Photographic icons in the Kennedy assassination

As we near the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it is not surprising that the media are devoting substantial coverage to all aspects of the story, from the history of the Kennedy family to conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination to Kennedy’s legacy. Significant coverage has also been devoted to visual aspects of the story, including stories on the Zapruder film and Jacqueline Kennedy’s blood-stained pink suit.

As discussed in a previous post, certain photos become part our collective consciousness. These emotionally powerful photos depict historical events in such a lasting way that they are forever etched in our minds. Certainly, one cannot think of the Kennedy assassination without visualizing a shell-shocked Mrs. Kennedy standing next to Lyndon Johnson as he is sworn in as president aboard Air Force One; a young son saluting his father’s coffin; or Jack Ruby stepping out of the crowd and shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in fact, it is likely that photos from the Kennedy assassination are some of the most recognized photographs from American history.

Visual scholars (notable Perlmutter; Hariman and Lucaites) have identified key criteria for a photograph to become iconic: representation of a significant historic event, acknowledgment by the public, evocation of emotion, and replication across media and time.

Regarding this final criterion of iconicity—replication across media and time—the 50 year anniversary coverage of the Kennedy assassination marks an ideal opportunity to study iconic photographs. It will be intriguing to see which photos newspapers from across the globe choose to use on their front pages to remember the story 50 years later.

Header photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

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