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RFK’s final journey — The funeral train of 1968

Untitled from the series “RFK Funeral Train” 1968. (© Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos, courtesy of Danziger Gallery)

RFK's final journey — The funeral train of 1968

In the middle of 1968, two events shook the nation — the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5. Hastily arranged, Robert Kennedy’s funeral train traveled on June 8 –- a sweltering early summer day. Paul Fusco, then a staff photographer for Look magazine, was given a place with other journalists on the train. As the train progressed down the Eastern Seaboard, hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the tracks to pay their final respects to Bobby Kennedy and all that he stood for. From inside the train, Fusco began to take pictures of the mourners, people from every section of society — black, white, rich, poor — in large groups and on their own. For the eight hours it took the train to make the usually four-hour journey, Fusco never put down his camera except to reload film, shooting approximately 2,000 pictures.

The resulting images are one of the most powerful and affecting series of photographs ever taken. Shot on Kodachrome — a film with a particularly vibrant palette favored at the time by photojournalists — Fusco’s pictures blend the spontaneous look of snapshots with artistic precision of the decisive moment. Each photograph carries its own weight and tells its own story, but cumulatively the series is an epic vision of America.

Because Look magazine’s biweekly schedule caused it to come out a week after its rival, Life, the magazine chose to print a retrospective album of pictures of RFK rather than pictures of the funeral, and so Fusco’s RFK funeral train photographs were relegated to the picture files. Three years later, Look magazine folded and donated the approximately 5 million pictures in its archive to the Library of Congress. Fusco managed to hold on to just over a hundred of his pictures.

The photographs would have remained an editorial footnote were it not for the efforts of Natasha Lunn, a young photo editor at Magnum who was shown the work in 1998 and passed the photos on to George magazine, which published the pictures to coincide with the 30th anniversary of RFK’s death. The rediscovery had begun.

On the 50th anniversary of the train ride that took Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington, where he was buried alongside his brother, John F. Kennedy, Danziger Gallery reprises its showing of Fusco’s photographs of the people who lined the rails to pay their final respects to RFK.

Fusco was born in Leominster, Mass., in 1930. He received his BFA in photojournalism from Ohio University and went directly to work for Look as a staff photographer, traveling extensively in Southeast Asia, Mexico, India, Europe and Russia. In 1974 he joined Magnum Photos. His work has appeared in publications such as Life, Time, Newsweek, the Sunday Times and Paris Match. He has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. (James Danziger)

Photography by Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos, courtesy of Danziger Gallery

Paul Fusco: RFK’s Funeral Train – 1968” exhibition is on view at Danziger Gallery in New York City through June 22. A concurrent exhibition, “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, runs through June 10 and brackets Fusco’s  photographs with video work by Philippe Parreno and an archival project by Rein Terpstra, which tracked down pictures of the train taken by the people who lined the rails.

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