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From Analog to Digital: A Changing Picture of the Kennedy Assassination

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The first images I recall of the Kennedy Assassination are grainy black and white television broadcasts. I was in the fourth grade 50 years ago today, and after an anguished announcement on the public address system, we were sent home.

The TV was on in the living room with solemn reports. What followed over the next few days was a stunning flow of amazing events, all rendered in a few hundred flat lines of grey tones. I remember a strange mix of feelings, awash in horrible facts relayed by reassuringly familiar news correspondents. Those sober faces, rendered the same way as the thousands of hours of TV I had already consumed, helped me accept what had happened. Maybe it was my youth, but even the repeated rebroadcast of disturbing video clips–Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald in particular–eventually became an acceptable, if terribly sad, part of reality.

Aftermath of the shooting in Dallas, Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Aftermath of the shooting in Dallas, Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The Zapruder film upended that complacency. I first saw frames from the film in Life magazine shortly after the shooting, but their impact was minimal. They were static and in black and white. The full color version of the film was kept from public view for many years due to intellectual property restrictions, and it wasn’t until 1975 that it had a widespread public viewing. But even then most people saw the film on distinctly non-HD television, and perhaps not in color.

I didn’t see the film clearly until 1991 when it was used as part of the movie JFK. The lurid Kodachrome colors, the oddly intimate home movie jerkiness, the abrupt transition from banal to horrific–the film was a waking terror dream, something that couldn’t be happening actually was happening.

The nightmare quality was further enhanced by radical differences the film had from the original TV coverage: overly saturated colors in contrast with drab black and white; eerie silence in contrast with the soothing voices of newscasters; powerful, gut-churning visual reality in contrast with calm narrative descriptions.

With the internet came another change in my visual impression of the assassination. Beforehand, the Zapruder imagery was not in plain sight. But with digital versions proliferating on the web, the film was suddenly much more available in all kinds of different ways. It regularly showed up as images or clips in news stories and in essays; it was dissected in academic papers (such as A 3-D Lighting and Shadow Analysis of the JFK Zapruder Film (Frame 317) (PDF).  It became a staple of sites dedicated to video content, and anyone with a internet connection can view titles such as The Undamaged Zapruder Film, Zapruder Film Slow Motion (HIGHER QUALITY) or The Inky Face Trajectory In The Zapruder Film.

All this has altered my visual model of the assassination. I’ve moved from a purely rational, analog-based acceptance from what I originally saw on TV to a digitally-driven sense that the event lives in some strange, uncomfortable zone that resists clear-cut recognition or acknowledgement. While I have never seen compelling evidence of a conspiracy, I can easily see why people are drawn to the idea. Those 26.6 Zapruder seconds have a strange hallucinatory impact that seemingly builds each time you watch. It’s natural to try and explain what looks a delusion, especially one that streams over and over again to your own computer screen.


Comments (3)

  1. The horror of the Kennedy assassination comes back as as vividly as if it were that fateful day when, as a young lawyer, I was in my office and could mot believe the awful truth! From shortly thereafter, especially after the Commission’s Report, I became convinced of a colossal conspiracy that still remains unresolved. I firmly believe the actual perpetrators have gone unpunished. From the missing bullets that killed the president to the rifle so conveniently found, to the convenient killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby, it all smelled to high heaven, and it still does! At first, it was believed that simple answers would calm the people. but this is no longer an acceptable answer. Our country and history deserve better.

  2. The horror of the president’s assassination fifty years ago returned as vividly as the day it happened, with all the available media revisiting that blot in our nation’s history. After reading the Commission’s Report I, as as young attorney, was convinced there was a conspiracy – and now, after all these years, I am as convinced as ever! From the missing bullet that killed the president, to the casual finding of a rifle, to the very convenient killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby, and much more, conspiracy seems most probable. At the outset the mindset was to seek simple answers, to calm the public. Such a palliative will no longer do. Our country and history deserves a proper answer. ,

  3. Analog delivery, as mentioned, was generally interpreted by a familiar anchor person. Even the classroom “loudspeaker” communication was a controlled assessment of the situation. Digital delivery democratizes (?) mass communication as well as the individual viewer’s interpretation and interaction with audiovisual media. My curiosity about this is whether it will hinder or promote the propensity to rewrite history.

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