A History of the Zapruder Film

by Martin Shackelford

Nov. 1962: Zapruder purchases, from Peacock Jewelry Company on Elm St., a top of the line Model 414 PD Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Camera with Varamat 9 to 27mm F1.8 lens and leather carrying case (photo in Trask), electric eye, springwind indicator, and speeds of 1, 16 and 48. Serial number AS13486. It was rated highly in the December 1963 issue of Consumers Reports. It was spool-loaded with double 8mm film; 25 feet could be shot at a time.

The camera was relatively new, as he apparently hadn't used it much. I thought the film in the camera was still the first cartridge he used.


Nov. 1963: Zapruder's camera is loaded with Kodachrome II safety film; the first 25 feet was filled with family scenes, including a grandson digging beside a tree in a backyard patio (frame published in Esquire). Marilyn Sitzman said Zapruder was a great Kennedy fan. He talked about bringing his movie camera to work to film the President's visit.(Trask)

Nov. 22, mid-day: In Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago, LIFE's November 29 issue was in its printing run of over 7 million copies, and bundles of issues were already at distribution points. With news of the assassination, managing editor George Hunt stopped the presses. The change cost nearly one million dollars; initially appalled, Henry Luce later said it was the best million he had ever spent.(Trask)

Zapruder takes footage of three people in Dealey Plaza, one an employee of his, to make sure his take-up reel was operating properly.(Stolley) Noticing Marilyn Sitzman, Zapruder tests the camera and spring by filming her by a bench at the north pergola. Seated on the bench are Charles and Beatrice Hester. Sitzman turns to face Zapruder, waves, then turns away. He is filming from the steps leading up to the pergola. (Trask) (NOTE: Still from this sequence, which I made from a bootleg copy of the film, is attached)

Zapruder decides he needs a more stable perch, and selects a rectangular concrete block, like those chosen by F.M. Bell and Charles Bronson elsewhere in the Plaza. His is 185 ft. from the SW corner of the TSBD, 65 ft. from the center of Elm St. Clumsily getting onto it, he asks Sitzman to join him, to steady him if he got dizzy. (Location on chart in Trask, p. 56)(Trask)

Zapruder, his secretary recalled, shakily put down his camera and started screaming "They killed him! They killed him! They killed him!" He was so stricken by the experience that he never quite got over it. His own was the last film or news report about Kennedy he would ever watch.(Dallas Times Herald)

Zapruder and Sitzman, who have just gotten down off the pedestal, are photographed by Associated Press photographer James Altgens; also in the picture are the Hesters.(Trask)

Zapruder goes back into the pergola, and is photographed there by Art Rickerby (photo on p. 403, top). With him are the Hesters. Sitzman lost track of him. (Trask)

Reporter Darwin Payne described Zapruder as "very distraught...slumped in a chair, staring at a television set tuned to KRLD-TV, Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Dallas." Walter Cronkite was on the screen, saying Kennedy had been wounded, but the extent of his wounds wasn't known. "I know he's dead," Zapruder said. "...I saw his head explode like a firecracker. It was the worst thing I've ever seen. There's no way he could still be alive." (JFK: Breaking the Silence by Bill Sloan)

Reporter Harry McCormack takes Sorrels to Jennifer Juniors, Inc., in the Dal-Tex Building, 501 Elm St., the office of Abraham Zapruder. Zapruder was emotionally upset; agreed to furnish a copy of the film to Sorrels with the understanding that it was strictly for official use of the Secret Service and that it would not be shown or given to any newspapers or magazines, as he expected to sell the film for as high a price as he could get for it. Mr. McCormack had offered $1,000 for it, but others were also interested.(Memo from Forrest Sorrels to Thomas Kelley)

WFAA-TV calls Eastman Kodak, which agrees to process the film right away. A police cruiser took the men to Kodak on Manor Way. There, Sorrels also met Phil Willis, there with his film for processing. Sorrels left. Dan Rather later claimed credit for arranging for the film's processing. Zapruder had 3 copies made (possibly at Jamieson). The film was previewed at the lab just after being developed. Zapruder was assured no bootlegs had been made. Sorrels later picked up two of the copies.(Trask)

