President Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and Governor of Texas John Connally in the presidential limousine, minutes before the President’s assassination
President Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, and Governor of Texas John Connally in the presidential limousine, minutes before the President’s assassination

Caption: Wikipedia
Date: 22 November 1963
Source: JFK-Motorcadee.gif, Penn Jones Photographs. Baylor University Collections of Political Materials. Waco, Texas
Author: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News
Work in public domain; copyright expired in 1991 without renewal. First published on 24 November 1963.

This is one of several well-known photographs of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) immediately before his assassination in Dallas in 1963. The history of the day is inextricably linked to the images of the motorcade, which have an additional potency because of what happened after the photographer pressed the shutter. If JFK had not been shot it is entirely possible that this picture would have been forgotten.

This essay will present an analysis of this image and then consider it in the light of Barthes’ and Sartre’s views about news photographs.

 

The immediate impression on viewing this photograph is a view from afar of a dynamic President in office[i]. The composition implies this by the strongly diagonal composition (perceived as dynamism and change) aided by the high angle of view (perceived as a view detached from the action and therefore impartial). The President is in the centre of the composition and his party are all looking outwards, their eyelines symbolising the radiance of power[ii]. The choice of location at one of the narrow points along the route of the motorcade assured a tight composition, ensuring in a single image as much of the drama of the event as possible.

The compression and inclusion of the elements of the scene in the frame is enhanced by the foreshortening due to the mild telephoto lens. The point of sharp focus is the President but the crowd is not noticeably defocused: the topic for the rhetoric of the image is the President and his relationship with the crowd. But there are also underlying tensions which are not resolved in the picture, these will be discussed alongside the various elements of the photograph and amplified in the notes.

JFK looks superficially relaxed but he has a power pose, arm casually hooked over the side of the limousine, the vehicle almost literarily under his wing. Shoulders forward indicating eagerness but back slightly bowed under the burden of work. He is showing his bare hands partly closed in a relaxed, unthreatening pose. This pose plus the slight billowing wave of his hair style combine to signify a President aware of the responsibilities of office and confident in his capacity to cope.

JFK’s face is fixed in an apparent smile but this straightforward impression is undermined by the way his hands are locked together. Comparison with other photographs shows this to be one of JFK’s signature poses, a means to recognise him. The underlying reality could be that the smile is forced for the crowds and his hands locked because he is enduring physical pain.[iii]

Governor Connally is waving to the crowd; his open palm signifies lack of threat but also “halt” or “stand back”. He is feigning recognition of the crowd as the governor of the local state and by doing so, he is distancing himself from JFK’s lack of waving. The governor waves to show that he knows his people, the President does not wave because he assumes that everyone knows that he is the President and by acting in this way, he is recognised unambiguously as the President. Such deference and structure would be called majesty in a royal situation.[iv] The lack of symmetry denotes the absence of a conversation between the President and the crowd.

The wives’ pink outfits are stylish, colourful and stand out from the plain colours and styles of the crowd behind the white line. The designer-dressed wives support with their demeanour their husbands but do not usurp male authority: the symbolism of women’s lib is not in the Presidential car.

The sleek lines of the President’s car resemble visually a speedboat in flight through the water, his hair ruffled by the breeze. The following car, a police car of the era, has the curved lines of the previous decade, but with its gaping mouth-like radiator grill, round headlamps protruding like eyes and voluminous bonnet, it resembles a large fish that is threatening to swallow JFK’s limousine, ie it signifies a threat from within the President’s group. The red lamp of the police car and those of the motorcycle appear as a further threat because a red eye in nature signifies bloodshot, ie angry.

The crowd are standing on show: seeing the Presidential motorcade is not an everyday happening. Some are a little self-conscious in their Sunday best; this contrasts with the studiously casual poses of the President and his group. There is an allusion to a military review: the President as Commander-in-Chief. Yet the President is dependent on his electors but the military obey the orders of their Commander-in-Chief. The picture gains a little tension on the realisation of this apparent role reversal.

The crowd have come to see the President in power but not to question him or even wave back to him; they are trusted to stay in place behind the white line and are not restrained by crowd barriers; this is despite previous history of assassination attempts at motorcades[v]. The significance is an ambience of low security threat.

The white line itself, behind which the crowd are standing, indicates the organisational division between the rulers and the ruled, the limits of JFK’s direct authority. It is a very clear distinction and there is no visible route of communication between the sides in this photograph. Ambiguity is minimised. The crowd recognise the President as the President through the symbolic codes of location, style and demeanour. The photographic rhetoric reveals the power of a president in office through the semiotics of the crowd-president relationship.

The line between the crowd and the President is white. Racial colour was increasingly on the mainstream political agenda in 1963 in the US[vi]. Other black/white tokens in the photograph include: JFK’s car is black but the tyres have white paint on the black tyres. The motorcycles have white fairings and paniers, the motorcycle riders have white skin but wear black or dark uniform, they wear threatening black gloves[vii] not ceremonial white gloves. The secret service men walking alongside the motor cars wear dark glasses. JFK and Governor Connally also have white skin but wear dark or black suits. Black within the Kennedy sphere of power is signifying power.

