The funeral train was an invention of the 19th Century, a rolling public spectacle built on the advancing technology of the time. Abraham Lincoln was the first great American public figure to be transported to burial on a train. It was a fitting tribute to Lincoln, who arrived in Washington for his first inauguration by way of a well-publicized train journey, and as president, championed the First Transcontinental Railroad. In 1865, a train was also the most practical way to take a decaying body on a 1,600-mile journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.
A little more than a century later, on June 8, 1968, a 21-car train carrying the casket of Robert Francis Kennedy departed New York’s Penn Station, bound for Washington, D.C. “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey,” an exhibition that recently closed at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and currently on view at Rencontres d’Arles, the international photography festival, brings together three bodies of work that take RFK’s funeral train as subject.
Although it coincides with the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, “The Train” is not about Kennedy. Instead it centers around images taken of, and by, those who witnessed the funeral train’s passage, ordinary people whose lives have always remained outside the frames of history. The result is a generous consideration of the place for vernacular photography in art museums and a sober-eyed look at the spectacle of public grief.
Robert Kennedy was fatally shot shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968. He had just delivered a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on winning California’s Democratic primary, and was leaving through the hotel’s kitchen. He died at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, at Good Samaritan Hospital. That same afternoon an Air Force jet sent by President Lyndon Johnson transported Kennedy’s body from Los Angeles to New York, where it lay in repose at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before a requiem Mass.
For the trip from New York to Arlington National Cemetery, the Kennedy family turned away from the Jet Age and deliberately chose a funeral train, connecting Robert Kennedy and his relatively brief political life—attorney general for his brother John’s presidential administration, Senator from New York—to presidents past who had died in office: Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt. Bobby would never be president, like his brother was, but he would be cemented in the popular imagination as another president-like martyr, a unifier in divisive times, the future that would never be.
In 1963, 93 percent of television-owning households had watched John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, from the Capitol to Arlington, on a horse-drawn caisson followed by cameras. Americans bid goodbye to JFK the same way they first encountered him, in their living rooms, on a glowing screen.
On the train were some one thousand people––all of the Kennedy family, friends, dignitaries, journalists, and photographers. Among them was Paul Fusco, a staff photographer in the New York office of the biweekly general-interest magazine Look, who got the assignment at the last minute. Forbidden by the Kennedy family to take photographs inside the train, he found his inspiration in the regular folks who had gathered along the tracks. Over the eight hours of the train journey, Fusco took nearly one thousand color slides, which he edited down to form the series RFK Funeral Train (1968).
For RFK’s funeral, the spectacle came to the public. Nearly two million people, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, found their way to the railroad tracks to pay last respects to Kennedy. The train traveled slowly southward, its speed reduced because of enormous crowds that thronged the tracks. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, a man and a woman were struck and killed by a northbound train as they were trying to get a closer look at the Kennedy train. All other train traffic along the route were stopped, and for the rest of the way, only the black funeral train travelled the rails.
At SFMOMA, Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography, opened “The Train: RFK’s Last Journey” with Fusco’s photographs. A selection of twenty-one enlarged prints from the series were shown in the first gallery, hung in a straight line evoking the horizon. The photographs pulsated with emotional urgency. Perched from an open window on the slow-moving train, Fusco created arresting images of grief as public spectacle—people standing alone, in groups, lined up along embankments, crowded together on streets and train station platforms. In order to compensate for the moving train, Fusco tracked the subjects, sometimes in a panning motion, which blurred the background while keeping the faces legible. Against a shifting landscape and fighting the changing light, Fusco’s camera lens caught sight of the raw, still unprocessed emotions of Americans in the tumultuous summer of 1968.
The primary film Fusco used, Kodachrome, was designed to heighten bright hues over dark tones. When used to photograph groups of people with mixed skin tones, the resulting image favors light skin due to its higher reflectivity, leaving those with darker skin tones underexposed. In Fusco’s photographs, this effect is readily apparent. In one striking image, a group of African American girls in Catholic school uniforms are sandwiched between nuns in habits and white children in casual summer clothes. Even though the girls are standing in the front, the limited color distinction between their skin, the asphalt pavement, and shadows on the ground, have the visual effect of pushing them to the background.
On both trips I took to see the exhibition, I kept coming back to this photograph. Despite conscious effort on my part, every time, my eyes were always drawn to the brighter spots first—a woman’s beige dress, the hood of a white car, a little blond boy sitting on his father’s shoulders—before they landed on the faces of the eight little black girls. Even then, it is difficult to make out their expressions. At the moment when the presence of African Americans was being recorded, in what would later serve as evidence testifying to RFK’s ability to bridge racial divisions, the technological limitations of the film had also begun a process of diminishment. The artistic medium mirrored the apparatus of racism that obscured the African American experience. Fifty years on, however, it is precisely the presence of blacks and whites standing side by side that lends these photographs their historical significance.
