Forty years ago tomorrow, photographer Bill Eppridge captured the image that many can’t forget: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy
By Christopher T. Assaf
June 4, 2008
New Milford, Conn.
The kernel was planted in Bill Eppridge’s mind while he was studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri.
“Create a photographic epic poem.”
Eppridge was taking a history course in the late 1950s taught by the university’s poet-in-residence, John Neihardt, who was best known for his 1932 book, Black Elk Speaks, about an Oglala Lakota medicine man who had witnessed Gen. George Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn and the Massacre of Wounded Knee. Outside of class, Eppridge spent a lot of time discussing what Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska and the Plains, called epic poems. He asked Neihardt if he had ever seen a photographic version of an epic poem.
“I have seen a lot, but never really something I would call an epic,” the professor told him, Eppridge said.
Forty years ago tomorrow, Eppridge captured what could be described as an epic photo and certainly one of the most famous images in modern American history: A mortally wounded Robert F. Kennedy lying cradled in the arms of an anguished hotel busboy named Juan Romero.
The slow-motion events of that night, June 5, 1968, remained with Eppridge forever.
“Every day I think about it,” he said, sitting in a wooden rocking chair as a thunderstorm boomed in the hills surrounding the Connecticut home he shares with his wife, and editor, Adrienne Aurichio. “Bad dreams go away. … I don’t think nightmares ever do.”
In 1966, Life magazine assigned Eppridge to cover Kennedy, the 42-year-old New York senator, former U.S. attorney general and brother to assassinated President John F. Kennedy, for a six-month assignment.
“He’s a superb photojournalist,” Donald M. Wilson, assistant publisher of Life at the time, said of Eppridge. “I worked there for many years, knew all the greats. He was excellent.”
In 1968, after Kennedy announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president, Eppridge volunteered to cover his campaign. From state to state, in open limousines and among the throngs of people, the specter of the candidate’s brother’s tragic death always seemed to accompany them.
Eppridge was in Los Angeles the June evening when Kennedy won the California primary. Inside the Ambassador Hotel that night, he stood directly behind Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, as the candidate gave his victory speech – “now it’s on to Chicago” – to a crowded ballroom. Eppridge was in the kitchen, hanging tight to the sparsely protected candidate as he left the ballroom the same way he had entered it. The photographer was not far behind Kennedy when Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian whose motives were believed to be tied to Kennedy’s support of Israel, fired eight .22-caliber shots. One struck Kennedy in the head. He would die the next day.
“I have been living with this thing 40 years now,” Eppridge said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, somehow, about him. Or that campaign. Or the consequences of his assassination.”
Eppridge, an avid outdoorsman who had slogged his way through a Vietnam stint and other conflicts for Life, immediately recognized the firecracker pops as gunshots. His thought that they came from a .25-caliber gun was off just a little.
Eppridge pushed himself and CBS cameraman Jim Wilson forward through the small, dense crowd stuffed in the narrow kitchen. He stopped briefly to photograph a wounded Paul Schrade, a United Auto Workers official. Then he continued to push and covered the 12 or so feet to the candidate.
Instinct took over. Emotion, for the moment, repressed. Eppridge crouched at Kennedy’s feet, the television light for Wilson’s camera eerily illuminating the scene. Bracketing the imprecise exposure, the first two grainy frames of Tri-X black and white film show Romero holding Kennedy’s head and looking down at him. In a third frame, backlit and underexposed, Romero looks up. The images after that show the bedlam that erupts.
As he recalls that night, Eppridge sits with a slouch. Steel and titanium rods run through him: He wears a back brace to help with the genetic osteoporosis intensified by years of carrying camera gear and bags. His gaze turns down. He reveals what Kennedy told him and others on the trail.
“There were something like 22,000 Americans killed because that [Vietnam] War didn’t end when [Kennedy] said he was going to end it. If he told us once he told us 20 times that ‘When, not if, but when I am president, that day the war ends. We’re out.'”
In April, Abrams published Eppridge’s book, A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties. He had published an earlier book, Robert Kennedy: The Last Campaign, in 1993 that eventually sold out its 10,000 copies, but the results left him unsatisfied.
“The words really weren’t mine,” he said of that earlier effort, on the 25th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. “I wasn’t able to talk too much about what I felt.
“That didn’t get the message out as far as I was concerned. It’s important that we recognize and realize who this man was, and what he meant, and what might have been. Because, he certainly, historically, will be proved to be a most important figure in the history of this country.”
The new volume includes Eppridge’s own text – and pictures he didn’t know he had.
“One day, I heard this little yelp,” Eppridge recalled. His wife was cleaning out his unorganized archive, full of the cardboard boxes that Eppridge says all photographers use for storage. “She called to me and said. ‘You might want to see this.'”
She had uncovered more than 2,000 photographs – in unopened boxes – that were sent to him when Life magazine folded in 1972.
“You’d be off on the next assignment, and you just didn’t have time to look at what it was you did,” he said. “You’d always be looking to the future.”
Among the photos were 500 from his Kennedy assignment, including some that would become logical closers for his latest book, such as a motion-blurred, watery view from the photographers’ bus of the funeral procession as it approached Arlington National Cemetery.
Much of 2008 reminds Eppridge of the tumultuous ’60s: an unending war, an embattled White House. And then there is Democratic candidate Barack Obama, whose style has been compared to Kennedy’s.
Eppridge and his wife traveled to an April rally in Philadelphia to hear Obama speak. It was the first time Eppridge had ventured near politics of any sort in almost 40 years.
There were more than 20,000 people there and, unlike in 1968, enormous security. All serious candidates for the presidency, not just the party nominees, get Secret Service protection now. Kennedy did not even have police protection in Los Angeles.
“Security is incredible with this guy,” Eppridge said of Obama. “And I was glad to see it.”
When not watching the security at work, he studied Obama and the crowds.
“It’s fascinating to watch him work the crowds, and the crowds look the same,” he said. “And they look at him like God. And Bobby’s people did the same.”
Returning to Missouri to teach a workshop in the early 1970s, Eppridge went to his former mentor Neihardt, who asked to see the Kennedy photographs. He sat silently while going through the images, Eppridge recalled. When he finished, a half-minute passed before the poet looked up.
“You did it,” he told his former student. “That is an epic poem.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in photojournalism
Career: Photographer for Life magazine where he covered Barbra Streisand in Paris, the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution, the Beatles’ first visit to the U.S., civil unrest in Mississippi and the war in Vietnam; staff photographer for Sports Illustrated; has covered such things as the Olympics and the America’s Cup, the Mount St. Helens eruption and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
Awards: Twice named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Association while in college.
Books: A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties; Robert Kennedy: The Last Campaign; provided photographs for Upland Passage: A Field Dog’s Education and Jake: A Labrador Puppy at Work and Play.
Personal: Lives in New Milford, Conn., with his wife, Adrienne Aurichio. She is also his editor.
See a multimedia presentation on Bill Eppridge at baltimoresun.com/eppridge
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun