Ike Altgens

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Ike Altgens
Ike Altgens circa 1970
Born James William Altgens
(1919-04-28)April 28, 1919
Dallas, Texas, U.S.
Died December 12, 1995(1995-12-12) (aged 76)
Dallas, Texas, U.S.
Years active 1938–1979[1]
Employer Associated Press
Known for photographer/reporter/witness of assassination of John F. Kennedy
Spouse(s) Clara B. Halliburton

James William "Ike" Altgens[1][2] (/ˈɑːlt.ɡənz/);[3] April 28, 1919 – December 12, 1995) was an American photojournalist and field reporter for the Associated Press (AP) based in Dallas, Texas. Altgens began his career with the AP as a teenager and, following a stint with the United States Coast Guard, worked his way into a senior position with the AP Dallas bureau. While on assignment for the AP on November 22, 1963, Altgens made "perhaps the most well-known of any still photograph"[4] of the in-progress assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a "controversial"[5][6] snapshot that led people in "this country and abroad" to question whether accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was visible in the doorway of the Texas School Book Depository as the gunshots were fired.[7] Altgens' next, "famous photo"[1] of Mrs. Kennedy and her Secret Service agent on the back of the Presidential limousine accompanied the first news stories "on the front pages of newspapers all over the world."[8]

Altgens worked briefly as a film actor and model during his 40-year career with the AP, then did advertising work until he retired altogether. Both Altgens and his wife were in their seventies when they died in 1995, at about the same time, in their Dallas home.

Early life and career[edit]

Dallas native Ike Altgens already knew about death at a young age; he was orphaned as a child and raised by a widowed aunt. In 1938, shortly after graduating from North Dallas High School, he was hired by the Associated Press. Altgens began his career at age 19 by doing odd jobs and writing the occasional sports story; by 1940, he had demonstrated an aptitude for photography and was assigned to work in the wirephoto office.

His career was interrupted when he served in the United States Coast Guard during World War II, though he was able to moonlight as a radio broadcaster. Following his return to Dallas, he married Clara B. Halliburton in July 1944, and went back to work with the AP the following year. He also attended night classes at Southern Methodist University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech with a minor in journalism.[2]

By 1959, Altgens had enjoyed some success as an actor and model in motion pictures, television and print advertising.[9] Credited as James Altgens, he portrayed "Secretary Lloyd Patterson"[10] in the low-budget science fiction thriller Beyond the Time Barrier (1960); his role included the film's final line of dialogue: "Gentlemen, we have got a lot to think about."[11] Altgens' brief acting career also included a role as a witness in Free, White and 21 (1963),[12] and as a witness (though not portraying himself) in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964).[13]

Altgens photographed President Kennedy for the AP in 1961 at Perrin Air Force Base. Kennedy and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower were traveling to Bonham, Texas, in November to attend the funeral of Sam Rayburn, three-time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Earlier that day, Altgens was the only photojournalist to climb up to the 29th floor of the Mercantile National Bank Building to make pictures while a young girl was rescued from a burning elevator.[14]

JFK assassination[edit]


Altgens had been employed by the Associated Press for nearly 26 years when he was assigned on November 22, 1963, to photograph the motorcade that would take President Kennedy from Love Field to the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy was to deliver an address. Scheduled to work in the office that day as the photo editor, Altgens asked instead to go to the railroad overcrossing known to locals as the "triple overpass" or "triple underpass" (where Elm, Main and Commerce Streets converge) to make photographs. Since that was not originally his assignment, Altgens took his personal camera, a 35mm Nikkorex-F single lens reflex camera with a 105mm telephoto lens, rather than the motor-driven camera usually used for news events.[note 1] "This meant that what I took, I had to make sure it was good—I didn't have time for second chances."[15]

Altgens photograph made during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is seen behind the rear-view mirror with his hands in front of his throat, and with Jacqueline Kennedy's gloved hand on his left arm. Behind the limousine is the Elm Street entrance to the Texas School Book Depository.