In contrast, behind the white line on the ground, black indicates minority, disadvantage and powerlessness. Black skin, black trousers and particularly the black winter coat of the smiling dark-skinned lady who wears the black coat over her colourful large-check dress. She symbolises the happy unempowered.

The secret service men are physically placed to communicate with both the President and the crowd but distance themselves from the situation by their formal suits, including pocket handkerchiefs. The dark glasses dehumanise them and further discourage engagement.

The tension between “black” and “white” is unresolved in the photograph: there is no bridge to reconcile the sides. There are a number of unclear signifiers around the periphery of the photograph which contribute secondary threat and tension.[viii]

Motorcades have a rich heritage in propaganda as well as assassinations so JFK’s stage management avoids obvious references to the Third Reich; fascist symbolism from motorcades of just twenty years previously is noticeably absent.[ix]

The eyelines of everyone in the picture are to ground level - no one is looking upwards as protection against a threat from above. So JFK’s power is unprotected and unsupported by real, effective enforcement. The rhetoric is of pomp and power reliant on democratic support without real means or will to enforce its views without consent. Thus the ensuing assassination was predicted by the multiple unresolved tensions captured by this photograph as well as the lack of effective preparation for opposition.

The assassination happened next. The President was shot dead. In the light of this subsequent event, the angle of view of the photograph I am discussing takes on an obtuse meaning. It was never the view of a man in the crowd, it is the privileged view from an elevated position. The height of the photographer empowers the viewer of the photograph to obtain a clear line of sight of the subject. And that becomes a possible sniper’s view. It is not the actual point of view of Lee Harvey Oswald but when we view the picture, the chilling realisation dawns that it could have been. That JFK is isolated in the frame, and therefore vulnerable to a sniper’s bullet from this angle, confirms the impression. The realisation dawns that had we been in the spot from which this image was taken, it could have been us who pulled the trigger, killed the President and changed the course of history for a generation. And murdered a man.

A macabre demonstration of the voyeuristic[x] aspect that underlies much photography. The picture has taken us on a mind journey and included us in the conspiracy to topple a President at the height of his powers. Like Adam’s original sin in the Garden of Eden, we all have a share in the guilt.

To summarise this analysis, the rhetoric of the original photograph has been subverted by subsequent events. With the benefit of hindsight of events and of subsequent developments in the theory of representation, many of the precursors of the assassination are evident in a detailed reading of this photograph.[xi] Therefore photographic theory is validated by subsequent events because the precursors of the assassination are evident in the analysis of the picture.

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This is not a photograph of a “decisive moment” in the sense of Cartier-Bresson[xii] because we do not see either the direct causes of the historic event nor the consequences, nor the actual shot or assassin. But, as demonstrated above, this picture does summarise the tense situation immediately before the assassination.

As a photograph in advance of an event this is a conjugate of the prize winning series Empty Bottles[xiii] by WassinkLundgren which depict the human after-effects of an event which we are not explicitly shown.

The picture of JFK’S motorcade speaks to me particularly as one of the generation who have lived through the era which could have been very different had JFK not been shot[xiv]; it is for us an exception to the deluge of newspaper photographs, such as Sartre and Barthes dismissed: Newspaper photographs can very well ‘say nothing to me’ in other words, I look at them without assuming a posture of existence.”[xv]

Firstly there is the poignancy of seeing a man seemingly content and in control just minutes before he is killed. The lives of the Presidential party will also be changed tumultuously at the same time but this is less dramatic and my response to them is less visceral. This reaction seems to me a basic human reaction based on empathising with the people depicted in the photograph.

Second impact is the vicarious participation in the event from the point of view of a potential assassin. I recoil from this horrific realisation and take comfort from nostalgic appreciation of the clothes and motors. But the macabre frisson, once realised, is hard to forget and it takes further the philosophical discussion about owning of images: do I own my image, does a photographer or stylist create my image? This is in addition to existentialist discussion about which image of myself is the one that others see[xvi]. Taking it still further are the parallels between the sniper’s and the photographer’s professions, even including the language[xvii]. Plus the power of the sniper over his subject, of life or death. This duality has been explored explicitly by Clément Chéroux[xviii]. The parallels are extreme in the case of that day in Dallas in 1963 and it is that which makes this photograph memorable.

Third impact is a vision of a scene from fifty years ago which represents a direction in history which was cut off by the subsequent assassination. Viewed half a century later, knowing that JFK’s assassination changed the course of history through my lifetime, this is a brief and poignant vision of a world I did not know. The restoration of the photograph to reasonable colour assists the immediacy of the image.

The combined impact lifts this photograph for me from the ranks of images which can be viewed and then comfortably forgotten, in the way mentioned by Jean-Paul Sartre.

