eastman Kodak’s Dallas processing plant where it was immediately developed, and, at 6:30 p.m., driven to the Jamieson Film Company, where three additional copies were exposed. By 8 p.m .Zapruder had the original and a copy, and handed the other two copies to Sorrels, who sent them to Washington.
That left him with one extra copy of history’s most famous home movie. By evening, the rush to acquire the footage was on, and it was as feverish as it might be today. At its center were titans of both old and new media: the august editors of Life and the bulldog producers at CBS News. At that time, television news hadn’t yet become a serious focal point for most Americans, though that was about to change.
Sportswear manufacturer Abraham Zapruder
The accidental film almost didn’t happen at all. Zapruder admired the President, but he hadn’t thought about taking his new camera along to watch the motorcade until his assistant, Lillian Rogers, insisted. An 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Model 414 PD, the camera was top of the line when Zapruder purchased it the previous year. While he stood atop a concrete pedestal along Elm Street, he steadied himself with the help of Marilyn Sitzman, his receptionist, who held him from behind while he began filming. The President’s limousine turned onto Elm Street in front of the Book Depository, and for the next 26.6 seconds the camera captured 486 frames that would become a kind of national monument.
Dan Rather, a very young Dan Rather, whose career was about to be minted, was CBS’s Dallas bureau chief at the time. He called New York, asked for Don Hewitt, and told him that “a guy named Zapruder was supposed to have film of the assassination and was going to put it up for sale.” Exactly how interested was Walter Cronkite’s evening news program? Hewitt, the show’s executive producer—and the long-time producer of 60 Minutes—insisted it was very interested, and quickly decided the best approach would require a bit of, well, courage.
“In my desire to get a hold of what was probably the most dramatic piece of news footage ever shot,” Hewett wrote, "I told Rather to go to Zapruder’s house, sock him in the jaw, take his film to our affiliate in Dallas, copy it onto videotape, and let the CBS lawyers decide whether it could be sold or whether it was in the public domain. And then take the film back to Zapruder’s house and give it back to him. That way, the only thing they could get him for was assault because he would have returned Zapruder’s property. Rather said, ‘Great idea. I’ll do it.’
But then something dawned on Hewitt. “I hadn’t hung up the phone maybe ten seconds when it hit me: What in the hell did you just do? Are you out of your mind? So I called Rather back. Luckily, he was still there, and I said to him, ‘For Christ’s sake, don’t do what I just told you to. I think this day has gotten to me and thank God I caught you before you left.’ Knowing Dan to be as competitive as I am, I had the feeling that he wished he’d left before the second phone call.”
Possibly. The next morning Zapruder passed on CBS News’s lower bid and sold the print rights of the film to Life magazine for a total of $150,000, equivalent to over $1 million in today’s money. Even then, this sum wasn’t unheard of: just a few years earlier, the magazine had paid $500,000 for the exclusive story of the Gemini astronauts and their wives. The next day, TV news would earn another big coup: while being transferred from police headquarters to the county jail, suspected shooter Lee Harvey Oswald would be shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, in front of live television cameras. The Zapruder film, meanwhile, would almost never be seen on television.
Still, a few days later, Rather, who claims to be the first journalist to have seen the film, described it for a national audience on the evening news.
Dan Rather describes the Zapruder film
Rather’s was a sober, chilling but dignified description of the events, from the gentle roll of the limousine to the second shot that hit Texas Governor John Connally to the desperate crawl of the First Lady, “on all fours,” across the car’s trunk, toward the nearest bodyguard, after the final fatal head shot. But it was, in forensic terms, grossly inaccurate. Kennedy’s head did not thrash “violently forward,” but backward. When this discrepancy emerged later, a thousand conspiracy theories—involving the CIA, the Russian mob, the KGB, Malcolm, Martin, RFK, and various shooters—were born.
But even without the film itself and only Rather’s flawed description, Zapruder’s footage had already begun to affix itself to the national brain.
The film’s ambiguous impact was felt first and foremost inside the Zapruder home. The night after the assassination, he claimed to have had a nightmare in which he saw a booth in Times Square declaring, “See the President’s head explode!” After his nightmare, Zapruder decided that one frame would never appear in print. Fearing the public’s reaction to the gruesome fatal shot that killed JFK, and perhaps some karmic retribution, Zapruder insisted that frame 313 be withheld from publication. He also chose to give the first $25,000 of his Life payment to the widow of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, who had been killed confronting Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination.
The following week, Life would publish thirty frames of the Zapruder film in black and white. Frames were also published in color in the December 6, 1963 special “John F. Kennedy Memorial Edition,” and in three other issues over the next few years.
The film’s first publication in Life magazine.
This was the text that accompanied the November 29, 1963 article, “Split-Second Sequence as the Bullets Struck”:
On these and the following two pages is a remarkable and exclusive series of pictures which show, for the first time and in tragic detail, the fate which befell our President. The caravan had just passed through the downtown area of Dallas and made a sharp left turn at the corner of Elm and Houston Streets, where it headed down an incline into an underpass. First came the police motorcycle escort (above) and then the big Lincoln bearing the Kennedys and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife. The crowds were thin at this point, but the President and Mrs. Kennedy were smiling and waving as their car passes the brick building where the assassin lurked, and disappeared momentarily behind a highway sign.
Then came the awful moment. In these pictures, which run consecutively from left to right, it begins as the car comes out from behind the sign (fifth picture). The President’s wave turns into a clutching movement toward his throat (seventh picture). Governor Connally, who glances around to see what has happened, is himself struck by a bullet (ninth picture) and slumps over (tenth picture). As the President’s car approaches a lamppost Mrs. Kennedy suddenly becomes aware of what has happened and reaches over to help (larger pictures below) while Governor Connally slumps to the floor. The President collapses on his wife’s shoulder and in the last two small pictures the First Lady cradles him in her arms.
That grisly frame 313 aside, other of the film’s frames would become just as fascinating to all kinds of forensic experts. According to the Warren Commission report, which reproduced 158 frames of the Zapruder film in black and white, a series of frames were missing, a splice was visible in other frames, two frames had been switched, and two frames repeated. J. Edgar Hoover would have to explain in 1965 that, based on FBI analysis, frames 314 and 315 were switched due to a printing error, and that the error did not exist in the original Warren Commission exhibits.
But critics saw a significance to the omission. In early 1967, Life released a statement saying that four frames of the camera original, 208–211, had been accidentally destroyed, and the adjacent frames damaged, by a Life photo lab technician on November 23, 1963. But Life had an intact copy, made earlier—and the Secret Service still had its copies. To settle the matter, the magazine released for publication frames 207 through 212 in January, 1967, in order “to end what has become an irrelevant discussion.”
A close-up and a restoration of the Zapruder film.
On May 15, 1967, Life registered the Zapruder film in the Copyright office as an unpublished “motion picture other than a photoplay,” along with the three issues of Life and the Memorial Edition, each of which contained Zapruder frames. Altogether, the issues had a total distribution of over 23,750,000 copies.
That year, Josiah Thompson—who had briefly worked as a consultant for Life—included reproductions of key frames in his book Six Seconds in Dallas. Perhaps because he knew he would be violating copyright, Thompson didn’t actually publish the photos: he had the frames copied by an artist in charcoal. In an introductory note, the publisher argued that the Zapruder film, as a “crucial historical document”, should not be “sequestered from the eye through an accident of private ownership.” And whatever attempt he was making to avoid copyright infringement, he insisted how accurate the book’s charcoal copies were—executed, he wrote, with “care and fidelity.”
Before long, Thompson was being served with legal documents from his former employer. Time Inc. filed a lawsuit against Thompson and the publisher claiming copyright infringement. It would be a landmark decision in US copyright law, and in the doctrine of fair use in particular. It was under that doctrine that a US District Court ruled in 1968 that the Time Inc. copyright had not been violated. The court held that “*there is a public interest in having the fullest information available on the murder of President Kennedy. Thompson did serious work on the subject and has a theory entitled to public consideration. It has been found that the copying by defendants was fair and reasonable.” The court did not address the way Thompson had procured the film to begin with: in the office at night with his own camera.
Abraham Zapruder being interviewed after the assassination in Dallas.
In 1969, the film would be shown for the first time in public, in the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, the only other person to be prosecuted for the assassination, on charges he had conspired with Oswald. Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney, prosecuted Shaw on the charge that he and a group of right-wing activists, including David Ferrie and Guy Banister, were involved in a conspiracy with elements of the CIA in the assassination. Garrison believed that Clay Shaw was the man named as “Clay Bertrand” in the Warren Commission Report, since he believed Shaw used the alias “Clay Bertrand” among New Orleans’ gay society.
Conspiracy theorist Mark Lane managed to have several copies printed at a local lab. These low quality bootlegs began circulating among assassination researchers and journalists through secret screenings, adding to the film’s mystique and reinforcing the idea that the rare footage contained a secret. In Underworld, Don DeLillo includes a scene in which a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film is played over and over on multiple televisions at varying speeds. The also film figures prominently in his Libra.
