Ike Altgens circa 1970
|Born||James William Altgens
April 28, 1919
Dallas, Texas, US
|Died||December 12, 1995
Dallas, Texas, US
|Known for||photographer/reporter/witness of assassination of John F. Kennedy|
|Spouse(s)||Clara B. Halliburton|
James William "Ike" Altgens (//; 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 Dallas AP bureau. While on assignment for the AP on November 22, 1963, Altgens made "perhaps the most well-known of any still photograph" of the in-progress assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a snapshot that led to a decades-long debate among researchers over whether accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald can be seen in Dealey Plaza as the gunshots were fired.
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
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.
By 1959, Altgens had enjoyed some success as an actor and model in motion pictures, television and print advertising. Credited as James Altgens, he portrayed "Secretary Lloyd Patterson" 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." Altgens' brief acting career also included a role as a witness in Free, White and 21 (1963), and "as a witness, though not as himself," in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964).
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 U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Earlier that same day, Altgens was the only photojournalist to climb up to the 29th floor of the Mercantile National Bank Building to make pictures[note 1] while a young girl was rescued from a burning elevator.
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 2] "This meant that what I took, I had to make sure it was good—I didn't have time for second chances."
Altgens later told investigators for the FBI and the Warren Commission that he 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. Though there were seven snapshots altogether,[note 3] Altgens 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 he heard a "burst of noise", but didn't recall having any reaction at that point since he thought it "was firecrackers."
Witness to history
Moments later, as he prepared for a second snapshot along Elm Street, Altgens heard a blast that he recognized as gunfire and saw the President had been struck in the head. "I had pre-focused, had my hand on the trigger, but when JFK's head exploded, sending substance in my direction, I virtually became paralyzed," Altgens later told author Richard B. Trask. "This was such a shock to me that I never did press the trigger on the 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 said, "there is no excuse for this. I should have made the picture that I was set up to make. And I didn't do it."
About four seconds later (as timed to the Zapruder film), Altgens had recovered enough to make his final picture of the limousine—showing the First Lady with her hand on the vehicle's trunk and Secret Service agent Clint Hill standing on the bumper behind her—as the driver had begun to speed away toward Parkland Memorial Hospital. Hill later told the Warren Commission that Jackie Kennedy seemed to be "reaching for something coming off the right rear bumper" of the limousine. ("I thought I saw something come off the back of [JFK's] head, but I cannot say that there was for certain.") Mrs. Kennedy's testimony suggested that she saw Altgens' photograph, or a similar still frame from the Zapruder film, showing "me climbing out the back. But I don't remember that at all."
On May 25, 1964, the Chicago office of the FBI noted that a column appearing in Chicago's American the day before wondered 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?" In response, the FBI interviewed Altgens on June 2, 1964; the Warren Commission on July 22.
Commission investigators wrote that Altgens "wasn't keeping track of the number of pops," or 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." Later, for Trask's book Pictures of the Pain, Altgens recalled seeing pieces of President Kennedy's head land "right at my feet. That was some heck of an explosion when it hit his head." That quote "has been cited by many investigators to support the conclusion that the President's head wound was caused by a bullet fired from the grassy knoll" to the front and right of Kennedy's limousine.
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." 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 come over and get a picture of the guy—if they had such a person in custody." 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, led to one of the first bulletins sent to the world:
- DALLAS, NOV. 22 (AP)–PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UP AND GRABBED MR. KENNEDY. SHE CRIED, "OH, NO!" THE MOTORCADE SPED ON.
Altgens' first photograph along Elm Street came under intense scrutiny almost immediately. The image, made from the front and left of the Presidential limousine after Altgens had stepped onto the street, shows Kennedy with his hands clenched in front of his throat, reacting to an apparent bullet strike, roughly simultaneous to Zapruder film frame 255. Jacqueline Kennedy's gloved left hand can be seen through the windshield, holding her husband's left arm. Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of the President, has turned to his right-rear. Secret Service agents in the car just behind the limousine demonstrate various reactions: Clint Hill and JFK aide David Powers "seem to be looking directly at the President" as are both agents in the front seat; one is facing forward and to his right, toward the north side of Elm Street; and three others have turned rearward and to their right.
