Photographs by Paul Fusco. Tribute by Edward M. Kennedy. Essays by Norman Mailer, Evan Thomas and Vicki Goldberg.
Aperture, New York, 2008. Hardbound with dustjacket. 224 pp., 120 four-color illustrations. 11¾x9½".
Paul Fusco: RFK Photographs by Paul Fusco. Tribute by Edward M. Kennedy. Essays by Norman Mailer, Evan Thomas and Vicki Goldberg. published by Aperture, 2008
My mother, an Irish Catholic who grew up outside Boston, used to read Greek myths to me before putting me to bed. My favorite was the tale of Orpheus's quest through the Underworld to find his beloved Eurydice after her death. Hades, ruler of the Underworld, agreed to let Eurydice follow Orpheus back to Earth on the condition that he must not look back until departing the Underworld. Near the journey's end, Orpheus was unable to take the uncertainty, broke his promise and lost Eurydice forever. He watched in anguish as the love of his life slowly faded away, his hopes and dreams shattered.
Paul Fusco's images in the new Paul Fusco: RFK remind me of that story. In 1968, Look magazine commissioned Fusco to document Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. He proceeded to make nearly 2,000 photographs as he rode on the train that carried Kennedy's coffin from the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to the burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Originally planned as a straight reprint, this follow-up to the out-of-print RFK Funeral Train (Umbridge Editions, 2000) now includes never before seen images of the funeral and burial that were recently discovered in Fusco's Library of Congress archive. While these additional photographs have archival interest, their inclusion doesn't affect the core of Fusco's work, and simply provides a forward and endnote to the magic Fusco captured on that train ride. The poignant beauty of those images are, in my eyes, best left to stand on their own. From the train, Fusco saw thousands of mourners lining the tracks to say good-bye to Bobby, a devastated country watching its beloved drift away. Coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two months before, the country wept as the dream of a unified and better country now seemed officially dead.
My mother, who organized and ran Bobby's campaign on her college campus, would have been one of those mourners along the tracks. When I asked her what Bobby's death felt like, she told me, "You know how it feels when you really, really want something? Well I really wanted in 1968 for the country to change. I wanted equality and improvement in education, housing and jobs for African Americans, because even though there were these laws there was still tremendous inequity. I wanted the war to end, I wanted the country to come together and move forward in a positive way and Bobby Kennedy meant that could happen, he was the hope, he was the key, he was it, and when he died those hopes were dashed. And on the heels of MLK's death weeks before it felt like the country was falling apart. Everything was falling apart."
In this collection of photographs, Fusco presented a portrait of a country bleeding. Perhaps this was Fusco's gift to Bobby, a patriotic salute to the assassination of a dream on the brink of coming true, to show Bobby how much he mattered and how he had united an America at war with itself. This series is a rare glimpse of a country standing together during a period defined by its great divide.
A photographer rarely sees something like this. The pages of the book almost turn themselves as the cinematic quality of the images takes over and leaves you feeling as though you too are on that train. I consider these images to be some of the greatest American photographs of the period. Set against both rural and urban topography, we see America in its greatest light, without economic, racial, gender or age boundaries — but at the same time are somehow left with the feeling that it's not going to be like this tomorrow.
Great leaders are few and far between. Bobby was truly one of the great ones; his spirit rose above simple politics and ignited a nation. Each and every one of Fusco's blurry, saturated Kodachrome photographs captures this energy. We are able to see deep inside those mourners and feel what it's like when something that has inspired the heart and soul is stripped away. As humans, we are all Orpheus at one time or another, a cursed bunch with the profound ability to destroy what makes us great.
I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Fusco to peer through his lens and see with a dead man's eyes; to stare out from a coffin into the faces of the lives you touched. But I know what it feels like today to look at these pictures and see a country about to unravel, frame by frame, until all sight is lost as the final pages of that train ride spiral into a dark out-of-control blur. Fusco's postmodern Greek tragedy has perhaps never been more significant than now, 40 years later — as Election Day approaches and the hearts and souls of people like my mother have once again become filled with hope and a dream for change and a better country.
Will Steacy (b. 1980) is a photographer and writer based in New York. His photographs have been featured in numerous gallery and museum exhibitions across the country. He is the recipient of many awards including the 2008 Tierney Fellowship and his work has been published in Harper's, New York Magazine, The Paris Review, Newsweek and Russian Esquire, among others. Steacy received a B.F.A in Photography from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and he is represented by Michael Mazzeo Gallery in New York.