In a great Paris Review interview that “began in 1992,” Adam Begley asked DeLillo about this. “One of the points you make is that television didn’t really come into its own until it filmed Oswald’s murder. Is it possible that one of the things that marks you as a writer is that you’re a post-television writer?”
DeLillo ignored the question and aimed right for the medium. I quote at length: “Kennedy was shot on film,” he said. "Oswald was shot on TV. Does this mean anything? Maybe only that Oswald’s death became instantly repeatable. It belonged to everyone. The Zapruder film, the film of Kennedy’s death, was sold and hoarded and doled out very selectively. It was exclusive footage. So that the social differences continued to pertain, the hierarchy held fast—you could watch Oswald die while you ate a TV dinner, and he was still dying by the time you went to bed, but if you wanted to see the Zapruder film you had to be very important or you had to wait until the 1970s when I believe it was shown once on television, or you had to pay somebody thirty thousand dollars to look at it—I think that’s the going rate.
“The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis—not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs—will finally tell us precisely what happened.”
Well, maybe. All the newest technologies have been thrown at Zapruder. The limitation, ultimately, isn’t the resolution of the 8mm film stock, but the quality of the lens. A rash of theories about JFK continue to revolve around the film, which, despite being such a landmark testament to what happened, hasn’t brought questions about the assassination to rest. “It’s one of the great ironies that, despite the existence of the film, we don’t know what happened,” says Begley.
“We’re still in the dark. What we finally have are patches and shadows. It’s still a mystery. There’s still an element of dream-terror. And one of the terrible dreams is that our most photogenic president is murdered on film. But there’s something inevitable about the Zapruder film. It had to happen this way. The moment belongs to the twentieth century, which means it had to be captured on film.”
The Warren Commission presents its report to President Johnson.
Our faith in the filmic record can create problems for knowing what actually happened. In 2003, the critic Richard B. Woodward wrote that the assassination became “fused with one representation, so much so that Kennedy’s death is virtually unimaginable without Zapruder’s film.” And as a couple of researchers argued in The New York Times in 2007, the Warren Commission’s dependence on the Zapruder film in its investigation contributed to the disrepute of its report. Max Holland and Johann Rush contend that Zapruder’s film is incomplete, that he stopped filming and started again long enough to miss the first shot heard in the square that day—a shot that might have hit the President right as his car rounded the corner, if not for a traffic post that is thought to have deflected it. “The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.”
In any case, Zapruder would make a handsome profit from the footage, but he was so disturbed by his decisive moment that he eventually relinquished the original film, to the later chagrin of his family, to the Secret Service. He never owned or used another camera again, and died of stomach cancer in 1970.
And then, in March 1975, after a full version of the film had begun to circulate on college campuses, a fresh-faced Geraldo Rivera welcomed assassination researchers Robert Groden and Dick Gregory onto the ABC late-night television show Good Night America, to present what they called, accurately, “the first-ever network television showing of the Zapruder home movie.”
The Zapruder film’s first television appearance.
The subsequent “outrage” of the public over the film’s airing led to the quick formation of three Congressional committees, including the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and launched the first of many legal battles. April 1975: Time Inc. settles with Zapruder’s heirs in a suit that arose from the ABC showing, agreeing to sell the original film and its copyright back to the Zapruder family for the token sum of one dollar. Time Inc. wanted to donate the film to the U.S. government, but the family refused until 1978, when it approved of the transfer the film to the National Archives and Records Administration for safe-keeping.
The film raised new questions about public decency. Never before or since has a piece of footage been the focal point of an American tragedy; the famous “jumper” image of September 11, 2001—taken by AP photographer Richard Drew of a man leaping to his death at the Twin Towers—may be our closest candidate for an important photographic document kept from public view. But while that single, self-censored frame personalized and helped name the horror of 9/11, it didn’t bear witness or offer proof of the crime in the way that Zapruder did.
The investigation by the newly-established House Select Committee on Assassinations quickly became fodder for cultural critics and conspiracy theorists, and raised questions about the possibility of a second assassin. The conspiracy cult would turn dark when actor Freddie Prinze was rumored to have been so fascinated by the Zapruder film that he watched it frequently in the time leading up to his 1977 suicide. The conspiracy speculations continue to thrive today, even among America’s elite. The once mysterious “Umbrella Man” is the subject of an intriguing short film Errol Morris made for the New York Times last year—and featuring Life’s former legal adversary, author and investigator Josiah Thompson.