Several people can be seen standing in the main doorway to the book depository; one man bore a noticeable resemblance to Oswald. His presence there should have been impossible because, according to official investigations, he was on the building's sixth floor, firing bullets at Kennedy from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. (Oswald claimed he was in the second-floor lunchroom when the shots were fired; a Dallas Police officer confronted him there "90 seconds later". After his arrest, when a reporter asked whether he was in the depository at the time of the shooting, Oswald answered, "Naturally, if I work in that building, yes sir.") The Warren Commission and the FBI paid careful attention to "the controversial Associated Press photograph", and so did private researchers: if the man was not Oswald, it did not necessarily speak to whether he was the assassin; if, however, the man was Oswald, "he could not have been firing a rifle on the sixth floor."
A second employee, Billy Lovelady, identified himself standing in the picture, and other employees who had been nearby agreed. A supervisor, meantime, signed an affidavit stating that Lovelady was "seated on the entrance steps" of the Texas School Book Depository. Ultimately, the Commission decided that Oswald was not in the doorway. That conclusion was supported several years later when a researcher made pictures of Lovelady wearing what he said was the same shirt, and they appeared to match the image in the Altgens photograph (Oswald had been photographed wearing a similar shirt inside the Dallas Police station). In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations also identified Lovelady after studying an enhanced version of the Altgens photograph and several amateur films.
Ten years later, Texas journalist Jim Marrs wrote, "[m]ost researchers today are ready to concede that the man may have been Lovelady." In 2013, Marrs amended that statement, adding that "there is a growing resistance to this admission."
The Dal-Tex Building is also a prominent feature of Atgens' photograph, seen behind and to photo-right of the limousine. Conspiracy theorists have used this image to argue that a would-be assassin would have had an unobstructed view of the motorcade as it traveled along Elm Street.[note 4]
"After my pictures cleared the wirephoto network," Altgens told Trask, he was sent to Parkland Memorial Hospital 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."
Origin of the gunshots
An AP dispatch was credited to Altgens that same day; at first, he said that he "thought the shots came from the opposite side of the street," in the area that later came to be known as the knoll. He reiterated that he "ran over there to see if I could get some pictures. ... I did not know until later where the shots came from." Altgens also noted that he "was on the opposite side of the President's car from the gunman. He might have hit me." These quotes were cited in several books arguing that at least one shot fired at President Kennedy came from a location other than the book depository; Altgens, meantime, "always said he had yet to see indisputable evidence" that anyone other than Oswald killed the President.
CBS television interviewed Altgens in 1967, and he repeated this assessment. When the head shot struck Kennedy, he said, "it was so obvious that it came from behind—it had to come from behind, because it caused him to bolt forward (leans forward in his chair), dislodging him from this depression in the seat cushion". (This description appeared to contradict the Zapruder film, shot from the north side of Elm Street; Altgens stood back of the southernmost lane.)
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 "that the shot came 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."
Trial of Clay Shaw
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 "really didn't want to go," and called Garrison's actions "self-aggrandizement."
Within "a week or two", Altgens "happened to run into John Connally" in Houston. (Connally, governor of Texas at the time, was seated in the limousine in front of Kennedy and had since recovered from the wounds he'd received in Dealey Plaza.) Connally told Altgens that he too had been called to testify and sent money for airfare. Connally said he'd cashed the check and spent the money, and suggested that Altgens to do the same.
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". Through all the "detailed diagrams and rambling letters", no one ever convinced him that the Warren Commission's conclusion—that Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy—could be wrong. "Until those people come up with solid evidence to support their claims," he told Trask, "I see no value in wasting my time with them." At the same time, he "freely" conceded that "there will always be some controversy about details surrounding the site and shooting of the President."