Altgens tried to find a good spot on the overcrossing, but was turned away by uniformed officers who said it was private property; he moved to a location within Dealey Plaza instead.[5] Though there were seven snapshots altogether,[note 2] Altgens later described to Commissioners only his photographs that were published; of those three, the first came as the Presidential limousine turned from Main Street onto Houston Street. Afterwards, he ran across the grass, roughly east to west, toward the south curb along Elm Street, and stopped across from the Plaza's north colonnade. As he snapped his first photograph from that spot, simultaneous to Zapruder film frame 255,[16] he heard a "burst of noise", but didn't recall having any reaction at that point since he thought the sound came from firecrackers.[17]

Witness to history[edit]

Moments later, as Altgens prepared for a second snapshot along Elm Street, he heard a blast that he recognized as gunfire and saw the President had been struck in the head. Altgens would later say that he "had pre-focused, had my hand on the trigger, but when JFK's head exploded, sending substance in my direction, I virtually became paralyzed" and failed to press the trigger on his camera. "To have a President shot to death right in front of you and keep your cool and do what you're supposed to do—I'm not real sure that the most seasoned photographers would be able to do it." Still, he would not accept that as an excuse. "I should have made the picture that I was set up to make. And I didn't do it."[18]

Altgens' photo made just after the fatal gunshot to JFK shows Jackie Kennedy's right hand on the trunk lid of the presidential limousine and Secret Service agent Clint Hill standing on its back bumper.

Altgens did make one more picture of the limousine—showing the First Lady with her hand on the vehicle's trunk lid and Secret Service agent Clint Hill standing on the bumper behind her—as the driver had begun to speed away toward Parkland Memorial Hospital.[note 3] Mrs. Kennedy testified the following June that "there were pictures later on of me climbing out the back. But I don't remember that at all."[19] It was this picture and its placement "on the front pages of newspapers all over the world" that would lead Hill to write in his 2013 book that he "would forever be known as the Secret Service agent who jumped on the back of the car."[8]

On May 25, 1964, six months after the shooting, the Chicago office of the FBI noted that a column appearing in Chicago's American the day before questioned why "Altgens, a veteran Associated Press photographer in Dallas, who took a picture of the Kennedy assassination—one of the witnesses close enough to see the President shot and able to describe second-by-second what happened—has been questioned neither by the FBI nor the Warren Commission?" FBI investigators interviewed Altgens eight days later, on June 2, 1964;[5] the Warren Commission on July 22.[20]

Commission investigators wrote that Altgens hadn't been keeping track of the number of shots fired in Dealey Plaza. "I could vouch for number one, and I can vouch for the last shot, but I cannot tell you how many shots were in between."[21] Years later, for the book Pictures of the Pain, Altgens recalled the final shot in particular, and how "stunned" he was when pieces of President Kennedy's head "fell right at my feet. That was some heck of an explosion when it hit his head."[22]

Altgens testified that after the shots ended, "he observed some Secret Service Agents and police officers with drawn guns on the north side of Elm Street running in the direction of the top of the triple overpass."[17] Although he was satisfied that the shots came from the rear of the limousine, he didn't know "where in the rear", so he followed the authorities to see if he could get a picture of someone in custody.[23] When they came back without a suspect, Altgens hurried back to the AP offices in the Dallas Morning News building on Houston Street to file his report and develop the film. His first phone call, from the AP wirephoto office to the news office,[24] led to one of the first bulletins sent to the world:



Once his pictures had been distributed via the wirephoto network, Altgens was sent to Parkland Memorial Hospital along with a second photographer. Both stayed at Parkland until Kennedy's body was taken by hearse to Air Force One at Love Field.

Altgens returned to Dealey Plaza to make photographs for diagramming the assassination site, then was sent to Dallas City Hall to retrieve some photos made by another AP photographer of Oswald in custody. This was "the first and only time" he would see the suspect, and Altgens thought Oswald looked like "they had put him through the interrogation wringer."[26]

Origin of the gunshots[edit]

In an AP dispatch credited to Altgens and dated November 22, he said he believed at first that the shots were fired from across the street from where he stood. "I was on the opposite side of the President's car from the gunman. He might have hit me." In the aftermath, Altgens said he ran toward the grassy knoll "to see if I could get some pictures. ... I did not know until later where the shots came from."[27]

When CBS television interviewed him in 1967, Altgens said "it was so obvious that [the head shot] came from behind—it had to come from behind, because it caused him to bolt forward [Altgens leans forward in his chair], dislodging him from this depression in the seat cushion".

