It was meant to be merely a slightly expanded edition of an out-of-print classic of photojournalism, Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train, first published in September 2000 by Umbrage Editions. Fusco, a photographer for Look magazine in the 1960s, had been assigned to ride the train carrying the body of Robert F. Kennedy from New York City to Washington, D.C., for burial, on June 8, 1968. Only one of Fusco’s photographs from that day, when mourners all along the Northeast train corridor assembled at trackside to pay their respects, appeared in Look; dozens more were included in the Umbrage edition, which Aperture decided to update with a few others taken from the photographer’s own collection. Publication was set for this June, the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. But all that changed when Lesley Martin, Aperture’s publisher, while researching another project at the Library of Congress, followed up on Fusco’s contention that the Look archives located there might contain a few more of the images he had taken during eight continuous hours of shooting on that dark Saturday 40 years ago.
There they were,” Martin tells PW, “in pristine condition having been in cold storage for the past 30 years. Paul had mentioned that there were 'some’ images at the Library of Congress, so in good conscience and due diligence, I checked it out.” Martin was amazed to find a trove of more than 1,800 Kodachrome slides. The problem was that Martin’s find occurred in December, and the spring title was already in proofs. “It was a big decision to pull back the book. But Paul’s body of work on that single day—already so unique, impressionistic, emotionally powerful—was so much more.” The new book, retitled Paul Fusco: RFK ($50), will now be published in September, in a first run currently set at 10,000 copies. Included are essays by Evan Thomas, Norman Mailer and photography scholar Vicki Goldberg.
The images Martin found at the Library of Congress, with the help of Barbara Natanson Orbach, head of the reference section at the Library, “lengthened the arc of the narrative,” she says, adding photos of both the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the nighttime burial at Arlington National Cemetery. “The totality, the whole public event—and this very much became a public event, though it wasn’t planned as such—from beginning to end, including not only the multitudes of mourners, on bridges, boats, cars, trucks, hanging from poles, but the intimacy of the church and cemetery, just deepened everything. I feel we have a complete record now. And it also shows how committed Paul was to capturing this.”
Fusco, at the time a 37-year-old staff photographer, was called in by his editor at Look, Bob Mich. “He told me, 'There’s a train, get on it.’ No instructions.” So Fusco grabbed his cameras and film and headed out. Since St. Patrick’s Cathedral was only a block away from the Look offices, he immediately came upon the funeral going on. “I spent 10 minutes inside taking photos, then I had to get to the train. That was my assignment,” he says.
“There were two private cars, the last two, and we couldn’t get near them—this was a private event. It was off-limits to the press. All I was thinking about was how to get access when we got to Arlington. Then, when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through—it went very slowly—I just opened the window and began to shoot.”
When Look magazine folded in 1970, Mike Cowles, the publisher, transferred all the magazine’s archives to the Library of Congress. The magazine used only one of Fusco’s photos—”not because they didn’t like them,” said Fusco, but because as a biweekly, Look was “a little behind the story.” So thousands of images went unseen. “Fifty of my photos appeared in the first book we did [in 2000]; we were going to add about 20 that I still had, until Lesley was able to get at the others. The book will now have 115 photos, more than half of them never published.”
The new photos, Fusco says, “don’t change anything, but it becomes a more sweeping event, more energetic. It starts in a different place and ends with a different kind of closure.”
In October, HBO will air Jennifer Stoddart’s documentary, Is Everybody Alright? (reportedly RFK’s last words). The documentary leans heavily on Fusco’s work, and should draw attention once again to Fusco’s historic photojournalism. Other factors might help bring attention as well. Ever since members of the Kennedy clan weighed in with their endorsements of Barack Obama, the Kennedy legacy in the Democratic party has been in the news. The publication of Paul Fusco: RFK during the height of the election season is likely to remind people of the idealism of 40 years ago.
Fusco, now 77, continues to work. His current project has been underway since 2003, “when flag-draped coffins started showing up at an airfield in Dover, Maryland,” he says. “I call it 'Bitter Fruit.’ I’ve been taking photos at the funerals of soldiers who’ve been killed in Iraq ever since, even though no one wants to touch them.” But as Fusco well knows, the lives of pictures are very long, and so is memory.