On December 12, 1995, Ike and Clara Altgens were found dead in separate rooms in their home in Dallas. A Houston Chronicle article quoted their 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." 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.
"With Mr. Altgens' passing," wrote author Brad Parker (First on the Scene), "not only did history lose another witness, but many of us lost a valued friend."
- Many photographers, Altgens included, tend to refer to their art as "making" pictures. In Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (PBS, "American Experience"), Adams said, "The terms shoot and take are not accidental; they represent an attitude of conquest and appropriation. Only when the photographer grows into perception and creative impulse does the term make define a condition of empathy between the external and the internal events. [Alfred] Stieglitz told me: 'When I make a photograph, I make love.'"
- For Pictures of the Pain (hardcover ed., Yeoman Press, ISBN 0-9638595-3-6, pp. 308–309), author Richard B. Trask wrote, "Altgens brought with him his personal 35mm Nikkorex-F single lens reflex camera. He had purchased the camera mounted with a 50mm lens in January 1963 from Medo Photo Supply Corp. of New York, through the Associated Press. It cost $157 and was marked with serial #371734. Today the camera body was mounted with a 105mm telephoto lens and loaded with Eastman Kodak Tri-X pan film."
- "In later years", Trask wrote for That Day In Dallas (paperback ed., Yeoman Press, ISBN 0-9638595-2-8, pp. 71–72), "Altgens became unsure of the number of photographs he took that day of the assassination, and has been reluctant to acknowledge photo credit of all seven since he is very adamant about not wanting to take credit for someone else's work. ... An examination of the negative sequence, however, shows quite conclusively that these seven pictures are Altgens's [sic], a fact first noticed by researcher Richard E. Sprague, who found the individually cut negatives at AP in New York. The 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."
- Dozens of still and moving pictures made in Dealey Plaza before, during and after the assassination showed numerous buildings along the route from which a hypothetical assassin could, in theory, have had an "unobstructed" view of the motorcade. Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, based in part on Marrs' Crossfire and On the Trail of the Assassins (1988, Sheridan Square, ISBN 9780941781022) by Jim Garrison, posited that "the only reason for waiting to get [Kennedy] on Elm [Street] is you got him in a triangulated crossfire" between the Dal-Tex building, the Texas School Book Depository and the "grassy knoll". (Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon, JFK Special-Edition Director's Cut DVD [SKU 18974627], Warner Home Video  at 1:06:31.)
- "AP Cleartime Online: 'A' Obits". Associated Press. Archived from the original on February 5, 2012. Retrieved January 19, 2014.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 307. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- "JFK Assassination Witness James Altgens Gives His Opinion of Where the Shots Came From". YouTube. (CBS News). October 26, 2009. 0:03. Retrieved March 8, 2014.
- Trask, Richard B. (1998). That Day In Dallas: Three Photographers Capture On Film the Day President Kennedy Died (paperback ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 65. ISBN 0-9638595-2-8.
- Marrs, Jim (1989, 2013). Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (e-book ed.). Carroll & Graf. ISBN 978-0-465-05087-1.
- Trask, Richard B. (1998). That Day In Dallas: Three Photographers Capture On Film the Day President Kennedy Died (paperback ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-9638595-2-8.
- "Beyond the Time Barrier 1960". YouTube. (American International Pictures). 1:10:28 – 1:12:59. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
- "Beyond the Time Barrier 1960". YouTube. (American International Pictures). 1:14:00 (final line). Retrieved January 19, 2014.
- The American Film Institute (1976). American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films 1961–1970 (hardcover ed.). University of California Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-520-20970-2.
- Trask, Richard B. (1998). That Day In Dallas: Three Photographers Capture On Film the Day President Kennedy Died (paperback ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 75. ISBN 0-9638595-2-8.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 308. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. pp. 308–309. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- "Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1407: FBI Memo, June 5, 1964, p. 2" (PDF). aarclibrary.org. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
- Investigation of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Hearings Vol. VII (paperback ed.). United States Government Printing Office. 1964. p. 516.
