The Lonesome Train

‘My man so deep in trouble the white folks couldn’t get him free…’ Victoria Spivey, Christmas Morning Blues.

The spectacle of the American twentieth century could not be complete without its audience, without the presence of the onlookers. There they stand in Weegee’s photographs from New York, grabbing and pushing around the edges of crime scenes and accidents; there are the crazed grins on the faces of the lynch-mob; there is the delirium of ticker tape parades and sporting events, and again and again there is that look of rapt but empty attention. In his 1939 novel Day of the Locust, Nathanael West envisioned the power and demonic potential of the onlookers as his crowd of star-struck moviegoers, made ‘savage and bitter’ by ‘boredom and disappointment’, take their grim revenge at a Hollywood film premier. In this passage and in many other photographic and cinematic images the onlookers themselves become the subject, drawing the camera away and into their spell, one that so often strains a fine balance of power and control and threatens to bring another level of reality into being. Then during one day towards the end of the sixties, a decade in America already marked by violent public spectacle, the crowd quells for a moment into a new linear formation of elegiac reverence, it is temporarily quietened by the loss of a charmed but sad-eyed politician, who many believed ‘had died for them and because of them’.
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On Saturday June 8, 1968, sometime after 12.30 eastern daylight time, a train left New York’s Penn Station carrying the body of Senator Robert F. Kennedy who had been assassinated in the first minutes of June 5th at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic party nomination. Along with the Senator’s body, in a coffin draped with the American flag and raised on chairs so that it could be seen more easily through the windows, there were about 1000 other passengers on that twenty one-car train. But these people – in itself an extraordinary gathering of family, friends, politicians, celebrities, press and security staff – were rendered insignificant by the staring faces of mass America, by the crowd that turned out to line the tracks along the train’s route to Washington DC. On this journey, which deliberately re-enacted that of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train of 103 years before, a million mourners, the sad and the curious, were moved into bearing witness to the passing of a public figure and a moment in history with which, in varying degrees, they imagined themselves personally entangled.

We know of those crowds now largely because among the press admitted to the train that day was a 38-year-old staff photographer from Look magazine named Paul Fusco. Fusco had been sent to photograph what went on inside the train, what Kennedy’s biographer Evan Thomas called the ‘disparate melange’ of people, the invited ‘celebrities and secretaries, true believers and hangers-on’ whose grief was observed ‘in manifold ways’. This was a carefully selected layering of American power at a time when power relations appeared to be shifting: from Robert S McNamara, US Secretary for Defence during the Vietnam War and John Lindsay, Mayor of New York, to those from the civil rights movement like Charles Evers older brother of the murdered activist Medgar Evers. Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King, was there dressed in widow’s black, unaware of the breaking news that her husband’s killer had just been arrested in England. The actress Shirley MacLaine was there in ‘teary-eyed’ conversation with the football player Roosevelt Grier of the L.A. Rams, who had helped to force the gun from the hand of Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan back in the Ambassador Hotel. They were members of a high-living set surrounding the Kennedys, part of the ‘swirling hive of beautiful people’ who attended their parties, their ‘imaginative happenings’, complete with light shows and Jefferson Airplane soundtrack. But Fusco chose to turn away from this official sadness, from the official story, because as the train emerged from under the Hudson River into the heat of New Jersey, he became engrossed in another more extraordinary sight: ‘the platforms of the stations were crowded with people. I was stunned. I don’t remember what happened in the car but I jumped up and ran to the window, pulled it down and stood in that spot until it got dark and photographed everything I saw on the track that day.’ Fusco’s impulse proved momentous. His resulting sequence of photographs, the story of the unbidden, is among the greatest and most singular projects of twentieth-century photojournalism, and in fact of modern photography altogether.

What’s so unusual about such an outstanding and eloquent body of work is its apparent artlessness. Fusco’s photographs – in contrast to the increasingly stylised, knowing documentary of the time – are direct and unmannered in their recording of the crowd, so much so that the work brings to mind other more conceptual approaches to photography that had also begun to flourish in the late sixties. But the ‘idea’ of Fusco’s series, as well as its form, had more to do with force of circumstance than with a considered response. With his camera fixed through the window, Fusco’s viewing options were severely limited. As he has said: ‘It was interesting as a photographer to be confined to one position and one viewpoint…usually we (photojournalists) danced with the world we were trying to photograph…’ Here then was an imposing reversal for the active reporter, for once a moving camera (that is, a still camera in strict linear motion) confronting a stilled subject. It was a situation in which the photojournalists’ adherence, post-Cartier Bresson, to the idea of a decisive moment, to a certain compositional eloquence, was forcibly denied. This is not to say that Fusco’s pictures are ‘unauthored’ but that in this pared down mode of recording the primacy of the document is allowed to emerge; in this case the photographer worked within constraints than turned out to be the making of the work. The overall effect of this – the linear sequence that seems so much like the austere treatments of conceptualism – is filmic, a series of stills or fragments from the same reel. In this sense we might consider Fusco’s work as another, late instalment from a deepening sixties tragedy, one that is continually recorded and reworked by documentarists, artists and investigators, and subjected to frame-by-frame analysis. If the much debated Zapruder film of John F Kennedy’s murder, for example – that stretches time, twenty-six seconds into 486 frames – is this tragedy’s mesmeric moment of visceral horror, then Fusco’s work – that compresses nine hours into a varying edit of around fifty-three pictures – is its fitting aftermath, now a kind of visual monument not only to the Kennedys’ deaths, and to that of Martin Luther King, but to the passing of an era in which America, perhaps for the last time, seemed on the point of grasping change.