“Good photographers,” John Szarkowski, then MoMA’s curator of photography, wrote in 1978, “had long since known…that most issues of importance cannot be photographed.” In that essay, the introduction to Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, Szarkowski excluded many professional photojournalists from the category of “good photographers” for what he saw as “the sin of hubris.” Szarkowski criticized photojournalists for being drawn to the obvious image, while failing to reveal the deeper agonies of American society in the 1960s. Fusco’s bluntly emotional photographs of a nation in mourning are close to being a convincing rebuttal. Yet for all of their powers of attestation, the subjects that Fusco documented—people, fields, glimpses of a railroad track—only acquire their historical importance when one knows or is told that these people were watching a train that carried the body of Robert Kennedy.
The People’s View (2014-2018), a project by the Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra inverts and multiplies Fusco’s official, central perspective. For more than four years, Terpstra visited the towns and cities the train passed by, assiduously tracking down snapshots taken by the people who stood along the tracks, to build up a collection of more than 200 images. For the SFMOMA exhibition, Terpstra constructed an installation that displayed fifty snapshots and color slides and three Super 8 films, collected from twenty-three people. A thick black line drawn on the wall represented the train’s path from New York to Washington. Clusters of photographs and decorated pages from photo albums dotted either side of the line, indicating where along the route the images were taken and which side of the track the person was standing on.
In the images Terpstra gathered, we see the black funeral train, but also cars parked alongside the road, open fields, and waiting crowds. The mood is anxious, expectant, at times listless. The obviously amateur nature of the photographs and their less than pristine condition only highlight the fact of their existence. These photographs were born of a desire by those who witnessed RFK’s funeral train to preserve their memory of June 8, 1968. This desire to document, to preserve, is at the core of what are considered vernacular photography, a class of photographs long held to be far below that of fine art photography. In exhibiting these snapshots at SFMOMA, Chéroux made a case for the necessary perspective and context they collectively represent. These images situated Fusco’s impulse to take photographs of the mourning crowds into a larger historical moment, which millions of people were also trying to process, to understand.
In the final gallery, the processing became all-encompassing: the fragmented scenario of the first two exhibits resolved into a full, moving film projection, with life-sized figures on screen standing tantalizingly within reach. We are back on a train but now it is moving. Its steel wheels rumble as they grind down on the tracks. Sunlight shifts across the landscape and tall grass gracefully dips in the wind. We come face to face with a waiting public—people standing alone, in groups, lined up on hilltops—who remain perfectly still as the train passes them by. We instinctively recognize that something essential about what we are watching on the screen is different from the photographs we just examined. Yet the setting and the people’s gestures inspire a comforting familiarity.
This is June 8, 1968 (2009) a film reenactment of Fusco’s photographs by the French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno. Parreno rented a train, dressed actors in period clothing, then set out to replicate Fusco’s visual arrangements and emotional acuity, with a ghostly twist. After a first attempt in New York failed to yield usable footage—in an interview in the exhibition catalog, Parreno said the camera arm had shaken too much—Parreno mounted a second filming in Northern California. This may explain why the film’s crisp images seem lit from within, a far cry from the muggy Mid-Atlantic summer that appeared in Fusco’s photographs.
That and other departures from exactitude heighten the sense of surreality of Parreno’s film. Rather than provide the steady perspective of Fusco, Parreno’s camera floats alongside the train cars, freely moving up and down, or gently swinging from side to side. The result is not a replication of the journalist’s experience, but the path of a spectral presence in search of a resting place. Picking and choosing his way around the facts of June 8, 1968, Parreno arrives at an emotional truth about that day. And thanks to Chéroux’s deft curation, what one experiences while watching the film is the reality of mourning, of finding ourselves in a new place where so much is familiar, and death is always near.
For as long as we are willing to stand in front of Fusco and Terpstra’s photographs, Robert Kennedy’s funeral train remains in motion, en route to its destination yet never arriving. In a sense, we can refuse death by remaining in the state of shock, never progressing to acceptance. But Parreno’s film ends, every seven minutes and thirteen seconds, and the marquee lights come on. We see a carpeted gallery, a room in a museum in the present day.
“The Train: RFK’s Last Journey”, curated by Clément Chéroux with Linde B. Lehtinen, was on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA, March 17–June 10, 2018. It is now at Rencontres dʼArles, France, through September 23, 2018.