Friday, March 23, 2012

Iconic Images: Ruby Shoots Oswald

Sunday afternoon, ensconced in my comfortable arm chair, I was watching a documentary DVD on the Kennedy assassination when film of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald came on.  A news broadcast of the time with film of that shooting can be viewed at:

What struck me was firstly how quickly that shooting was over and secondly the pandemonium that was generated.  It struck me because it brought to mind the iconic photograph of the shooting that freezes forever in time the shocked and pained expression of Oswald and the extended arm, gun in hand, of Jack Ruby, the assassin of the alleged JFK assassin:

 (Click on the photographs to enlarge).

On reading about the background of that photograph I came across some interesting, and at times sad, history and facts. 

The Event:

President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas on 22 November, 1963.  Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested approximately 70 minutes later for killing police officer J D Tippitt, who had stopped him about 3 miles from Dealey Plaza as having matched the description wanted for Kennedy’s shooting.  Later that night he was charged with the murders of Kennedy and Tippitt.  Oswald maintained that he had not shot anyone and claimed to reporters that he was a patsy.  Two days later Dallas police took Oswald to the basement car park of Dallas Police Headquarters for transfer to Dallas County Jail.  Although the police maintained that they had been on high alert to prevent reprisals against Oswald in the highly charged atmosphere of the time, the basement car park was filled with police, reporters, photographers and observers who had managed to gain entrance.  While Oswald was being escorted to a car, Jack Ruby, a local strip club and bar owner, shot and killed him on live television. This was the first time that a murder caused by a gunshot was captured live on TV. Ruby later said that he had been distraught over the Kennedy assassination.

The Photographer:

Robert Jackson had been with the Dallas Times-Herald for less than 3 years when he was assigned to photograph Kennedy’s visit to Dallas.  He was aged 29 and it was the biggest assignment of his short career.  After photographing the arrival of President and Mrs Kennedy aboard Air Force One, Jackson was in the eighth car of the motorcade when he passed his exposed film to a reporter from his newspaper to take back for developing for the next edition.  He heard shots and saw a rifle being withdrawn from a window in the Texas School Book Depository but was unable to take photographs, his long lens camera being without film.  Disappointed and depressed at missing taking photographs that would have been of news and historical value, he headed to Parkland Hospital.  The next day, his day off, he attended at Dallas Police Headquarters where he found himself in a crowd of high powered journalists and photographers from around the world. He managed to take photographs of Oswald’s wife and mother.  The next day he was in the basement to photograph Oswald’s transfer to the County Jail.  He said that he walked right in, there was no security to speak of, no one checked my press pass or anything.”

The Photograph:

Jackson received a message from his newspaper that the transfer of Oswald was taking too long and that he should head to parkland Hospital for a scheduled press conference by Nellie Connally, the wife of Governor Connally who had also been shot during the assassination.  Jackson refused to leave.

Jackson selected a position where he thought he would have a view of Oswald being led to the police van and prefocused on a spot in that expected path of travel.  Jackson has said that as soon as Oswald was led out he became aware of someone stepping out on his right and that his first reaction was “This guy’s getting in my way.”  That person was Jack Ruby, who took two steps forward and fired.  Jackson fired his camera at about the same time.  Detained as a witness for some hours, he said later “I thought I had a good picture.”

Jackson’s editor at the Times Herald, Felix McKnight said of Jackson’s negative, “I have been a Pulitzer juror three times, we’ve got a winner here! We’re gonna win one!”

And win he did, being awarded the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Photography.

Six Tenths of a Second:

Another editor had expressed a similar prediction to one of their photographers, Jack Beers Jnr upon seeing his negative of a photograph of the Oswald shooting -  “My God! You’ve just won us the Pulitzer Prize!” 
Beers, a seasoned 40 year old photographer with the Dallas Morning News, liked to quote an adage that “Luck is a product of being prepared.  He was a perfectionist who often turned up at assignments an hour early.  

When Jackson was in the Police Headquarters basement for Oswald’s transfer, Beer was nearby on a railing that enabled him to see over the heads of the crowd.

Beers also saw movement out of the corner of his eye and snapped this photograph:

Jackson took his photograph six tenths of a second later.

Beers’ photograph is taken from a higher angle and shows Ruby with arm and gun extended towards an unaware Oswald, police officers and bystanders.  None are yet aware of the killing and bedlam that is to take place.

Jackson’s photograph, in contrast, shows Oswald’s body contorted, his face a mixture of horror and pain, the faces of the police officers showing surprise and fear.  In the words of Jackson, commenting on his own photograph, "The facial expressions, the body language of everyone in that photograph is just incredible. I looked at that photograph the first time and was startled by it, it had so much impact."

The following is a comparison of the two images, with Jackson’s photograph on the left having been heavily cropped to assist in comparison:

The aftermath:

Beers’ photograph was processed first, prompting his editor to make a prediction of a Pulitzer Prize for Beers.  It was sent out on wire services throughout the world and Beers was assured by everyone who saw it that he had the Pulitzer in the bag.

Jackson was still at Police Headquarters being interviewed and because his paper had ordered him to remain at the scene. He was unaware as to the worthiness of his photographs although he did think that his Oswald shot was probably a “good picture”.
Although Beers’ photograph had been the first processed and published, it was Jackson’s photograph, published on the front page of the Times Herald and in the Saturday Evening Post that was awarded the Pulitzer.

Jackson’s photo came to be regarded as an iconic image of a moment in American and World History; Beers’ photo went from a certain Pulitzer prize winner to what one commentator has referred to as “an almost forgotten footnote in American History by 1/16 of a second."

After the aftermath:

Beers died of a heart attack in 1975, aged 51.  According to his daughter, Darlene, he was never the same again after losing the Pulitzer to Jackson.  He lost confidence in himself, became depressed and felt he had been let down, not by people but by fate.  She has said that he felt “Why have I had to struggle so hard to finally get the picture and then not get it?' "

As Beers saw Jackson become famous, become a part of history and make money from that photograph, so Beers went on a downward slide.  He lost interest in his work, which had been a passion but now became “just a job”, he started eating badly and became a chainsmoker.  Joe Laird, a retired fellow News photographer, has referred to Jackson’s more successful photograph as “just dumb-ass luck” and says that  "Jack somehow felt that God had cheated him."

Jackson’s photograph brought him fame and money but fame is a double edged sword.  After publication of his photograph his work was constantly judged according to a Pulitzer prize winning standard.  Jackson says “I try not to let it bother me.”

He became a full time society photographer and still receives royalties from the photograph.

 “For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’."

–John Greenleaf Whittier

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