- 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
Stoughton reloaded his Alpha with Tri-X film and put a roll of 120 black-and-white film in his Hasselblad; he wanted fast film if he was called upon to make pictures of the swearing-in. Kilduff confirmed that the President wanted to record the ceremony. About fifteen minutes after President Kennedy’s body was aboard, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes arrived to administer the oath. Stoughton suggested to Kilduff that they use the airplane Dictograph to record the swearing-in. The ceremony would take place in the stateroom, which had the largest open space in the cabin. The approximately sixteen-foot-square compartment, however, was still much too small to accommodate everyone on the plane comfortably. Stoughton stepped up onto a sofa and flattened himself against the rear bulkhead of the space in order to get the best view of the proceedings.
Stoughton’s cramped physical position was uncomfortable enough, but he also felt the greater strain of not wanting to muff the most important assignment of his career. When President Johnson asked Stoughton how he wanted them, the photographer replied, “I’ll put the judge so I’m looking over her shoulder, Mr. President.” Upon learning that Mrs. Kennedy would be present, he suggested that she should be on one side of the President with Mrs. Johnson on the other. Stoughton began his picture series, using his Alpha with available cabin light. The first six pictures show Johnson as the focal point with others awkwardly waiting.
Switching to his Hasselblad, Stoughton began to take another photo with his favorite camera, using an attached flash unit. “The first time I pushed the button, it didn’t work, and I almost died. I had a little connector that was loose because of all the bustling around, so I just pushed it in with my finger, and number two went off on schedule. I sprayed the cabin so I could get a picture of everybody there.” Prints of the first two Hasselblad photos cover a larger area than the 35-mm prints and are much clearer in detail. Unlike the 35-mm prints, these flash shots fill in the scene with light. Judge Hughes can be seen holding a Catholic missal (believed at the time to be a Bible) for the swearing-in ceremony and a sheet of paper with the oath of office typed out on it.
Moments after Stoughton’s eighth picture Mrs. Kennedy entered the compartment with O’Donnell. The former First Lady moved with O’Donnell and Powers nearby, to Johnson’s left side. Stoughton had already seen the bloodstains on Mrs. Kennedy’s skirt. He felt that photographing this in these historic pictures would be inappropriate, so he made sure the camera would not reveal them.
At 2:38 P.M. Judge Hughes administered the oath. Malcolm Kilduff held up the microphone while Stoughton quickly squeezed off four shots with the Hasselblad and four with the Alpha. Except for the words of Johnson and the judge, Stoughton realized that the only noise in the cabin was the clicking of his camera shutter.
The ceremony was over within half a minute. The President ordered Air Force One back to Washington, and those remaining in Dallas left the plane, Stoughton among them. He would stay to have his unprocessed film developed and sent out via the wire services. When Kilduff handed Stoughton the Dictabelt recording of the oath of office, the captain felt that he had been made totally responsible for history’s record of this momentous event. The visible continuity of the Republic had been accomplished. The government continued. And Stoughton was carrying the proof.
For the best vantage in the cramped cabin, Stoughton climbed onto a sofa near the rear.
No one was allowed to enter or leave the airstrip until Air Force One took off. Just about the time the plane became airborne at 2:47 P.M., a press bus from Parkland arrived on the scene. The pool reporter Sid Davis, who had been aboard during the swearing-in, described the event to the other reporters who gathered around him. A nickel was flipped to see which bureau would process the undeveloped pictures. AP won the toss. After a dash to the Dallas Morning News Building, where the AP office was located, the film was handed over to a technician. Stoughton went into the darkroom with him. “Even though there was nothing I could do, I just wanted to be there when it came out. And when he held it up to the light, I could see some images, and then I breathed. I was turning blue up to that point.”
One of the four Hasselblad prints of the oath-taking was chosen as the picture to send over the wire. It was agreed that the photo would not be sent out until a duplicate copy had been delivered to UPl for its distribution. Both wire services gave Capt. Cecil Stoughton photo credit, and his picture was rapidly reproduced in newspapers and shown on television around the world.