Because the President’s limousine passed almost exactly in front of Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder on Nov. 22, 1963, just as he was playing with his new film camera, and precisely at the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a nearby books depository, his silent, 26.6-second home movie has become the focal point of America’s collective memory on that weird day. For many of us, especially those who weren’t alive when it happened, we’re all watching that event through Zapruder’s lens.
Other footage from the scene turns up here and there, becomes fodder for documentaries (like this new one disproving the “second shooter” theory). But Zapruder’s film is still the canonical ur text of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the most complete and most chilling visual record. In many ways, it prefigured all sorts of American pastimes, from widespread paranoia about government to a loss of faith in photographic truth and the news media, from the acceptance of graphic violence to newer concerns about copyright. Don Delillo once said that the little film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” Without the 486 frames of Kodachrome II 8mm safety film, our understanding of JFK’s assassination would likely be an even greater carnival of conspiracy theories than it already is. Well, maybe.
In the numb, confused hour that started with the gunshots, Zapruder—a Russian-Jew whose family had emigrated in 1906 and who had moved his family from Brooklyn to Dallas, where he ran his own sportswear company—would connect with Forrest Sorrels, an agent of the Secret Service’s Dallas office. After securing a promise from Sorrels that the footage would only be used for an official investigation, the two of them begin a feverish rush to develop the film.
Together, they drove to the television station WFAA for help, but their equipment wasn’t sufficient. In the late afternoon, the film was taken to Eastman Kodak’s Dallas processing plant where it was immediately developed, and, at 6:30 p.m., driven to the Jamieson Film Company, where three additional copies were exposed. By 8 p.m Zapruder had the original and a copy, and handed the other two copies to Sorrels, who sent them to Washington.
That left him with one extra copy of history’s most famous home movie. By evening, the rush to acquire the footage was on, and it was as feverish as it might be today. At its center were titans of both old and new media: the august editors of LIFE and the bulldog producers at CBS News. At that time, television news hadn’t yet become a serious focal point for most Americans, though that was about to change.