The commotion across the street after the shooting was the "one thing that did seem to be a little bit strange" to Altgens. Since he was certain of a shot from behind, he thought "this fellow had to really move in order to get over into the knoll area."

Asked specifically to give his thoughts with respect to any other shooters, Altgens told his interviewer that he'd been contacted many times by people "trying to get me to verify either photographs they had or to work out some information they thought they had come across to substantiate the evidence of, uh, substantiate the fact that there was another assassin. But at no time has any of this evidence proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was another assassin."[28]

"New interest"[edit]

The "individual resembling Lee Harvey Oswald"[5] in the doorway of the Texas School Book Depository. Official investigations identified him as depository employee Billy Lovelady.

Ten days after Kennedy was assassinated, the Associated Press reported that Altgens' first photograph along Elm Street had "aroused new interest" among people "from many parts of this country and abroad" who noticed that one of the men standing in the main doorway to the book depository looked like Lee Harvey Oswald. This would have placed Oswald "at ground level behind the motorcade",[7] which would not have been possible if he was simultaneously on the building's sixth floor firing a rifle.[29][note 4] The AP report quoted depository superintendent Roy Truly, who identified another employee, Billy Lovelady, as the man in the image. The report also noted that the FBI had already investigated the photograph and had also identified Lovelady.[7]

The Warren Commission interviewed several depository employees in its effort to determine who was pictured. Commission hearings quoted five people who said Lovelady was either sitting or standing on the front steps, and three others (including Lovelady) who identified him in Altgens' photograph.[note 5] His supervisor signed an affidavit stating that Lovelady was "seated on the entrance steps" of the Texas School Book Depository.[30] None was quoted as having seen Oswald.

By the time Altgens was interviewed in July, he was aware of the individual who was "thought to resemble" Oswald. Altgens testified that he had twice been contacted by a newspaper reporter who asked about "this controversial figure standing in the doorway" but, because he'd had no assignments involving any depository employees either before or since the assassination, "naturally I had no information to give him".[31][note 6] Ultimately, the Commission decided that Oswald was not in the doorway.[32]

In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations studied several still and motion images, including an enhanced version of the Altgens photograph, in the scope of its investigation. The Committee also concluded that Lovelady was the man pictured in the depository doorway.[33][note 7]

Fifty years after the assassination, the point was still being argued by academics[34][35] and conspiracy theorists.[36] Texas journalist Jim Marrs, who had previously noted that most researchers were "ready to concede that the man may have been Lovelady", wrote in 2013 that there was a "growing resistance to this admission."[37]

Trial of Clay Shaw[edit]

District Attorney Jim Garrison subpoenaed Altgens to appear in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the 1969 trial of businessman Clay Shaw on charges of conspiring to kill Kennedy. A check for US$300 was sent to cover the airfare, but Altgens didn't want to go; he thought Garrison's actions were "self-aggrandizement."

Altgens "happened to run into" former Texas Governor John Connally in Houston a short time later.[note 8] Connally told Altgens that he too had been called to testify and sent money for airfare, but he decided to cash the check and spend the money. Connally suggested that Altgens do the same.[38]

Later life[edit]

Altgens retired from the AP in 1979 after more than 40 years, rather than accept a transfer to a different bureau. He spent his later years working on display advertising for the Ford Motor Company and answering repeated requests for interviews made by assassination researchers who found him "polite and affable". Despite all the "detailed diagrams and rambling letters", Altgens believed he was wasting his time with anyone who tried to convince him, without "solid evidence to support their claims," that the Warren Commission's conclusion—that Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy—was wrong. At the same time, he conceded that "there will always be some controversy about details surrounding the site and shooting of the President."[39]

"Reporters Remember 11-22-63"[edit]

In November 1993, Altgens took part in "Reporters Remember 11-22-63" at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Broadcast on C-SPAN as Journalists Remember the JFK Assassination, the panel discussion featured members of the press who spoke of their experiences on the day 30 years earlier that JFK was killed. As he introduced Altgens, moderator Hugh Aynesworth recalled the picture that "became very controversial" because of the man "that looked like Oswald".[6]