In summary, this is a key and memorable picture, at least for the generation for whom JFK’s assassination was relevant.

copyright © John Hughes, November 2013


[i] Kennedy was a Democratic President who made radical but controversial changes to US politics. He is surrounded in the shiny limousine by his political ally and their happy. Their big swanky motorcade is a statement of the US at the height of its powers, the American Dream come true. The President had recently made his promise of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade and the big car is the archetypal American success symbol.

[ii] Louis XIV of France, the sun king, commissioned the palace and park of Versailles with architect Louis Le Vau. The design of grand avenues radiating from the Court of Honour is widely held as an example of using architecture and art to symbolise the flowing of absolute power

[iii] JFK suffered chronic back pain and wore a heavy brace. Dr. Kenneth Salyer, CBS News, November 2013

[iv] Unlike a typical event with Queen Elizabeth II, very few of the crowd in Dallas are waving back.

[v] Adolf Hitler,  Smolensk, 1943; Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Sarajevo, 1914

[vi] Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech  in  August 1963 at the Washington D.C. Civil Rights March

[vii] Black gloves can be worn as a threatening symbol, symbolically echoing the fist of a black man, presumed violent in a racist society; additionally, black leather does not show blood spilt.

[viii] A white car partially obscured by the crowd appears to be hovering threateningly as the wheels are not clear. Two men in the crowd in the far background are wearing white trousers and shiny black shoes; it is unclear if these are military whites or Sunday best. Their black/white coding is discordant with the rest of the scene. The last secret service security man is looking in their direction as though assessing a threat. If interpreted as military, these white trousers could indicate loyal military in support of the President or they could signify disquieted military lurking in support of a tradition threatened by JFK.

There is a female bystander in a head-scarf and traditional skirt, possibly with the gent just behind her in a twenties-thirties style brown suit; it is not clear if this is simply her best outfit but it is fifties fashion, or whether it is traditional clothing as a statement of nostalgia for the plantation era or if the headscarf signifies Roman Catholicism, the Kennedy family’s religion. Less obviously a security threat than the possible-military in white trousers but with unclear allegiance.

[ix] Hitler often saluted the crowd whereas JFK sits and the Governor waves, neither of the Americans are in military uniform.

[x] Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Letters of 1787 shows the control and power gained by the intrusion on the privacy of prisoners who are under systematic observation by an unseen observer. George Orwell exploited this control with the slogan “Big Brother is watching you” in his novel 1984. The elevation also lifts the photographer out of reach of any possible conversation with the President, even assuming that would be permitted.

[xi] There are other aspects to this picture which are of limited relevance to the Fine Art context which I list here for completeness but without further comments. The propaganda aspect, the verity of the confident, smiling President apparently in control of his group. The democratic process and the relevance of the image portrayed to JFK’S upcoming campaign for re-election. The media studies aspects, including the importance of photographic features in the era of photojournalism magazines such as “Life”, their use of colour photographs, larger formats and their contribution to the political and democratic processes. And the social situation portrayed in this scene and point in time as the campaigns for Civil and Women’s rights progressed.

[xii] The Decisive Moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1952

[xiii] Photographs of full-time scavengers, cleaners and other citizens of Beijing and Shanghai picking up plastic bottles that were placed in front of the camera. 2007. Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren. Veenman Publishers, Rotterdam, 2008. Photography Book Award at the 2007 Rencontres d'Arles

[xiv] The US was turned into convulsions by the assassination and subsequent recriminations and conspiracy rumours. JFK’s deputy, LBJ, presided over the war in Vietnam at the same time as contributing to triggering the Swinging Sixties.

[xv] I am grateful to David Derrick for bringing the following passages to my attention from Barthes Camera Lucida, Fontana Paperbacks, London, 1984.

Pg19.

I quote Sartre, ‘Newspaper photographs can very well ‘say nothing to me’ in other words, I look at them without assuming a posture of existence. Though the persons whose photographs I see are certain present in the photograph, they are so without existential posture, like the Knight and Death in Durer’s engraving, but without me positing them. Moreover, casers occur where the photograph sees me as so indifferent that I do not even bother to see it ‘as an image.’ The photograph is vaguely constituted as an object, and the persons who figure there are certainly constituted as persons, but only because of their resemblance to human beings, without ever approaching either.’

Pg 41

News photographs are very often unary (the unary photograph is not necessarily tranquil). In these images, no punctum; a certain shock - the literal can traumatize - but no disturbance; the photograph can ‘shout,’ not wound. These journalistic photographs are received  (all at once), perceived. I glance through them, I don’t recall them; no detail (in some corner) ever interrupts my reading: I am not interested in them (as I am interested in the world), I do not love them.

Pg 43

Very often the Punctum is a ‘detail,’ i.e. a partial object. Hence, to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up

 

[xvi] From Barthes Camera Lucida Pg 13

I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.

[xvii] Shot, shooot, sight, clear view, cassette, trigger, objective, rangefinder, tripod etc

[xviii] Clément Chéroux: Shoot!: Existential Photography. Revolver, 2010

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