After selling the original and one copy to LIFE, Zapruder seems to have retained an unexplained 4th copy, which Sorrels brought people over to view, being without his copies Nov. 23-26.(Trask)

Nov. 23: With Zapruder at the projector, the film is viewed by Richard Stolley, LIFE's Los Angeles Bureau Chief, the only reporter among a small group of Secret Service agents in a small room of Jennifer Juniors, early in the morning. Zapruder ran the film again and again as newsmen from AP and UPI and other magazines showed up. When the lights were turned on, Zapruder looked ill. Stolley convinces Zapruder to talk with him first. (Richard Stolley, 1973)

The original film was sent to LIFE's Chicago plant, the copy to LIFE's New York offices. A dupe of the original was made in Chicago and also sent to New York. Word spread in Dallas that LIFE had bought only the print rights. (Trask)

Time approximate:Chicago LIFE staffers study the film on a Moviola projector (editor). Frames were selected, and 8x10 black and white prints were made.(The Great American Magazine by Loudon Wainwright)

Nov. 24: While the original film was in Chicago, where frames were selected for publication, the duplicate was shown to Time-LIFE executives in New York. C.D. Jackson concluded that it was too gruesome to allow showings on TV, and ordered all rights purchased.(Wainwright)

Stolley 1973 version: The film is shown to Time Inc. executives in New York. LIFE's publisher, C.D. Jackson "was so upset by the head-wound sequence that he proposed the company obtain all rights to the film and withhold it from public viewing at least until emotions had calmed. Zapruder seemed relieved when Stolley called again. Stolley 1992 version: All decisions regarding the use or non-use of the Zapruder film were made by LIFE's editors, not by anyone (like C.D. Jackson, LIFE publisher, formerly of military intelligence) on the publishing side.

Nov. 26: Time-LIFE editors ordered copies of the film for themselves; as a result, bootleg copies were produced.

Late December: J. Edgar Hoover wrote to J. Lee Rankin, saying the CIA requested the FBI copy of the film be leaned to them "solely for training purposes." Rankin contacted Time, and informed the FBI that Time would contact the CIA to make their own arrangements.(Trask)


January 27: Warren Commission staff, aided by FBI's Lyndal Shaneyfelt, began examination of a second generation copy of the film. Examination of the film went on for 7 days. Secret Service was also present.(Trask)

January 28: Lyndal Shaneyfelt told the Warren Commission staff that a clear print of the film could provide more precise information. The first generation Secret Service copies were never requested by the Commission staff or FBI, or offered by the Secret Service, whose agent were present. Asked later why the Commission never subpoenaed the original film, Rankin replied (according to Mark Lane) that it was "private property." (Trask)

February 25: LIFE photo lab assistant chief Herbert Orth brought the original film to a meeting of Commission staff, FBI and Secret Service, and projected it several times. He volunteered to make 35mm transparencies, and by April produced three sets of 159 slides: for the FBI, Secret Service and the Commission, of frames 171 through 334. By this time, the film had already been damaged in a "lab accident." (Trask)

September 25: After the Commission investigation, the FBI copy of the film, and the slides, were deposited at the National Archives.(Trask)

October 2: LIFE's Warren Report issue has frames and captions changed twice before the final copies hit the streets. Frame 323, which showed the President thrown back, was replaced by 313, which had previously gone unpublished for reasons of "taste." A caption saying JFK was thrown "to one side" by the head shot was replaced by one saying it caused "the front part of his head to explode forward." LIFE editor Richard Kearns said he had never heard before of LIFE changing printing plates twice in a single issue, much less a single story. (Jerry Policoff in New Times)

November 30: The Warren Commission exhibits volumes, with black and white reproductions of film frames in Volume 18, are released by the Government Printing Office for $80 (photo in Trask). Some researchers made crude black and white films from the reproduced frames.(Trask)


In late 1966, Bell & Howell offered the camera to the National Archives. (Trask)

Frame 230 is published in color on LIFE's cover with the caption "Did Oswald Act Alone? A Matter of Reasonable Doubt." The cover story concluded the Single Bullet Theory was wrong, and an editorial called for a new investigation. The issue includes color reproductions of many frames, with sprocket hole information included.(LIFE, November 25)

December 7: Bell & Howell transfers Zapruder's camera and leather carrying case to the National Archives. (Trask)


June 25: In "The Warren Report," CBS reports on the findings of its experts. It argued, implausibly, that the camera could have been running slower than the FBI-tested speed, which actually contradicted the experts. It called for Time-LIFE to make the film available to the public, noting that LIFE had refused to allow its showing "at any price." (Trask)


January 3: This date, Zapruder receives his final payment from LIFE magazine.