- "Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1407: FBI Memo, June 5, 1964, p. 3" (PDF). aarclibrary.org. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. pp. 315–316. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- Sawler, Harvey (2005). Saving Mrs. Kennedy: The Search for an American Hero (paperback ed.). General Store Publishing House. p. 8. ISBN 1-897113-10-2.
- Sawler, Harvey (2005). Saving Mrs. Kennedy: The Search for an American Hero (paperback ed.). General Store Publishing House. p. 32. ISBN 1-897113-10-2.
- Investigation of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Hearings Vol. VII (paperback ed.). United States Government Printing Office. 1964. pp. 517–518.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 315. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- Fetzer, James H., Ph.D. (2000, 2007). Murder In Dealey Plaza: What We Know Now that We Didn't Know Then About the Death of JFK (e-book ed.). Catfeet Press. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-8126-9865-7.
- "Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1407: FBI Memo, June 5, 1964, p. 4" (PDF). aarclibrary.org. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 317. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- Trask, Richard B. (1998). That Day In Dallas: Three Photographers Capture On Film the Day President Kennedy Died (paperback ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-9638595-2-8.
- Associated Press (1963). The Torch Is Passed (hardcover ed.). Associated Press (self-published). p. 14. ISBN 978-0-86101-568-9.
- Trask, Richard B. (1998). That Day In Dallas: Three Photographers Capture On Film the Day President Kennedy Died (paperback ed.). Yeoman Press. pp. 72–74. ISBN 0-9638595-2-8.
- "FRONTLINE: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?". pbs.org (transcript of broadcast). Retrieved January 19, 2014.
- Investigation of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Hearings Vol. VII (paperback ed.). United States Government Printing Office. 1964. pp. 517–523.
- "Warren Commission Exhibit No. 1407: FBI Memo, June 5, 1964, p. 1" (PDF). aarclibrary.org. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
- Marrs, Jim (1990). Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (paperback ed.). Carroll & Graf. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-465-05087-1.
- "Report of the President's Commission On the Assassination of President Kennedy Chapter 4, p. 154". archives.gov. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
- "Warren Commission Report, p. 644". archives.gov. Retrieved January 10, 2007.
- Warren Commission Exhibit 1381, p. 84
- Groden, Robert (1994). The Killing of a President: The Complete Photographic Record of the JFK Assassination, the Conspiracy and the Cover-Up (paperback ed.). Viking Studio Books. pp. 186–187. ISBN 0-670-85267-8.
- "HSCA Volume 6: Comparison of Photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald and Billy Nolan Lovelady With That of a Motorcade Spectator" (PDF). aarclibrary.org. pp. 286–293. Retrieved January 29, 2014.
- "3 Gunmen Involved in JFK's Slaying; 4 Bullets Fired". St. Joseph Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri). UPI. November 16, 1967. pp. 1A–2A. Retrieved February 5, 2014.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 318. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- "AP Dispatch, November 22, 1963". history-matters.com (gif image). Retrieved February 7, 2014.
- "JFK Assassination Witness James Altgens Gives His Opinion of Where the Shots Came From". YouTube. (CBS News). October 26, 2009. 1:00 – 2:25. Retrieved March 8, 2014.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. pp. 321–322. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- Trask, Richard B. (1994). Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (hardcover ed.). Yeoman Press. p. 322. ISBN 0-9638595-0-1.
- "Photographer of JFK, Wife Found Dead". Houston Chronicle. Archived from the original on November 6, 1999. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
- "James Altgens, Photographer at Kennedy Assassination, Dies at 76". The New York Times. December 17, 1995. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
- Parker, Brad. "Remembering James Altgens". acorn.net. Retrieved May 2, 2006.
- Altgens' full testimony to Warren Commission attorney Wesley J. Liebeler (Investigation of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Hearings Vol. VII pp. 517–523)