Among his reminiscences, Altgens recalled having seen "no blood on the right-hand side of [Kennedy's] face; there was no blood on the front of his face. But there was a tremendous amount of blood on the left-hand side and at the back of the head." That suggested to him, he continued, that if there was gunfire from any direction other than the rear, "there would be evidence in that particular area".[40] He also remembered, when seeing Jackie Kennedy on the trunk of the limousine, thinking that she "was scared out of her mind and she was looking for a way to escape."[41]


On December 12, 1995, Ike and Clara Altgens were found dead in separate rooms in their home in Dallas. A Houston Chronicle article quoted a nephew, Dallas attorney Ron Grant, as saying that his Aunt Clara "had been very ill for some time with heart trouble and many other problems. Both of them had had the flu for some time."[42] In addition, the Dallas Morning News said police were looking into the possibility that carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace played a role in their deaths.[43] Altgens was survived by three nephews; his wife by two sisters.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In Pictures of the Pain (Trask 1994, pp. 308-9), author Richard B. Trask wrote that Altgens' personal camera was a 35mm Nikkorex-F single lens reflex model, serial #371734, that he'd purchased via the AP in January 1963 from Medo Photo Supply Corp. It originally included a 50mm lens, but on November 22 "the camera body was mounted with a 105mm telephoto lens and loaded with Eastman Kodak Tri-X pan film."
  2. ^ Trask wrote in That Day In Dallas (Trask 1998, pp. 71-2) that Altgens in later years "became unsure of the number of photographs he took that day of the assassination [and was] very adamant about not wanting to take credit for someone else's work." However, the negatives had been examined at the AP New York bureau by Richard E. Sprague, who found that Altgens' film "is of the same type (Tri-X), is numbered sequentially, is chronological, and taken from the same vantage points at which Altgens is known to have been located."
  3. ^ Under questioning for the Warren Commission, Hill—who was assigned to Mrs. Kennedy—told Arlen Specter that she "was, it appeared to me, reaching for something coming off the right rear bumper of the car". Asked what that might be, Hill said that he "thought I saw something come off the back, too, but I cannot say that there was."(WCH 1964, Vol. II pp. 138-40) In the book Five Days in November (Hill & McCubbin 2013, p. 27), Hill recalled thinking, "Oh God. She's reaching for some material that's come out of the president's head."
  4. ^ Notes from his Dallas police interview placed Oswald on the first floor eating lunch at "about that time";(WCH 1964, Vol. XXIV p. 265) he was on the second floor when a uniformed officer confronted him "90 seconds later"(Frontline 1993).
  5. ^ Those who saw Lovelady: Buell Wesley Frazier (WCH 1964, Vol. II p. 233), James Jarman (WCH 1964, Vol. III p. 202), Harold Norman (WCH 1964, Vol. III p. 189), Sarah Stanton (WCH 1964, Vol. XXII p. 675), William Shelley (WCH 1964, Vol. XXII p. 673). Those who identified him in Altgens #6: Danny Garcia Arce (WCH 1964, Vol. VI p. 367), Lovelady (WCH 1964, Vol. VI p. 338), Virginia Rackley (WCH 1964, Vol. VII p. 515).
  6. ^ The subsequent article, "The Picture With a Life of Its Own", was published on May 24, 1964, in the New York Herald Tribune and reprinted as part of Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1408. For his article, Dom Bonavede interviewed Lovelady, who recalled a visit from two FBI agents the night after the assassination. When he identified himself in Altgens' photo, Lovelady said one agent "had a big smile on his face because it wasn't Oswald. They said they had a big discussion down at the FBI and one guy said it just had to be Oswald." (WCH 1964, Vol. XXII, pp. 793–4)
  7. ^ When Lovelady died in January 1979 at age 41, his attorney told United Press International that the resemblance led to his client being "hounded out of Dallas" by conspiracy theorists, and that 15 years of strain might have contributed to his death (UPI 1979).
  8. ^ Connally had been seated in the limousine in front of Kennedy and was wounded during the gunfire in Dealey Plaza.



