James William "Ike" Altgens (April 28, 1919 – December 12, 1995) was an American photographer and field reporter for the Associated Press. Based in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, Altgens took arguably the most famous photograph of the in-progress assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a snapshot that led to a years-long debate among researchers over whether accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is visible in Dealey Plaza as the shots were fired.
Altgens spent more than 40 years 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.
Dallas native Ike Altgens was orphaned at a very young age and was raised by an aunt. In 1938, shortly after his graduation from North Dallas High School, he was hired by the Associated Press. The 19-year-old began his career 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; still, he managed to moonlight as a radio broadcaster. Following his return to Dallas, he married Clara B. Halliburton in July 1944, and returned 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 television and print advertising. He portrayed the US Secretary of State in the low-budget film Beyond the Time Barrier, uttering its final line of dialogue: "That's a lot to think about!"
Altgens had been employed by the AP 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 scheduled to deliver an address. Working 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 take pictures. Since that was not originally his assignment, Altgens took his personal camera, a 35 mm Nikkorex-F single-lens-reflex camera with a 105 mm telephoto lens, rather than the motor-driven camera usually used for news events. "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 Warren Commission that he was denied access to the overcrossing by uniformed officers; he took up a position in Dealey Plaza instead. Though he took seven snapshots altogether, Altgens described to Commissioners only the 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 [that] he thought was firecrackers." Kennedy had just begun to react, thrusting his hands toward his throat; Jackie Kennedy's gloved left hand could be seen through the windshield, holding her husband's left arm.
Just as Altgens was preparing 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. "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.
"[T]o have a President shot to death right in front of you," Altgens continued, "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."
Seconds later, Altgens had recovered enough to take his final picture of the limousine—showing the First Lady on the vehicle's trunk as Secret Service agent Clint Hill was climbing on behind her—as the driver had begun to speed away toward Parkland Memorial Hospital. Hill later told the Warren Commission that Jackie Kennedy appeared to be "reaching for something coming off the right rear bumper" of the limousine—described later as pieces of her husband's head—though Mrs. Kennedy's testimony suggested that she saw Altgens' photograph (or the corresponding still picture made from the Zapruder film) showing "me climbing out the back. But I don't remember that at all."
Altgens testified that he followed officers and spectators up the so-called "grassy knoll" on the north side of Elm Street. "I wanted 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 then ran to a telephone to report the shooting, and hurried back to the AP offices in the Dallas 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:
Of the three Altgens photos published by the Associated Press, the first snapped along Elm Street would receive the most scrutiny: taken from the front and to the left of the Presidential limousine, Kennedy could be seen with his arms akimbo and his hands near his throat, apparently reacting to a shot fired by an assassin. Secret Service agents in the car immediately behind the limousine reacted differently to the sound; at least three are looking towards the President, one is facing the onlookers on the north side of Elm Street, and two are looking towards the Texas School Book Depository to their right-rear.
Several people can be seen standing in the main doorway to the Depository; one man bore a striking 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, where he was spotted moments later by a Dallas Police officer). The Warren Commission paid careful attention to the image, as did private researchers: if the man was not Oswald, it did not necessarily prove nor disprove that Oswald was the assassin; if, however, the man was Oswald, here was photographic proof that he did not kill Kennedy.
A second Depository employee, Billy Lovelady, identified himself standing in the picture, and other employees who had been nearby agreed; a supervisor, however, signed an affidavit stating that Lovelady was "seated on the entrance steps". Ultimately, the Commission decided that Oswald was not in the doorway. That conclusion was bolstered several years later when photographs taken by a researcher of Lovelady, wearing what he said was the same shirt, appeared to match the image in the Altgens photograph (Oswald—who also claimed to have been outside having lunch with his supervisor, according to a police Captain's notes written "several days" after the interrogation—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. If that didn't clinch it, there is the famous newsreel film of Oswald being escorted down the hallway in Dallas Police headquarters. Asked whether he was in the "building" (the Depository) at the time of the shooting he replied "I work in that building. . . . Naturally if I work in that building, yes sir." Ten years later, Texas journalist Jim Marrs wrote, "[m]ost researchers today are ready to concede that the man may have been Lovelady."
Also of note in Altgen's famous image is the Dal-Tex Building, visible with its white fire escape in the far background of the photo. At least one of the prominent JFK conspiracy theories suggest that there was a gunman in this building which, as can clearly be seen in this photograph, afforded an unobstructed view of the president's motorcade.
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 was often contacted for interviews by assassination researchers who found him "polite and affable". Through all the telephone calls and 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." Still, he conceded, "there will always be some controversy about details surrounding the site and shooting of the President."
Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK rekindled that controversy by reenacting the assassination, in Dealey Plaza, using actors as the victims and witnesses. Altgens was portrayed by Dallas-area actor John Depew.
By 1995, both Altgens and his wife were in declining health; their nephew, Dallas attorney Ron Grant, told the Houston Chronicle 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." On December 12, Ike and Clara Altgens were found dead in separate rooms in their home in Dallas. In addition to their failing health, police believed carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace might have played a role in their deaths. "With Mr. Altgens' passing," researcher Brad Parker wrote, "not only did history lose another witness, but many of us lost a valued friend."