“When the train was gone I wept, and did not want to leave.” — John B. Westfeld
Four days after Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, at 10:30 am, on June 8th, 1968, a huge, black train carrying the senator’s casket was scheduled to leave Penn Station. The train would be a wake of sorts, after the funeral ceremony at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York: it would snake down the tracks to Washington DC, straight through to the sprawling Arlington Cemetery where Kennedy was to be buried.
When Paul Fusco, a photojournalist who worked for Look magazine, arrived, it was still early, and the station was dark and deserted. He boarded the train. There were only a few people in his car, and by the time the train whistled to leave, only one other photographer had joined. Press was barred from entering the private car where Kennedy’s casket was held, so Fusco had no way of getting pictures of the family or the coffin. As the train began to chug forward, Fusco resigned himself to having to try to catch shots of the mourning family as they exited the train, once they had arrived at the cemetery.
What Fusco had not anticipated was what he would see on the way there. “The train slowly moved through the dark tunnels under New York,” Fusco recalled in an interview years later. “Then suddenly it broke out of the tunnel into daylight and I was astonished.” In the burst of light were hundreds of passersby crowded at the tracks, most silent and still, there to see the train as it carried Kennedy’s casket to its final resting place. Fusco, astonished, opened a window, and started taking pictures of the people looking. The trip, which should have taken only four hours, lasted eight: the train was unable to travel at normal speed because of the numbers of people crowding so close to the tracks. Fusco continued to take pictures even after night fell. The train arrived at Arlington Cemetery at 9:10 pm.
The photographs Paul Fusco took that day have been the subject of multiple exhibitions this summer, in the wake of the 30th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the latest of which is RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View, currently on view at the International Center of Photography’s (ICP).
There’s something about the scene, both in Fusco’s description of his experience, as well as in the symbolism of the event, that feels quasi-biblical — the funeral procession, the sudden burst of light, the hundreds of devotees flooding the tracks in silence to pay their respects — and his photos reflect that gravity in their tone and their rhythm. The expression “to bear witness” has become something of a sanctimonious trope, a cheap excuse to observe (and in the worst cases, exploit) other people’s tragedy with a voyeuristic and complacent eye. The watchers in Paul Fusco’s scenes, though, imbue the phrase with its original meaning: to share the burden of another’s pain, to confirm with one’s own eyes and body that something is real — and in the case of these photographs, that Bobby Kennedy was really dead.
“There is a nakedness in [the subjects] that is rare in public — these people don’t think that anyone is looking at them,” Louis Menand wrote on Paul Fusco’s photographs. He’s not wrong. Many of the photographs show groups of people banded together next to the tracks, all waiting in silence, hand covering eyes to block the sun, squinting at the train. In one photograph, people watch from their cars parked in a field. It seems to me though, that the nakedness that Menand describes trickles from something slightly different. It’s not so much that the subjects don’t think anyone is watching them, but that what they are watching supersedes and obliterates all else. What matters most is the train, and everything it is carrying away.
There’s something about looking so intensely at something that you forget it’s even possible that someone may be looking at you. The act of photography is similar: the camera is first and foremost a tool for focusing observation and producing a record of the same, but it is also a material object and social cue. The photographer is the one actively looking — not being looked at. In this case, bystanders too were photographing the train. After all, a photograph is a way to confirm that what you see is real.
Those photographs — the ones taken by the people who stood watching as the train chugged by — are the subject of the show’s other component: an archive of found photographs and footage assembled and curated by the Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra. Obsessed with a first edition of Fusco’s photographs, published by Aperture in 2008, the artist grew curious about the thing the subjects were looking at, and yet wasn’t pictured in Fusco’s frames: the train itself. From 2015 to 2017, he traveled to every city and town that the train had traveled to, tracked down people who might have been there, and accumulated a collection of photographs, home movies, and personal stories from those who were there.
The ICP exhibition shows only one part of Terpstra’s sprawling project: a video installation composed of several home movies of the train passing by, voiced over by people recalling the event. It is, unfortunately, a let down compared to Fusco’s photographs — not because of the difference in quality between artist and amateur snapshots, but because Terpstra’s film feels more like a history lesson than anything else. As detailed on his Kickstarter page, Terpstra’s arduous process and search for these photographs, made while raising funds for a book of the project, is far more interesting than the finished product, and feels remarkably in line with the quiet sense of pilgrimage that Fusco’s photographs inspire.
Opposite Fusco’s photographs in the gallery space are a series of anecdotes from people who had witnessed the event — also pulled from Terpstra’s work. These entries are a better example of what an archive can achieve in terms of art: they are less concerned with the event as a moment in history than they are about conveying the more humble and interesting tension between the emotional significance of a person’s death, and the degree of alienation and incomprehension that can arise simultaneously, not least when the dead person in question is a politician or public figure. “At age eight,” an anonymous entrant writes, “I didn’t understand why people would line up to see if RFK wasn’t alive.”
The beauty of Fusco’s photographs is that you don’t need to know or care about who Robert F. Kennedy actually was, or even what he did. The photographs tap into something much deeper, something that also eludes the clichéd trope that moments of collective grief can heal and hold together the divided parts of a nation. Loss cannot replace the imagined bonds that keep a nation’s disparate populations united. Really the photographs explore what happens when a public figure, upon whom has been thrust the hope of millions, disappears. “Robert Kennedy was picking up the torch, as I feel, of his brother John,” another quote on the exhibition wall reads. “With [Kennedy’s] assassination,” the man continues, “I thought as a sixteen-year-old that my town, my country, [was] falling apart. I felt that the world was falling apart.” In the exhibition’s guest book, someone by the name of Hilary simply signed: “Bobby was the hope of my generation, RIP. Thank you for all you did.”
We live in a country where politicians seem destined to become gods: single, solitary men who will save or destroy the planet. And Fusco’s photographs are as much about mourning the death of one of these gods as they are about the tender masses who created him. They feel particularly poignant in this political moment, when the only way forward seems to be through through the power of people working as a collective, rather than trusting fallible, mortal, political individuals to save us. Fittingly, the true subjects of Fusco’s photographs were never Robert F. Kennedy and his family, but the people who, from the sidelines, watched him disappear, and were forced to contend with the fact that no one could save them but themselves.