February: IFE sent out the original film for copying and copy slides to a New Jersey photo lab, one of whose employees was Robert Groden, who has said he made a copy off the original. He placed it in a bank vault, fearing the consequences if his copying became known, and refused to say who had assisted him. He then studied it, enhanced it by re-framing it to remove the shakiness of the original. The result was better than the copy studied by the FBI and the Warren Commission. He began contacting critics. (Trask)

September 24: A federal judge rules that the public's interest in the JFK assassination mandated that "fair use" of the film be broadly construed; copyright scholar Melville Nimmer, once wrote that some photographs, including the Zapruder film, are so newsworthy that they should not be copyrightable. (New York Times)


February: LIFE complied with a subpoena from Jim Garrison and provided the film for showing at the Clay Shaw trial. Security was so lax that the film was illegally duplicated, and bootleg copies were soon sold all over the country. They were shown at conspiracy lectures, and even a time or two on local TV. (Stolley 1992)

February 13: Abraham Zapruder appears as a prosecution witness in the Clay Shaw trial in New Orleans. He identified it as identical to the film he shot, as the film was shown for the first time in public. It was shown 5 times that day, altogether. By the end of the case, it was shown 5 more times, once frame by frame. While the film was in Garrison's possession, many copies were covertly made. Garrison let Mark Lane make 100 copies for distribution "to colleges and universities." Copies began surfacing all over the country; some were 9th or 10th generation copies. (Trask)


August 30: Abraham Zapruder dies of carninoma at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. He is buried September 1 at Temple Emanu-El cemetary.(Trask)


This year, Robert Groden showed his enhanced print of the Zapruder film at a research conference in Boston. (Jim DeEugenio, Destiny Betrayed)

In 1973, the Boston-based Assassination Information Bureau began a lecture series which included the Zapruder film. This continued for 3 years, to 600 audiences in 45 states. For $30 the AIB offered a copy of the film and a set of slides.(Trask)


April 9: Time-LIFE sells the film to the family for $1; the media is still reporting that Zapruder got only $25,000 for the film; his heirs have complained of dozens of copyright violations; "The heirs would not let Time Inc. give the original film to the National Archives, although copies will go there; the heirs' lawyer said the family would "create a liberal policy of making the film available to scholars or the public in a manner consistent with their copyright interest." (Detroit Free Press) Time Inc. assigned the film's copyright to the Zapruder family, for $1. It donated a first generation copy, a second generation copy, and a set of transparencies to the National Archives the same day. It was restricted to viewing on the premises. (Trask)

The original film is stored as a courtesy by the National Archives, without public access to it. An archivist noted that the LIFE first generation copy was of poor quality. The archives now had an FBI second-generation print, the original, one first generation and one second-generation copy from LIFE. The whereabouts of the two Secret Service first generation copies were unknown. (Trask)

May 12: National Archives acknowledges receipt of 323 Zapruder frame "color transparencies" (slides) and the "first and second generation copies" of the film from Time Incorporated, available for viewing only on the premises of the National Archives. (Archives Change of Holdings Report) The slides in the original set were made by Time-LIFE. The set included frames 164 through 483, except for the missing frame 349.

