Digging Deep Into The Archives

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I got a frantic message the other day from Silvia Nieto, editor in chief of the Sunday magazine for Spain’s “El Mundo” newspaper. The Magazine was doing a feature on assassinations and they had somehow stumbled across a story I did for Life Magazine in 1989 on infamous guns of the 80’s that included the guns used to shoot President Reagan and John Lennon. She desperately wanted to use my gun ‘portraits’. It’s not that I had forgotten about these photographs, but I certainly hadn’t done anything to put them out there, either. So I headed downstairs to the file cabinets and pulled folder #65…

For a lot of reasons, I found that assignment incredibly depressing, but especially photographing the Lennon gun. I don’t know too many people of my age who weren’t deeply affected by John Lennon’s murder and the idea of holding the gun that killed him was not exactly one of those things anybody would ever think possible. But when I arrived at the New York City Police Department Ballistics Lab…in one of those typically dreary looking NYC Police buildings…I was surprised at how nonchalant the attitude was about me photographing the gun. I was led to a small, dark room with a metal table and a couple of chairs. It had the look and feel of every interrogation room from every cop movie you’ve ever seen. Shortly afterwards an officer came in and simply handed me a plain brown envelope and told me to just let him know when I was done. Then he left. I opened the envelope to see the gun, but there was also a smaller evidence envelope inside. It contained two .38 caliber slugs that were found during the autopsy. Both had passed through Lennon and were found trapped in his jacket. And both had bits of flesh embedded in the jagged tears of the deformed lead. It brought tears to my eyes. I just wanted the job to be over. I set up my lights, shot maybe ten sheets of film, and got the Hell out of there.

The Reagan gun shoot couldn’t have been more different. Getting access took all the weight and political capital a magazine like Life has at their fingertips. The gun was in the hands of the FBI in Washington, stored in a massive limestone fortress. After passing through layers of security, I ended up in a sterile ballistics facility surrounded by lab techs and watched by an agent the entire time. The gun was presented in a sealed ziplock evidence baggie. I couldn’t touch it. It had an evidence tag attached to the trigger guard. It couldn’t be removed. The agent had to position the gun under my lights. I absent-mindedly reached out to move it a fraction of an inch and his beefy hand grabbed my wrist. I didn’t try to move the gun again. I remember thinking how small it was. It was just a shitty .22 caliber. Cheap looking. Toy-like. So bloody small and so fucking deadly.

So thanks to Silvia for stirring up memories buried in the files for a couple of decades…

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10 thoughts on “Digging Deep Into The Archives

  1. Wow, Brad, that is an amazing story. Photographing those guns would bring tears to anyone’s eyes. Just today in the AM New York, I was reading about Lennon’s artwork being displayed around his birthday (Oct.9). He still lives on…
    I do have to say I was very proud of my 4-year-old the other day when “oh blah di oh blah da – life goes on” came on the radio and she said “this is the Beatles”. It made me smile. Life does go on and we will always remember the people we loved…

  2. The privileges(?) we get sometimes as photographers…that’s some serious 20th century history.

    Wondering if you know the significance of the “PM” carved into the Lennon gun.

    I was told the initials were those of the forensic examiner who logged the gun into evidence. BT

  3. A very touching post. Thank you for sharing theses images… they are so stark and yet they evoke so much. Great stories to go along with the images.

  4. “A camera is a passport” Joe McNally (I think) likes to say. I had no idea Lennon was shot with hollow points. I happened to photograph the throng of people at Strawberry Fields last December 8th. Amazing how many people still turn out for the memorial service.

  5. Your story brought tears to our eyes and also the sad memories of both of these horrible, senseless acts. You have photographed so many important portraits of life in our time.

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