SAN FRANCISCO — When Robert F. Kennedy died in a Los Angeles hospital after being shot in a hotel kitchen by a young Palestinian, the presidential candidate’s body was flown back to New York, where it lay in repose at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for two days. A funeral Mass was held June 8.
The body was then placed in the last carriage of a 21-car train headed for Washington, where Kennedy was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery beside his assassinated brother, John. Beside the casket, wearing a veil, sat Ethel, Bobby’s widow, pregnant with their 11th child.
When the train burst into the light after leaving Penn Station, the photographer Paul Fusco, on assignment for Look magazine, was astonished: “There were hundreds of mourners crowding together on platforms almost leaning into the train to get close to Bobby.”
Thousands of coins had been strewn on the tracks (people wanted something tangible by which to remember the day) so that there was a continuous crunching sound — one flattened presidential face after another — as the wheels turned over them.
There were other photographers on the train. But none managed to take images as beautiful, as haunting, as uncanny as Fusco’s. A selection of them makes up one part of an intense, tripartite show called “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Using two Leicas and a Nikon, Fusco took nearly 1,000 slides that day. He shot mainly in Kodachrome 64, a discontinued film noted for its dense blacks, strong contrasts and saturated colors. The images show some of the mourners — black and white, young and old, nuns, sportsmen, schoolchildren — who, on a humid summer Saturday, came out to see a train pass by.
They stood, pointing or praying. They perched on fence posts, on the roofs of vans, in tatterdemalion back yards. Bare-chested boys, shorts hitched high, stood and saluted. Couples perched with sober expressions on stationary motorcycles. Families emerged from bosky banks, baseball fields behind.
Fusco embalmed these summer scenes in an amber, liquid light. But somehow the photographs also capture a submarine disturbance. They accumulate into a portrait of a nation untethered from normality.
Just two months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis. His assassination, by a racist, petty crook, triggered unrest all over the country (and the long-awaited passage of the Civil Rights Act). In Vietnam, the Tet offensive had begun. The ensuing casualties set off widespread protests. Public support for the war was beginning to collapse.
Fusco’s photographs don’t show any of this tumult. Quite the contrary. They seem, on the surface, almost Edenic. The brightly colored summer clothes of the mourners emerging from houses and standing in meadows suggest the festive mood of the Fourth of July. Instead of the dead body of a popular candidate, it could be the circus coming to town. Except that folks are weirdly still.
Their stillness is in tension with the dirgelike motion of the train, which accounts for some of the blurring that occurs in the photos, particularly around the edges. As the light dimmed over the course of that day, Fusco lengthened his exposure times accordingly, and the blur increased.
But it’s not all blur. Fusco had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Korean War, often taking photographs of the positions of enemy troops behind Chinese lines from reconnaissance aircraft. He knew how to take photographs while in motion.
On June 8, each time he clicked he made a subtle counter-motion with the camera, which helped create a pocket of focus, a bulwark against the surrounding blur. That stillness and focus feel like correlatives of the stillness, the “standing sentry,” that marks mourning all over the world.