  1. ^ a b c d "James Altgens". AP News Archive. Associated Press. December 15, 1995. Retrieved December 18, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Trask 1994, p. 307.
  3. ^ Journalists Remember... 1993, 1:52:48.
  4. ^ Trask 1998, p. 65.
  5. ^ a b c d WCH 1964, CE 1407 – FBI report dated June 5, 1964, of interview of James W. Attgens, who took photographs showing Billy Nolan ... Vol. XXII p. 790.
  6. ^ a b Journalists Remember... 1993, 1:52:58.
  7. ^ a b c EH (December 2, 1963), untitled (AP Dispatch), Associated Press – via The Harold Weisberg Archive at Hood College.  Archives of the December 3, 1966, article here, here and here.
  8. ^ a b Hill & McCubbin 2013, p. xi.
  9. ^ Trask 1998, p. 58.
  10. ^ Pierce, Arthur C. (1960). Beyond the Time Barrier. American International Pictures. 1:10:26–1:13:03.  A copy with no authorization data has been uploaded to YouTube (U2V8Tqg9tIA).
  11. ^ Pierce 1960, 1:14:00 (final line of dialogue).
  12. ^ The American Film Institute (1976). American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films 1961–1970. Vol. 1, Part 2 (hardcover ed.). University of California Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-520-20970-2. 
  13. ^ Trask 1998, p. 75.
  14. ^ Trask 1994, p. 308.
  15. ^ Trask 1994, pp. 308-9.
  16. ^ WCH 1964, Lyndal L. Shaneyfelt. Vol. V p. 158.
  17. ^ a b WCH 1964, CE 1407 – FBI report dated June 5, 1964, of interview of James W. Attgens, who took photographs showing Billy Nolan ... Vol. XXII p. 791.
  18. ^ Trask 1994, pp. 315-6.
  19. ^ WCH 1964, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Vol. V p. 180.
  20. ^ WCH 1964, James W. Altgens, Vol. VII p. 515-23.
  21. ^ WCH 1964, James W. Altgens. Vol. VII pp. 517-8.
  22. ^ Trask 1994, p. 315.
  23. ^ Trask 1994, p. 317.
  24. ^ Trask 1998, p. 70.
  25. ^ Pett, Saul; Moody, Sid; Mulligan, Hugh et al., eds. (1963). The Torch Is Passed: The Associated Press Story of the Death of a President, John F. Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Associated Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-86101-568-9. 
  26. ^ Trask 1994, p. 318.
  27. ^ Altgens, James (November 22, 1963). "untitled" (GIF) (AP Dispatch). Associated Press. Retrieved February 7, 2014 – via History Matters. 
  28. ^ Interview with CBS News, June 26, 1967. A copy with no authorization data has been uploaded to YouTube (1t4ZAZix9hY).
  29. ^ Frontline 1993.
  30. ^ WCH 1964, CE 1381 – Signed statements obtained from all persons known to have been in the Texas School Book Depository Building on ... Vol. XXII p. 84.
  31. ^ WCH 1964, James W. Altgens, Vol. VII pp. 522-3.
  32. ^ The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Warren Commission) (1964). The Report of The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. United States Government Printing Office. p. 149. 
  33. ^ HSCA 1978, Appendix Vol. VI: Photographic Evidence; Ch. IV:B:3:g: Comparison of Photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald and Billy Nolan Lovelady With That of a Motorcade Spectator pp. 286-93.
  34. ^ Knuth, Magen (adjunct instructor, American University). "Was Lee Oswald Standing In the Depository Doorway?". Kennedy Assassination Home Page. Retrieved December 24, 2014. 
  35. ^ Assassination of President Kennedy 2012, McKnight, Gerald (professor emeritus, Hood College): 1:31:05–1:31:51.
  36. ^ Hayden, Tyler (November 20, 2013). "Oswald Innocence Campaign Descends on Santa Barbara". Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved December 22, 2014. 
  37. ^ Marrs, Jim (2013). Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (e-book ed.). Carroll & Graf. ISBN 978-0-465-05087-1. 
  38. ^ Trask 1994, pp. 321-2.
  39. ^ Trask 1994, p. 322.
  40. ^ Journalists Remember... 1993, 1:56:29–1:56:56.
  41. ^ Journalists Remember... 1993, 1:55:30.
  42. ^ "Photographer of JFK, wife found dead". Houston Chronicle. Archived from the original on 1999-11-06. 
  43. ^ Pace, Eric (December 17, 1995). "James Altgens, photographer at Kennedy assassination, dies at 76". The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2014. 


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