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John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and the Power of Surprising Images

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History and images have a complex relationship. Many turning points in history passed with no one there to record them. Others are so thoroughly documented that it can be difficult to find the unique human stories beneath the clouds of images that surround them.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

However sparse or rich the visual record may be, though, new or forgotten images have the power to disrupt familiar conceptions of historic events. No photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was discovered until almost a century after he delivered his address. Today, this photo still surprises some viewers the first time they see it: The president is seen at a distance, and seems slightly stooped, with no trademark stovepipe hat to be seen—a marked contrast with the dramatic poses in which the scene has often been depicted in drawings and films.

This kind of surprise can be an important trigger for historical inquiry, as it raises questions whose answers lie outside the conventional account of an event. Finding the surprising image, the document that casts the event in a different light, can lead students to avenues of research that lead to genuinely new discovery.

John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963
John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963

One hundred years after Gettysburg, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a very public tragedy. The crime took place in a crowded plaza during an era of unprecedented media coverage, and images from the scene circulated around the world within hours. Many of the photographs of the shooting’s aftermath became so iconic that they are now well known even to Americans who were not yet born in 1963. Today, as the 50th anniversary of the president’s death approaches, those persistent images—the photos, the TV newscasts, the frames of film—are still being circulated, serving as a sort of visual shorthand for a complicated and traumatic event.

Crowd listens outside radio shop
Crowd listens outside radio shop

And yet there are still images that offer the same sort of surprise as the photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg. One example might be a photo from the day of the Kennedy assassination that shifts the focus away from the tumult of Dealey Plaza and places the viewer instead on the fringe of a group of anonymous pedestrians gathered outside a store. What might they be thinking? What are their stories? And what will happen next?

The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool supports students as they explore primary sources, and the prompts on Analyzing Photographs and Prints can help them discover interesting paths to pursue.

If you have used surprising images of well-known events with your students, please share your experience.


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