by Øyvind Vågnes
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A new book analyses how amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder’s bare half-minute of film became a seminal piece of visual culture as record, commodity, snuff movie and art, writes JOHN BYRNE
FORTY-EIGHT YEARS ago next Tuesday, shortly after noon local time, a 58-year-old Ukraine-born dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder stood atop a concrete abutment in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. Behind him, holding him steady, was Marilyn Sitzman, a receptionist from his office.
He hadn’t planned to be there. The morning had been rainy and unpromising, and it was only after the sky had cleared that several of Zapruder’s colleagues persuaded him to return home to fetch his Bell Howell Zoomatic 8mm camera. At 12.30pm he was waiting in a prime position to see President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s motorcade turn on to Elm Street and make its way slowly towards him.
For 26 seconds Zapruder trained his camera, unflinchingly, on the presidential limousine. Watching it approach. Watching, through the camera’s zoom lens, as the president slumped forwards in his seat. Watching, horrified, as Kennedy’s head exploded. Watching as the car raced off to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Soon he would find himself wandering, dazed, through the pandemonium of the plaza, screaming, “They killed him, they killed him.” Inside the camera he clutched were 486 frames of film that would, many years later, become the most valuable photographic artefact in the world: in 1999, having earlier passed a law that gave it rights over the footage, the US government bought it from the Zapruder family for $16 million.
Though the infamous short film shot by Abraham Zapruder in Texas that day has been endlessly dissected, analysed and enhanced by those hoping to unravel what it reveals, or doesn’t reveal, about a ferociously contested event, its status as a seminal piece of visual culture has received far less attention.
In a newly published book, Zaprudered: The Kennedy Assassination Film in Visual Culture , the Norwegian scholar Øyvind Vågnes attempts to trace the tangled history of the film and the ways in which it has travelled through popular culture, imprinting itself on our collective memory of the assassination.
Although his accidental witnessing and recording of a gruesome murder would leave a lasting mark on Zapruder, with the memory of it keeping him “awake many nights in the years to come”, he quickly realised he had been left with a highly desirable object. “Traumatised by what he had seen,” Vågnes says, “he nevertheless knew that he had to begin to deal with what to do with his recording.”
Within days he had sold the original film and all rights to Life magazine for $150,000, plus royalties. The exclusive contract he negotiated with its aggressive and determined regional editor Richard Stolley put the magazine, Vågnes suggests, in “a unique position to define the cultural memory of the assassination”. This was particularly the case because the media had failed to capture the event. Those still images and films that existed were the products of amateurs such as Zapruder, who, although not the sole “accidental documentarian” at Dealey Plaza that day, was unquestionably the one who had produced the clearest and most disturbingly detailed record.
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