On June 8, 1968, following a funeral service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Paul Fusco boarded a 21-car train at Penn Station with the casket of Robert F. Kennedy. The “Funeral Train” was to journey from New York to Washington D.C., where Kennedy would be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
On assignment for Look magazine, the 38-year old Fusco was stunned by the throngs of people who lined up to get a last and fleeting glimpse of the beloved politician. What should have been a 4-hour journey doubled in time as the train crawled from station to station acknowledging crowds that had gathered in waiting – sometimes for hours – in the working class neighborhoods of the northeast corridor through which the train passed.
Fusco and the other photographers on the train were prohibited from photographing the Kennedy family. But it hardly mattered. Armed with two Leicas and a Nikon SLR, Fusco shot some 2000 images on Kodachrome 64, panning his camera to keep distinct areas of focus around his subject while backgrounds blurred into streaks of color. It was a necessary technical trade-off for much of the journey given the slow speed of the film, but one that artistically conveyed the motion of the train against the backdrop of an estimated 1 to 2 million Americans who lined up that day.
Although now considered a seminal work of 20th century photojournalism, only two of Fusco’s images were published in Look at the time (and in black and white!) due to a bi-weekly publishing schedule and competition from LIFE. The images would have been largely forgotten without the efforts of Natasha Lunn, a Magnum photo editor, who passed the work to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine in 1998, where they saw their first color publication. Aperture eventually published the images in a book, thus pushing Fusco’s magnum opus into our collective consciousness.
On the 50th anniversary of the Funeral Train, the Danziger Gallery has mounted a 21-image show on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. To see the 24” x 36” prints in person is indescribably moving. On the one hand, the motion blur is much more noticeable in some images. But the images transcend that “defect” – if one could even call it that – with incredible composition, exposure, and color. The clarity of the faces and bodies (Sebastian Smee calls them “weirdlly still”) in the long light of Summer almost transports you to that mournful day.
As I perused the images, another visitor blurted out in astonishment at how contemporary the faces and dress appeared. Indeed, other than the beehive coifs, there is a familiarity to the scenes: girls in their Catholic school uniforms, lawn chairs lined up in back yards, shirtless boys in the heat of the season.
In the current environment of political divisiveness and polarization, the images offer a stark contrast. Rich and poor, old and young, black and white – all wait to pay respect to a short legacy, and life that could have been.
“The RFK Funeral Train – a commemoration”. May 3 – June 22, 2018. Danziger Gallery, 95 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002.