And Fusco’s photographs are immediately and importantly about the people who would benefit most from that change. They were the people who believed in the sense of hope and in the promise of social justice, in the poetic grandeur carefully woven into Bobby Kennedy’s speeches and delivered in the softly spoken voice of a fellow sufferer in their sadness. There is no doubt that by the time of his death Kennedy had become a star, as Norman Mailer said, ‘He was as attractive as a movie star. Not like his brother had been, for Jack Kennedy had looked like the sort of vital leading man who would steal the girl from Ronald Reagan every time. No, Bobby had looked more like a phenomenon of a movie star – he could have filled some empty space between Mickey Rooney and James Dean…’ But this was a political celebrity, and one who provoked a particular kind of yearning among his supporters. For his 1968 Democratic nomination strategy Kennedy had decided that he had ‘to win through the people…otherwise I’m not going to win.’ It was to be a campaign conducted on the streets; what Richard Harwood of the Washington Post called ‘a strategy of revolution… a popular uprising’ of ‘intensity and scale’. The results often brought the adoring crowds close to hysteria:  ‘they pulled away his cufflinks, ripped his shirt; even grabbed his shoes. Above all they wanted, for some reason, to touch his hair. After a day’s campaigning his hands were raw and his clothes dishevelled.’ As one British reporter commented: ‘It seemed to have more to do with psychopathology than with politics.’

But, although the detail, the bare facts of Kennedy’s political pragmatism may entice a more cynical reading of Fusco’s work, his monumental document still stands as evidence of a more powerful abstract truth. We see the people along the track as if from the dead Kennedy’s eyes; they are the people he had appealed to and in these photographs their presence makes his myth tangible and authentic. Since it was made Fusco’s work has become a testimony of unfulfilled collective longing to set aside the great imagining of what might have been, a strange reversal of the recurring nightmare that haunted Lyndon Johnson, that Robert Kennedy would ‘reclaim the throne in memory of his brother…and the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, would be dancing in the streets’. What takes the place of that dancing in Fusco’s photographs is the stilled confusion of grief, the flutter and awkwardness of paying respect to a passing train, the embarrassed excitement of being present, the uniformed formality, the humble formations, the flag waving and the real tears, the sobbing behind the sunglasses.

This was very evidently working class America, black and white: the poor and the disenfranchised had wandered from the neighbourhoods, they appeared in the suburbs, the small towns, they came to empty dusty places along the route, the non-places as they might now be called. It’s a rickety, blue-collar parade of spaces that Fusco’s camera glides through, cutting and framing the trailing line of mourners into a series of extraordinary tableaux. Occasionally a face arrives pin-sharp in Fusco’s plane of focus, as if deliberately singled out, registering the briefest of personal exchanges between photographer and subject and forming a kind of punctuation to the crowd scenes and portrait groups. It is these faces that drive the way we look at and respond to the work now, they are the most arresting points in the photographs’ rich offering of detail. As the train, and the dream-like atmosphere drift on, it is these faces that forever draw us back into the moment of exposure, into the time and place, and into Fusco’s position looking out of that wound down window. The sight seems to have been overwhelming for him, almost uncontainable, like a precious and unexpected excavation too delicate to touch, but by letting his camera do the work Fusco preserved all the welled-up emotion and the deep significance of the event.

It was the unexpected size of the crowd that caused the train to run much slower than planned. It was five hours late when it finally arrived in darkness in Washington at just after nine o’clock on Saturday evening. Earlier, when it had become clear that the funeral at the Arlington cemetery would be conducted at night, the Kennedy family had radioed ahead to request that 200 torches be used to illuminate the graveside. When torches could not be found 2000 candles were delivered instead, the fitting climax to a precisely stage-managed event with a profound sense of ritual. Back on the train Paul Fusco kept photographing as long as he could. As he said: ‘the last photographs I took were way after sunset and had very long, one, two and three second exposures…and the world began to look very strange and fall apart in those pictures.’ In many ways Fusco’s work would not be so complete without the dimming of the day, without the arrival of the night that it so foreshadows. In their passage from heavy sunlight to a ghostly dusk, his photographs seem to exist within the same darkness and strangeness, in that same ‘dreaming immensity’ of America, that echoes through much of its modern art and writing, an echo, for example, that connects the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby and On The Road. In both Fitzgerald’s and Kerouac’s texts, it is the coming of the night, ‘the complete night that blesses the earth’, that conjures the presence of an entire continent and its people, ‘somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.’ Although we are taken only from New York to Washington in Fusco’s work, its slow and melancholic sweep through the ‘long miles of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia’, suggests and epic journeying across the whole country, into Kerouac’s still ‘raw land’ of people dreaming and children crying, one that in those days of 1968 also rang with the sombre mood of loss and uncertainty that marks his novel’s final sentence: ‘nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…’

Sources:

Paul Fusco, RFK Funeral Train, Magnum Photos/Umbrage, New York, 2000.
Ronald Steel, In Love With The Night: The American Romance with Robert Kennedy, Simon Schuster, New York, 2001.
Dirck Halstead, online interview with Paul Fusco from The Digital Journalist
RFK, a Look Magazine special supplement, June 1968  [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks

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