Behind the lens: Newspaper photographer witnesses historic shootings
(Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for more than 50 years, is writing a series of articles on Kennedy leading up to the assassination observance in November. In this sixth segment, Pulitzer prize-winner Robert Jackson is featured in a set of two stories that discuss, first, his hobby-turned-career and his subsequent photography assignment on Nov. 22, 1963, and, second, the day he took the historic picture of the shooting of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.)
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
What started as a hobby as a youngster resulted in a full-time vocation and eventually a Pulitzer Prize for world-renowned photographer Robert H. “Bob” Jackson, now of Manitou Springs, Colo.
Jackson, 79, is the former Dallas Times Herald news photographer who fired a shot with his Nikon S3 Rangefinder camera with a 35 mm lens just milliseconds after Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby fired a shot with his .38 caliber Colt Cobra pistol. Ruby’s shot killed Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Jackson’s shot captured history forever. The Pulitzer prize-winning photo has become one of the most recognizable photos of world history.
The assassination of Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and the killing of Oswald came two days apart almost 50 years ago. Many who were at least 5 or 6 when these two shootings took place still recall that image of Oswald grimacing in pain after being shot by Ruby.
‘A fun career’
On a recent fall day, Jackson discussed exclusively with ECM Publishers his connection to the events of the days surrounding the assassination.
Jackson and many other journalists covered the arrival of President Kennedy and first lady Jackie at Dallas Love Field. Jackson then joined the Kennedy motorcade and was in the eighth vehicle behind the presidential limousine when he saw a rifle being withdrawn from a sixth-story window of the Texas School Book Depository building as the motorcade headed down Elm Street. Two days later, Jackson witnessed history being made again as he photographed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas police station.
Jackson was asked what he would write as an epitaph on his tombstone. Hesitating, but taking the question seriously, he said, “I had a fun career.”
Jackson said, with the many advances in photography, many people “are now discovering they are pretty good photographers” and can do it much easier with cameras on their phones and with point-and-shoot cameras.
“I’m glad my career was at the time it was,” he said.
Jackson still has his cameras at easy access but said he now does a lot of chauffeuring of grandchildren, does yard work and kindles his interest in motor sports car racing.
Hobby turns into career
Jackson said his interest in photography began when he was 12 or 13. He grew up in Dallas. An aunt gave him a Baby Brownie Special camera to give him his start, and a family cat became one of his first subjects.
When Jackson turned 14, his interest became more serious. Another aunt gave him an Argus C-3 35 mm camera.
Jackson’s first news photo was of a double fatality crash in northern Dallas. Jackson persuaded his father to drive him to the scene of the crash. His second news photo was of an airplane crash at Love Field.
His photography interest grew when he became hooked on photographing sports car racing. Prior to joining the 36th Infantry National Guard, Jackson attended Southern Methodist University but did not graduate. His interest in car racing and hill climbs, including Pikes Peak in Colorado, helped him build up a clientele and photo portfolio. While in the Army, Jackson became a photographer for an Army general and further developed his portfolio.
A powerful photo portfolio helped Jackson land the job offered him by Felix McKnight of the Dallas Times Herald. The newspaper was hiring four photographers.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” Jackson said.
He became a general beat photographer and acquired on the job training by working next to two seasoned photographers, a husband and wife team, John and Peggy Mazziotta.
On the sunny, 63-degree Nov. 22nd day in 1963, Jackson received an assignment with John Mazziotta to photograph the Kennedys’ arrival at Love Field and then to follow them and their fellow motorcade dignitaries, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, to the Trade Mart, site of a planned luncheon and speech. Jackson had an engraved invitation. The plan was for Mazziotta to take Jackson’s film to the Times-Herald newspaper office and then join the motorcade.
Jackson recalls having two 35mm cameras with him and riding on the back of a convertible press car. He said he was thinking to himself that the paper wouldn’t use much of his motorcade coverage.
He did take crowd shots at Main and Ervay and on a few more blocks leading to Houston Street, where he unloaded one of his cameras (Telephoto) and tossed the film to a courier, Jim Featherstone. Jackson’s photo of a happy crowd greeting the president is featured in the Newseum at Washington, D.C.
“I spotted Featherstone, tossed the film to him about 10-12 feet away and saw a gust of wind catch the envelope and cause him to chase it.
“I was seated next to Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Dillard. He and I heard the first shot and then two together. I pointed toward the book depository and saw two guys hanging out of a fifth floor window. My eyes then went to the next floor and there was a rifle on the window ledge. It was immediately drawn in.
“I yelled, ‘There’s a gun.’ Tom took a photo but only caught an image of an empty window. We knew we had heard gun shots. As our car turned onto Elm, I saw the presidential car disappear at an underpass. I then had to make a decision whether to stay in the car or not. Looking back, I would have done things differently. Our driver stopped to let passengers out. I didn’t know the president was hit at that time. My assignment was to cover the Kennedy speech, thus I stayed in the car.
“As our car picked up speed past the grassy knoll, I could see frightened looks on faces, horror on some. As we reached the underpass, I got out and immediately witnessed a motorcycle policeman jump off his motorcycle, let his motorcycle fall over as he ran toward the depository building.
“I still don’t know whether I had reloaded my camera at that time. I should have been taking photos of faces of people on the motorcade route.
“Police then let traffic proceed past the grassy knoll. A couple other photographers and I flagged down a lady and asked her to take us to Parkland Hospital.
“We were stopped on the Stemmons Freeway by a motorcycle cop but allowed to proceed when we told him we were press. He said he did not know where the shots came from. ‘I know where they came from,’ I told him, and he let us go after taking my name and phone number.”
After arriving at Parkland Hospital and being kept back in the crowd, Jackson said he heard details on a police radio of a police officer being shot in Oak Cliff, a suburb of Dallas. The shooting was later alleged to have been Oswald killing officer J.D. Tippit on a Dallas street corner. Oswald had fled the depository building, where he worked and allegedly had fired shots at the presidential motorcade.
Events of the day blur after that, Jackson said.
“I have no idea how I got back to the paper,” he said.
That night, Jackson became part of the media mob scene at the Dallas police station. He stayed into the night photographing Oswald as he was brought through the police halls.
“I wish I would have had a tape recorder,” he said.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT: In the second part of this story, Dallas Times Herald photographer Bob Jackson takes the most important photo of his newspaper career: the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
(Earlier in this series: The first in this series was on Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, and his father, Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture under Kennedy. In the second segment, Lestrud talked to former Dallas Police Detective James R. Leavelle, the man handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. In the third segment, Lestrud discussed the upcoming special observances planned for Nov. 22 by the city of Dallas and by the Sixth Floor Museum. In the fourth installment, former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh shared his story of being in the president’s motorcade during the shooting. Judge John Tunheim of Stillwater talked about the work of the Assassination Records Review Board in the fifth in the series.)