, Salem, MA

November 13, 2013

An eye for history

Archivist opens window on JFK assassination photos


---- — DANVERS — Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book “Reclaiming History” aims to debunk the conspiracy theories behind the John F. Kennedy assassination.

One of the experts he cites is Danvers town archivist Richard Trask, whom he calls “the leading authority on photographic evidence in the Kennedy assassination.”

While Trask is well-known as an expert on Danvers history and the witch hysteria of 1692, few are aware that he is the author of three books, all self-published, tracing the films and photos taken in and around the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Now, with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination fast approaching, the soft-spoken Trask plans to give his one and only public talk about his research tomorrow at the Danvers Historical Society.

Trask, who serves as a trustee of the society, will talk about his experience researching his books and bring some artifacts he has collected over the years.

While he has never given a public talk about his research, Trask said he spent an afternoon in the late 1990s talking with former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, when a new set of films came out that showed Dealey Plaza just after the assassination in 1963. He has been interviewed on national television and appeared in several documentaries.

Trask spent a decade researching his first book, “Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy,” published in 1994. The book traces the stories of those who filmed or photographed the assassination and the moments after, along with their personal reflections. Most of the pictures in the book had never been published before. During his years of research, Trask has acquired the rights to many of the images of that day in Dallas.

Researching the subject was not easy. Trask said he has filed scores of Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI and conducted just as many interviews in person and by phone. He made three trips to Dallas and eventually got to know some of the photographers personally.

Trask thought his first book would be the end of the topic for him. But as new information came to light, he followed up in 1998 with a book called “That Day in Dallas,” which takes a look at the work of three professional photographers.

He followed that in 2005 with “National Nightmare on Six Feet of Film,” an examination of the famous home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder, the most dramatic, iconic and graphic image of the assassination.

“Three other films show it, but they don’t show it as dramatically as that one does,” Trask said.

Nothing in his research bolsters any of the conspiracy theories, he said.

“Not to say there wasn’t,” Trask said. “You know, I can’t say there wasn’t a conspiracy, and I can’t say there wasn’t someone else there that day. But I am pretty sure that the only shots that were fired came from the sixth floor of the School Book Depository on the end.”

Zapruder, of course, was not the only person in and around Dealey Plaza wielding a camera that day; there were 45 to 50 other people taking photos, said Trask, and he wound up tracking many of them down. (Zapruder died before Trask began his serious research.)

Some of those interviewed were photojournalists, working for the Associated Press, United Press International or other newspapers. Some were White House photographers. Others were amateurs. Some toted box cameras. One woman wielded a Polaroid. Some had “fairly good Nikon cameras.” Some had movie cameras.

While many of the films and photos of the Kennedy assassination can be found on the Internet, it took Trask years to unearth the pictures in his first book. Many photographers were reluctant to speak, he remembered; some thought they were in danger, or were tired of the criticism. Many of the photographers that day, even professional ones, had never been interviewed, not even for the exhaustive Warren Commission report.

So how did Trask come to study the assassination so intimately?

In high school, Trask was fascinated by the Lincoln assassination. The day Kennedy was shot, Trask was a 16-year-old student at Danvers High, an impressionable teenager who loved history. He had received a facsimile autograph of the president from the White House two days before the assassination.

When a relative gave him $100, Trask used most of it to buy all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report. Trask found the names and addresses of those deposed in it, and he began writing to them, including Zapruder, asking for a signature or a statement. He got about 110 letters back.

As he went through school, first as an undergraduate at Salem State and later as a graduate student at Northeastern University, he read all the Kennedy books and came to feel that “Kennedy had been killed by a vast conspiracy.” His feelings changed through his research.

Around 1985, he began to delve into the photographic record of the assassination, and it became “almost an obsession.”

“I thought, I don’t smoke, so this is my way of spending money on a vice — because I spent a real lot of money on this,” he said. He and his wife have self-published his books so he can maintain control of the material and keep the books in print, he said.

Trask said talk about the Kennedy assassination is “going to continue forever. It’s going to be like the Lincoln assassination or the Titanic or the Alamo. It’s one of those subjects in history ... that is controversial, it’s sensational, and there is a who-done-it to it, as well.”

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.

IF YOU GO What: Richard Trask discusses photographic evidence in the JFK assassination When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m. Where: Danvers Historical Society, 13 Page St., Danvers Admission: $5; free for members of the Danvers Historical Society