Epic Vision

Forty years ago tomorrow, photographer Bill Eppridge captured the image that many can't forget: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

June 04, 2008|By Christopher T. Assaf | Christopher T. Assaf,Sun reporter

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 S peaks, 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.

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