Eyewitness captures Polaroid of moment JFK was shot

November 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
50 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we hear from Mary Ann Moorman, an eyewitness at Dealey Plaza who shared her story with documentary filmmaker Alan Govenar. His film is currently on display at an exhibit at the International Center of Photography entitled: “JFK: A Bystanders View of History.”

MARY ANN MOORMAN KRAHMER:  Being here today just brings back all the memories. Really mixed emotions – more so than the last few times that I’ve been here. I saw a man killed right in front of my eyes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When Mary Ann Moorman was 31 years old, she learned that the presidential motorcade would drive through downtown Dallas. She was a fan of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, so Mary Ann and a friend, Jean Hill, headed to Dealey Plaza to watch the procession.

MARY ANN MOORMAN KRAHMER: My son was in school and I had told him, ‘you can’t be out of school, but I’ll take a picture for you,’ never dreaming that that picture would be part of history.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mary Ann Moorman, shown here in a still frame of the home movie famously shot by Abraham Zapruder – took just one photograph of the President that day — a grainy Polaroid snapped right as the presidential limousine was passing by.

MARY ANN MOORMAN KRAHMER: As the car got closer to us, I stepped closer to the curb here, and Jean was yelling ‘Mr. President, look this way!”  And when I put the camera up to my face, I wanted to make sure it was as close as I could get to him, and I snapped the picture, looking through the viewfinder, of course.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When the photo was developed, it became clear Moorman had pressed the shutter just as the 46-year-old President was hit and fatally wounded by a rifle’s bullet. It is the only known photograph of the moment the President was struck that also captures the “grassy knoll…” an image studied endlessly over the years to determine if another shooter was there.

ALAN GOVENAR:  When the motorcade started to pass, she realized that she hadn’t taken the one photograph that she promised her son.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alan Govenar is the writer and filmmaker behind “The Silent Witness Speaks,” which documents Moorman’s story.

ALAN GOVENAR: And when I asked her, ‘What did you see when you looked through the viewfinder?’ She said she thought there was a gust of wind, because his hair ‘lifted up.’ She had no idea that what she was photographing was the assassination of the President of the United States.

MARY ANN MOORMAN KRAHMER: Jackie hollered, ‘My God, he’s been shot.” We heard that so plain. And then just seconds later, he had slumped over on Jackie and she started to climb out of the car.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This interview with Moorman was filmed earlier this year at Dealey Plaza where the 81-year-old originally took the iconic picture. The film is now being displayed at an exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York City. It’s called: “JFK: A Bystander’s View of History.”

BRIAN WALLIS: To me, photography was a way to manage that grief and that trauma—a way to try to get a handle on what really happened.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Brian Wallis, chief curator, pored over thousands of photographs for the exhibit.

BRIAN WALLIS: One of the things that immediately struck me about these photographs– was that sort of up close and personal intimacy of these snapshots.  I was surprised to find that– people were allowed tremendous access to the president. In fact, the motorcade through Dallas in November 1963 was just for that purpose, so large crowds could get close to the president.

The most extraordinary by far is the Polaroid taken by Mary Ann Moorman– at the exact instant that the President was struck by the first bullet.

MARY ANN MOORMAN KRAHMER: And it all just happened in seconds, moments really. And it was over with.