From this, a reference set was made, apparently by the Archives, covering the same frame numbers; frame 378 later turned up missing from this set. A reproduction set was also made, including frames 171-343. (Archives Holding Card)


This year, the reference set of Zapruder slides was placed in the NNSP (Still Pictures Branch) research room. (Archives memo)

January 2: Note on the slide mounts of the reference set placed in NNSP "indicate the slide copies were made by Color Fax, probably ordered by NARA." (Archives inventory memo)

February 18: Henry Zapruder offers permission to obtain a copy of the film for research purposes only, with no further copying or exhibition, for the cost of copying plus approximately $300 in legal expenses, payable in advance. (Letter from Henry Zapruder)

November 22: Channel 11 in Fort Worth shows the Zapruder film after paying $300 to Mrs. Zapruder. (The Continuing Inquiry)

December: Penn Jones offers KERA-TV, Dallas public TV station, a clear 16mm copy of the Zapruder film for its annual fundraising drive, but it was rejected as inappropriate on the grounds of taste.(Mother Jones)


June: The HSCA photographic evidence panel worked with 20 outside contractors to study the film, both the original and a first-generation Secret Service copy, the Groden enhanced version, and individual frames enhanced by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory under the direction of D.H. Janney. His group "de-blurred" selected frames by computer.(Trask)


Early in 1979, with the files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, another copy of the Zapruder film entered the Archives. (Trask)


April: Gerard (Chip) Selby Jr. writes to Henry Zapruder seeking permission to use the film in his documentary; his letters and phone calls were repeatedly ignored; eventually Mr. Zapruder's assistant quoted a price of $30,000, twice what Mr. Selby's film had cost to make. (New York Times)


This year, the original Zapruder slide set was transferred within the Archives; at that time, it was found to be missing frames 180, 321, 349 and 372. The reproduction set was found to be missing fraomes 164-170, and 344-486 (but these were never part of the original set.)(Archives memo)

October 10: James Lesar and Chip Selby file suit against Henry Zapruder, Washington tax attorney, for selling rights to the film. Argued there should be no copyright claim on such an historic film, allowing the copyright holder to dictate its use, hampering use by scholars & writers. Zapruder said the family only charges people who use the film for commercial purposes:"We make the film available free of charge to anyone who is not going to use it for commercial purposes...People who are going to charge, we charge." The original film is in storage at the National Archives. (Associated Press) Gerald (Chip) Selby Jr., 26, represented by Jim Lesar, sues Henry Zapruder and LMH Co.; LMH charges $30,000 for use of the film; Selby's documentary, "Reasonable Doubt," his master's thesis, was made in collaboration with Harold Weisberg; the Discovery Channel offered $10,000 to show the documentary; the fee is excessive; Zapruder says he offers the film free to those who aren't going to charge for it; copyright was abandoned by failure to curb unauthorized used of the film (Houston Chronicle)

November 3: Settlement reached between Chip Selby and LMH, says Jim Lesar; A&E will show his documentary; the settlement forbids disclosure of the terms; James Silverberg represented LMH; Henry Zapruder is a 'Washington tax lawyer; Mr. Weisberg will see the areas between the sprocket holes. (Houston Chronicle)

November 9: Still Pictures Branch of Archives requests original slide set to make an additional set of reference slides "due to increased reference use." (Archives letter)

November 10: Exact date unknown. Original slide set transferred to Still Pictures Branch. Slide 304 is now missing from the set as well. The reproduction set was also transferred to NNSP. This set is missing frames 208-211. (Archives inventory memo)


Clear video copies of the Zapruder film become available for sale to researchers, but their sale is halted by threatened legal action.(Larry Howard)


LMH Company loan contract specifies that if any copies are made of the film, the charge will be $2500 per copy; materials cannot be published or displayed without additional fees; extensions beyond 30 days are limited to 45 days and require an additional $75 fee. The borrower must agree to avoid making "any reference...that the Zapruder Film was ever owned by Time, Inc., or that Time, Inc. ever published any frames from the Zapruder Film in any publication of Time, Inc." and must prohibit others from making such references. (Zapruder Film loan agreement) LMH Company offers the film (8mm or video, slides) by loan ONLY for a 30 day limit (unless they agree to extend it) for $75 fee plus costs.(Letter from attorney James Silverberg)


It apparently remains legally impossible to purchase a complete copy of the Zapruder film for less than $2500, or to purchase a set of frame slides.


The ARRB makes the Zapruder film an "assassination document."

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