“The Umbrella Man,” Errol Morris, dir. (2011)
DeLillo wants to take a scientific approach to the assassination. But Zapruder’s ghostly footage doesn’t make things easier.
I think every emotion we felt is part of that film, and certainly confusion is one of the larger ones, yes. Confusion and horror. The head shot is like some awful, pornographic moment that happens without warning in our living rooms— some truth about the world, some unspeakable activity people engage in that we don’t want to know about. And after the confusion about when Kennedy is first hit, and when Connally is hit, and why the president’s wife is scrambling over the seat, and simultaneous with the horror of the head shot, part of the horror, perhaps—there’s a bolt of revelation. Because the head shot is the most direct kind of statement that the lethal bullet was fired from the front. Whatever the physical possibilities concerning impact and reflex, you look at this thing and wonder what’s going on. Are you seeing some distortion inherent in the film medium or in your own perception of things? Are you the willing victim of some enormous lie of the state—a lie, a wish, a dream? Or, did the shot simply come from the front, as every cell in your body tells you it did?
In 1964, echoing the findings of prior investigations carried out by the FBI and Dallas Police Department, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, firing three shots. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Oswald fired the shots which killed Kennedy, but differed from previous investigations in concluding he “probably” did not act alone. The US public hasn’t been so sure either. As recently as 2004, a Gallup poll found that only 19 percent of Americans think that Oswald acted alone that day.
Top: a diagram depicting vertical slope of the bullet that caused JFK’s back-neck wound; Bottom: a diagram depicting the amount of blur in each Zapruder film frame, for the purposes of determining the “jiggle” of the camera caused by reaction to loud noises such as gunfire (via the House Select Committee on Assassinations)
In 1991, director Oliver Stone paid around $85,000 to the Zapruder family for use of the Zapruder film in JFK. Like DeLillo, the film becomes the centerpiece of Stone’s argument for another shooter: because Kennedy lurches “back and to the left,” (clip) Costner’s character concludes that the President could not have been shot from behind, at the books depository where Lee Harvey Oswald stood. (Zapruder himself initially claimed he thought Kennedy had been shot from the front because of the way his head appeared to snap back and because the police subsequently ran in that direction, but he later told the Warren Commission he couldn’t be sure.)
Still, the following year, Stone endorsed the findings of a researcher hired by the National Archives, a product engineer from Kodak who led the team that invented Kodachrome II. He concluded that the film was an “in camera original,” and that any alleged alterations would have been impossible. Claims that the film has been doctored however still circulate widely.
On October 26, 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act of 1992, inaugurating at the National Archives a President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. In 1997, the Zapruder film was automatically designated as an “assassination record,” which meant it had become official property of the United States government.
Zapruder’s 8mm Bell & Howell camera. Click for larger versions. (Courtesy Marcel Dehaeseleer.)
Back in 1993, the Zapruder clan formally demanded the return of the original film, for which they still retained copyright. Officials at the National Archives refused, pointing to their brand new Record Collection Act. By 1998, the tensions had grown into another full-blown legal battle. The Zapruders insisted the government pay them $18.5 million for the original film and its copyright. Bill Bennett, the family’s lawyer who had also worked for President Clinton in his Paula Jones defense, said that professional appraisers had found the value of the film to be as high as $70 million, and compared the film to an original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence.
An official at the Justice Department said that its appraisals were no higher than $3 million, and insisted that the film had no intrinsic value, saying, according to the Times, that “a more apt analogy is a piece of computer software that is widely available and can be reproduced at will.”
Finally, in 1999, an arbitration panel ordered the government to pay the Zapruders $16 million to keep the original film. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that works out to a record-breaking $615,384 per second.
In Dec. 1999, the Zapruder family donated the film’s copyright to The Sixth Floor Museum, in the Texas School Book Depository building at Dealey Plaza, along with one of the first-generation copies made on November 22, 1963, and other copies of the film and frame enlargements once held by Life magazine. The Zapruder family no longer retains any rights to the film.
Like the film of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech, the copyright of which is protected by the King family’s music industry representatives, or this summer’s takedown of NASA’s Curiosity landing video, the Zapruder saga raises fascinating questions about what counts as historical record, and how to better distribute those documents without fear of copyright infringement. While the 1968 federal district court case involving Life magazine called the film copyrightable, its great public interest and the fact that the event cannot be properly understood without public access to the film would also make it an indispensible document. For now, those who wish to use the film can take some solace in the establishment of its “fair use” in that case, provided that its used in “good faith and fair dealing.” It is, after all, valued at $16 million.
