Recalling RFK's Last Journey

by Sura Wood

"The Train: RFK's Last Journey," opening at SFMOMA this month, spotlights the work of three artists inspired by this poignant historical event.

On June 5, 1968, senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy—a passionate advocate for civil rights and for the poor—was fatally shot in Los Angeles, just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and five years after the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. The country was roiling, with street demonstrations protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam and a civil rights movement that was gaining momentum. It was in this turbulent context that a funeral train carrying Kennedy’s body departed New York City and headed toward Washington, D.C., where he was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Almost two million people—black, white, young, old, families with children, soldiers in uniform, brass bands, people sitting in lawn chairs and in the back of pickup trucks—gathered by the railroad track to watch the train pass by so that they could pay their respects, or perhaps simply bear witness to an historical moment.

“The Train: RFK’s Last Journey,” a compelling new exhibition opening at SFMOMA this month, assembles the work of three artists from different eras and parts of the world who have documented or interpreted this event through the mediums of film, photography or a combination of both. “What most interests me is the difference between history, which are the facts, and memory, which is how we perceive those facts over time,” says Clement Cheroux, SFMOMA senior curator of photography.

Photographer Paul Fusco, on assignment for Look magazine, was aboard the funeral train. Armed with two Leicas, a Nikon camera and over 30 rolls of Kodachrome film, he shot more than 1,000 color slides of the onlookers; the 20 that are on exhibition here anchor the show. Other photographers documented or chronicled what they saw that day, notes Cheroux, but none did so with such a powerful intensity that would come to define the event. “Close your eyes and [Fusco’s] images are the ones that come to mind first.”

The Kennedy family had barred photographers from taking pictures inside the train, so Fusco opened a window of a rail car and captured the spectators lining the tracks. “The train slowly moved through the dark tunnels under New York,” he recalls in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “Suddenly, the train broke out into daylight and I was astonished… [by] hundreds of people on the platforms, almost leaning into the train to get close to Bobby. I jumped out of my chair and pulled the window down and started automatically photographing the incredible mass that came to show their love… appreciation... sadness and loss.” Fusco worked furiously, memorializing emotional expressions here or casual gestures there. His pictures from early on the journey are bathed in warm, late-afternoon light, sharp and clear at the center and fuzzy on the periphery from the motion of the train; as night began to fall and his shutter speed slowed, the images became increasingly blurred, ghostly and almost abstract. His favorite photograph is of a father and his son saluting in front of a foot bridge with the boy’s mother standing nearby. Says Fusco, “It’s the whole story of America right there. [This] is one of the most important series I have done.” 

Forty years later that series inspired Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra, who was eight when RFK was assassinated. Upon close examination of Fusco’s images, he noticed many people were holding cameras, a detail that provided the catalyst for his multi-media installation, “The People’s View,” also on exhibit here. Embarking on a research project in 2014, Terpstra, who explores biographical and collective memory through photography, tracked down images taken that day in an effort to reconstruct the event through the eyes of the people who were there. He retraced the train’s route and, primarily relying on the 2,000 responses he received on Facebook, contacted numerous subjects and personally interviewed some of them. In all, he amassed more than 200 slides and original black and white and color snapshots, frayed and scratched from the passage of time and repeated viewing, as well as a half-dozen Super 8 films and multiple testimonies. Washed-out pictures of children sitting by the tracks, a locomotive whirring by, slides with hand-written notations in the margins—and news and home movie footage interwoven with bystander recollections—comprise an installation tinged with an undercurrent of melancholy. “Sometimes you can see a kind of loss or an attempt to hold on to a moment of history, especially in those humble, amateur, vernacular photographs,” Terpstra notes in the catalog. “Photographs are able to recover memories, but sometimes they can hide them. When a photograph comes between you and your autobiographical memory, you often remember the photograph instead of the memory.”

Fusco’s work also influenced Philippe Parreno, a French Algerian-born artist in his 50s who “reenacted” RFK’s final voyage in his short, luminous 2009 film “June 8, 1968.” Investigating the boundaries between fiction and documentary, the process of simultaneously seeing and remembering, and the tension between still and moving image, the artist drew directly from some of Fusco’s photographs, and recomposed or outright invented others. He rented closed sections of railroad track, chartered a train and then hired a large crew and a hundred extras whom he dressed in 1960s-style clothing. In the seven-minute film, the train rumbles along through rural and urban landscapes, the wind blows through trees and grass, but the extras remain still, standing transfixed, trance-like, beside the tracks. Shot with 70mm Panavision cameras by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, the immersive, large-format projection
almost fills the entire exhibition space, making the people onscreen appear life-sized. Between each repetition of the film, an uncanny sequence of flickering light evokes a soul in transition. “The film is a continuous refrain,” offers Parreno. “It comes, and then it takes off again after we’re gone… so there’s never any end.”

March 17 → June 10


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