One of the most iconic photographs of the 20c

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

It is very seldom that the very moment of a murder is caught on camera, and caught so vividly. This one, taken by photographer Bob Jackson, showing the fatal shooting by Jack Ruby of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, won a Pulitzer Prize. The perfection of the shot has led to many conspiracy theories; the angle is just right, Oswald is crumpling inwards instead of being thrown back by the force of the shot, the posture of Detective James R. Leavelle – the large man wearing a light-coloured suit and hat, to whom Oswald is handcuffed – is straight out of the silent movies, and the photo seems to have been taken from a single pace behind Ruby. It is even more remarkable when one considers that it was taken decades before cameras could take several exposures per second at the press of a button.

However, the fact that this famous image is cropped from a larger photograph, shown below, means that the story begins to fill out. Jackson’s vantage point is further away, and in fact the shot was taken around the left shoulder of another man who was several feet away from the incident. It’s true that many of the other people in the shot seem to be simply standing there as though waiting for something to play out, but “simply standing there” was exactly what they were supposed to be doing, whatever their job was. Take the man with the microphone, possibly a radio reporter: his expression is impassive, but just at that moment he has not had time to react to what is happening, and his view of the incident is blocked. Detective Leavelle can be seen to have his hand on Oswald’s belt, trying to jerk him round behind his own body, to put himself between his prisoner and the shooter, so that might be what is pulling Oswald’s body inwards. Capturing what is almost banal about the larger scene is as much a feat of news photography as is the presentation of the cropped image – maybe even more so. There is so much vérité here, or rather actualité.

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

James R. Leavelle died yesterday, at the age of 99. By a strange quirk of synchronicity, his death was announced at about the same time that the stabbing in prison of Sirhan Bishaa Sirhan was reported. Sirhan was the man convicted of killing President Kennedy’s brother Robert in 1968. Forty years later the San Diego Union Tribune cited that assassination as the first major incident of political violence in the USA directly related to the situation in the Middle East*. Leavelle, Oswald, Ruby, and two Kennedy brothers are dead**, and it seems that only Sirhan remains as a relict and reminder of an extraordinary period in US history.

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*I believe the comment was made on the 8thof June 2008, but due to expired links I can’t verify the source. If I find a link in the future I shall amend this footnote.

**Four, in fact, as older brother Joseph died in 1944, and younger brother Edward in 2009. I believe Jean Ann is the only Kennedy sibling of that generation who is still alive.

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