But what about the event itself—surely that’s not of the documentarian’s own creation; he or she is only there to capture it. Presumably the event itself can’t be copyrighted. The question of who owns a picture first came before the Supreme Court in a case over a studio photograph of Oscar Wilde. The argument was made that a photograph was “merely mechanical” and involved no “novelty, invention or originality.” The Court declined to say if copyright could constitutionally be granted to “the ordinary production of a photograph,” but it found that the photograph in suit had involved the posing of the subject and a choice of costume and background. The photograph, the Court determined, was like a piece of writing, of which the photographer was the author and which was thus subject to copyright. This left open whether an ordinary photograph of a real life object could constitutionally be a proper subject of copyright.
Later, Judge Learned Hand cited another Court case in writing that “no photograph, however simple, can be unaffected by the personal influence of the author, and no two will be absolutely alike.” Justice Brandeis dissented: “The mere record of isolated happenings, whether in words or by photographs not involving artistic skill, are denied [copyright] protection.” The question is then one of artistic skill. No one could own a copyright on an event, one court found in a lawsuit involving the Associated Press. But articles, even blog articles, require some skill: “No doubt news articles often posses a literary quality,” he wrote, “and are the subject of literary property at the common law; nor do we question that such an article, as a literary production, is the subject of copyright by the terms of the act as it now stands.”
The only legal use of the Zapruder footage to those who do not own the copyright remains in cases of fair use. (Note, for example, the blaring copyright notice beneath this straight-and-narrow documentary about the Zapruder film) Whether or not “fair use” leaves legal wiggle room for the use of the Zapruder film in an endless stream of conspiracy videos on YouTube (there are over 1,500 results for zapruder film on the site), in parodies, or perhaps, one hopes, in a future Errol Morris documentary, the film has already moved far beyond the jurisdiction of a copyright court. For those of us who’ve ever seen it, it can easily become a permanent fixture in the screening room of our heads. And, in spite of all the theories and debates, the attempts to own the narrative of those events, the most heavily cited, if imperfect visual evidence of what happened on that morning still sits on 486 frames of 8mm tape. Welcome to the video age.
“Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed. Some people may have had the impression that the Gulf War was made for television. And when the Pentagon censored close coverage, people became depressed. All that euphoria drifting through the country suddenly collapsed—not because we weren’t winning but because they’d taken away our combat footage. Think about the images most often repeated. The Rodney King videotape or the Challenger disaster or Ruby shooting Oswald. These are the images that connect us the way Betty Grable used to connect us in her white swimsuit, looking back at us over her shoulder in the famous pinup. And they play the tape again and again and again and again. This is the world narrative, so they play it until everyone in the world has seen it.”
Whether or not the Zapruder film sparked a kind of television revolution, for legal and political reasons, the footage itself was shown on American TV only once. Its voyage onto the pages of Life, and later into public archives and across the Internet, from samizdat screenings to YouTube restorations, burning up millions of dollars in the process, makes me think of a world we already know, one where citizen video, incentivized with Flip cams, high-speed internet, cash rewards, and the currency of Youtube hits, would become an increasingly central cog in the gears of journalism, as well as of the celebrity culture that JFK and Jackie O brought to the White House.
It also makes me think of a world where the visual may be more present than ever, but no more reliable as a document of reality. Look at the Sandy fakes that spread across Twitter, or the Innocence of Muslims video, sad examples of people manipulating an image to say something it never said. These are a form of subtle propaganda, and it’s in the discussion about second and third gunmen behind grassy knolls or men holding umbrellas in crowds that we get a chance to be more reflexive about all kinds of evidence and claims to truth. These are after all the kind of images that can spark violence, and not just in other countries. It was America’s other most notorious home video, George Holliday’s 81-second clip of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police in 1991, that eventually ignited some of the worst riots in American history.
The effects of the visual image on society will be debated ad nauseum (curiously, some critics would later credit Zapruder’s film in particular with giving a bit of ultraviolence and verite sensibility to the cinematic decades that followed), and there’s so much more to this film—the issues of desensitization, decency, and copyright. But the Zapruder film is also proof that the visual is harder than it looks. No matter how familiar we are with it, no matter how reliable or realistic we think it looks, no matter how many times we may play it back in our heads, the most shocking, jarring kind of footage resists all sorts of reason.
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