What price history? Abraham Zapruder’s home movie

Sometimes an article comes together quickly as ideas from unrelated reading connect. A news story on the sale of the Zapruder film to the US government reminded me of something J G Ballard had said earlier that year and the piece was done in a couple of hours.

A morbid parlor game of the late-twentieth century involves asking the question, ‘Where were you when John F Kennedy was shot?’ Usually posed publicly, in situations intended to measure the spirit of the 1960s, the question allows respondents to construct a personal relationship with a world-shattering event, to register their participation in history.

But what if you had been there, in Dallas, at the fateful moment? What if you had strolled down to Dealy Plaza on your lunch hour, to see the presidential motorcade pass? What if you had your Bell and Howell super-8 camera with you? What if the few seconds of film you shot caught Kennedy’s assassination?

Abraham Zapruder camera, FBI exhibit K51, US National Archives and Records Administration, Identifier # 305171

Abraham Zapruder camera, FBI exhibit K51, US National Archives and Records Administration, Identifier # 305171

Yes, all of that would have happened if you were Abraham Zapruder. Strangely, however, his involvement was just as abstract as that of more distant witnesses, who heard of the assassination on radio and television. Zapruder saw the incident at one remove, squinting through the tiny viewfinder of his camera, witnessing history through a peephole, in blurred miniature.

The historical significance of the 27 seconds of film shot by Zapruder lies not only in the images that they contain, but also in the way they register the fate of the image in the late-twentieth century. The sequence has been reproduced endlessly, distributed globally, and subjected to incessant examination by official investigators and conspiracy theorists alike. Filtered initially through the lens of a camera, the image of Kennedy’s assassination has appeared in sundry documentaries, magazines, books, and even on CD Rom. Most recently, after lengthy negotiation, the film has been annexed to the national estate of the United States.

This passage from chance encounter to national heritage says a good deal about the way we consume and value images. Historical events have a suprahuman scale; too large and complex to be distilled into one image, they seem to escape both picturing and comprehension. But in Zapruder’s case, fate condensed the epic sweep of history into a finite field; the big picture, in a frame 8mm square. The attraction of the film is that it is one of those rare opportunities for the collective witnessing and apprehension of history. A cataclysmic event became available to a variety of therapeutic visual responses. History could be comprehended, whether emotionally, through horrified awe, or rationally, through empirical analysis.

The result is an image whose value now vastly exceeds its status as simple historical record. In 1936, the German critic Walter Benjamin suggested that, in the age of mechanical reproduction, the image would lose the mystical singularity that he termed its aura. Although subject to such reproduction, the Zapruder film has not lost its aura. On the contrary, it has become the point at which aura is perpetually reconstructed. Always the subject of almost reverential fascination, the film is now proposed as an equivalent to the very art works whose glory withered in the face of the mass media.

Speaking at the Tate Gallery earlier this year [1999], the novelist J.G.Ballard declared the Zapruder film the Sistine Ceiling of the twentieth century. There’s more to this than the frisson of a perverse bon mot. What Ballard recognised is the connection of the two in reproduction. Both reproduce the same way; both appear on the page as a strip of rectangular images. And both, he assumes, embody collective faith and despair in a tragic sequence. Myself, I would have suggested a parallel with Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Both are meaningful if viewed in the belief that moral crisis and human tragedy can be coherently abstracted into symbolic forms. Both appear to answer the longing for an image that will make sense of the big picture.

The incorporation of the film into the national estate, however, has given it another, unlikely connection with art. The process is governed by legislation; the federal government may appropriate private property to the national estate, but must pay adequate compensation to the original owners. Only rarely can a price be put on history, much less on the national psyche. Determining this value triggered an unseemly bout of haggling. The United States government offered US $1 million. The Zapruder heirs demanded US $30 million. Eventually, the figure of US $16 million was agreed upon, on the grounds, it was reported, that the Zapruder film was of equivalent value to a Van Gogh Sunflowers painting, or an Andy Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

This logic leaves Ballard for dead. What does it mean to say that the Zapruder film belongs to the same category as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers? I’m trying to picture the equivalence. Assassination, in a fit of lateral thinking, considered as a still life? Murder, as de Quincy demanded so long ago, considered as one of the fine arts? And Warhol’s Marilyn? Is there an unspoken acknowledgement of the Kennedy curse here? A recognition that Marilyn, mistress of the Kennedy brothers, belongs in their pictorial mausoleum. Or an admission that Kennedy, too, is a celebrity martyr, available to the same prurient, quasi-religious, attention?

The shifting status of the Zapruder is a tale of recovery. So shocking was the initial sight that Zapruder himself fled the plaza in horror. Soon, however, as the image circulated it became a latter day equivalent of the sublime; a cataclysmic event viewed at a relatively safe distance. Now given a price, it enters the secure realm of laissez faire economics; market forces have made their decision on its meaning. Finally, transformed from a marketable photograph to painterly masterpiece, the Zapruder has the soothing aura of high art. From national tragedy to national treasure, the Zapruder film is now secured in the flattened array that is postmodern vision.

Original publication: ‘A brush with fate raises eyebrows in the art world’, The Age, 11 August 1999, ‘Today’ section, p. 6

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