- Historic Sites
The Day Kennedy Was Shot
A routine chore for JFK’s official photographer became the most important assignment of his career. Much of his moving pictorial record appears here for the first time.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
It was a typical motorcade. Cecil W. Stoughton had been in many like it. A forty-three-year-old veteran of the Signal Corps, Captain Stoughton had so impressed John F. Kennedy with pictures of his inauguration that the new President, through his military aide, appointed him his official photographer. In the course of thirty-four months, Stoughton had made more than eight thousand photographs of Kennedy and his family. Beginning on November 21, during the President’s much publicized autumn visit to shore up his political position in Texas, Stoughton recorded receptions at San Antonio, Brooks Medical Center, Kelly Field, and the Rice Hotel in Houston, and a testimonial dinner for Rep. Albert Thomas at the Houston Coliseum. The photographer mainly relied on two cameras: an Alpha Reflex and a 500 C Hasselblad. The Alpha was a 35-mm SLR, usually used with a wideangle 35-mm or a 180-mm telephoto lens. But Stoughton preferred the other camera. “The Hasselblad was my tool, an extension of my right arm. I used it every chance I got. It had interchangeable magazines. You would put black-and-white in one, color in one, transparency film in one.”
The twenty-second of November, 1963, dawned drizzly. Stoughton’s first assignment of the day was to record the President speaking to a soggy but enthusiastic Fort Worth crowd that had started gathering early to get a glimpse of the Kennedys. Stoughton decided the overcast morning would be suitable for black-and-white film, and because his Alpha Reflex was already loaded with fast Tri-X film from the events of the day before, he decided to finish off the roll.
Following the public rally, the President was scheduled to address a Chamber of Commerce breakfast inside the Hotel Texas. Stoughton positioned himself in the ballroom, now using his Hasselblad 500 C loaded with 120 color film. He recorded the President’s arrival, introductions at the podium, and Mrs. Kennedy’s late but grand arrival in a pink suit with matching pillbox hat.
Following a motorcade through Fort Worth, the President and his guests boarded Air Force One at Carswell Air Force Base for the short flight to Dallas. Stoughton, as usual, rode in the press plane, arriving first in order to record the landing of Air Force One, which descended out of a now cloudless sky.
The press had expected a hostile atmosphere in conservative Dallas, but, says Stoughton, “At Love Field my pictures show dozens of flags, hand-painted welcome signs, a lot of warmth. I did not feel or see any hatred during the whole time we were there. It was just a beautiful reception, a bright, warm, sunny day and thousands of people cheering.”
After the official greetings the President and First Lady veered toward the obviously friendly crowd on the opposite side of a chest-high chain-link fence. The Kennedys made their way along the barrier, touching the outstretched hands of delighted spectators.
Stoughton went to work: “I stood on the cement base of a lamp, about two feet high, and that gave me a chance to look down. They walked right by me—an arm’s length away—and that was the last time I made a picture of them. They got into the car a couple of seconds after that and drove into town.”
It was a few minutes before noon when the President’s shiny blue Lincoln convertible began to move out and the camera people scrambled for their vehicles. The pace was hectic yet routine. Stoughton sat in the back seat of a convertible with other photographers, then positioned himself for a better view on top of the trunk, which contained the convertible top. The photographers’ silver 1964 Chevrolet Impala was the seventh vehicle following the President’s car.
During this second motorcade of the day the crowds were six to eight deep as the cars traveled into the Dallas downtown business district. Having used up half his magazine at the airport, and planning to save the remainder of his roll for events at a scheduled luncheon speech at the Dallas Trade Mart, Stoughton shot only one picture during the motorcade.
Just after Stoughton’s car had turned right at the old County Court House onto Commerce Street, he heard three very distinct, loud reports. “I said, ‘Hey, Art [Art Rickerby, Life staff photographer], these Texans really know how to welcome a guy, don’t they?’ In my mind I saw a guy on the roof in a ten-gallon hat with a sixshooter—bang bang! bang bang! That’s what I thought. Then we rounded the corner and saw a lot of hectic police activity.”
The car made a sharp left onto Elm Street past the redbrick Texas School Book Depository Building. “We realized something was amiss,” says Stoughton, “as the cars ahead of us were gone. When we rolled to a stop just around the corner, [Frank] Cancellare [United Press International photographer] leaped out of the car and ran to take a picture of a family cowering on the grass. A White House photographer, Tom Atkins, was already there, shooting his 16mm Arriflex, and instead of doing likewise, I slipped my 150-mm lens on the Hasselblad and shot one frame....”