Paul Fusco: Photographer of crowds watching RFK’s funeral train

As the train emerged from a tunnel under the Hudson River, Fusco saw what would become his most memorable subject: ordinary citizens alongside the tracks, bearing witness and sharing grief

Matt Schudel
Friday 31 July 2020 16:48
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Fusco (right) with fellow photographer Walter Martin in 2008
Fusco (right) with fellow photographer Walter Martin in 2008

Paul Fusco travelled the world as a photojournalist. But his most indelible images, portraying a nation in mourning, were captured on a single day in 1968 as he rode aboard Robert F Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington.

He died on 15 July at an assisted-living facility in San Anselmo, California. He was 89. He had complications from dementia, said his son, Anthony Fusco.

During the heart of his career, Fusco was a staff photographer for Look, which in the 1960s was Life magazine’s chief competitor. Both magazines had circulations of several million each and were known for their exceptional photography.

After joining Look in 1957, Fusco worked across Europe and Asia, and from Egypt to Mexico to Brazil. Drawn particularly to the downtrodden, he photographed Kentucky coal miners, homeless people in New York, migrant farmworkers in California and rural poverty in the south.

“I want to take pictures of people that, when you see them, you can feel their lives,” he told the Record newspaper of Bergen County, New Jersey, in 2005.

He did not know what to expect when he was assigned to cover Kennedy’s funeral in New York on 8 June 1968, days after the Democratic senator from New York had been assassinated in Los Angeles. After the service at Manhattan’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, Kennedy’s flag-draped casket was to be placed on a train bound for Washington. Fusco’s editor told him to go to Penn Station.

“He told me, ‘There’s a train, get on it,’” Fusco recalled to Publishers Weekly in 2008. “No instructions.”

Fusco had three cameras – two Leicas and a Nikon – and a huge supply of Kodachrome film. He was not allowed to take pictures inside the train and was prevented from entering the train’s last car, which carried Kennedy’s body. He was thinking of how he would cover the burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

As the train emerged from a tunnel under the Hudson River and entered New Jersey, Fusco saw what would become his most memorable and poignant subject: ordinary citizens alongside the railroad tracks, bearing witness and sharing grief.

“I was astounded by the people,” Fusco told the Palm Beach Post in 2010. “I just reflexively jumped up, went to the window and pulled down the top pane. And I just stood in that window for eight hours and shot film. I was overwhelmed by the constant stream of people and the variety and mixture and visible pain and loss.”

They stood at attention or in informal groups. Catholic school girls were in plaid dresses, next to nuns in their habits. Children and entire families lined up, wearing only their swimming costumes on a hot day.

“The train was moving mournful slow,” one Baltimore resident would recall, through ragged suburbs and rundown sections of cities, all of them thronged with people – more than a million, Kennedy biographer Evan Thomas estimated.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, people of all ages and races, a tableau of America. Women knelt in prayer and waved handkerchiefs. Bare-chested boys stood and saluted from a wooden bridge. Some people held their dogs as they waved goodbye. A young couple watched from a motorcycle. Two people, standing in cinders beside the railroad track, held a homemade sign: “So-Long Bobby”.

“Most of us hide most of the time,” Fusco later said. “We don’t want people aware of what we are feeling. But that day, very few people were hiding. It was a consistent wave of emotion without interruption.”

During the Korean War, Fusco had been a photographer in the US army, often taking aerial photographs. He knew how to focus his cameras while in a moving vehicle.

On this day, he was looking out of the right side of the train, facing west towards a setting sun. He focused on people’s faces, which are clear and sharp even as buildings and cars in the background are in a blur.

Lengthening shadows stretched towards the train, making the patches of grass and the colours of people’s clothing all the more vivid. Fusco kept shooting pictures throughout the entire 200-mile journey, holding his shutter open for a second or more as twilight fell.

Because Look magazine came out every two weeks, the editors decided Kennedy’s funeral was old news when it was time to publish the next edition. Only two of Fusco’s photographs appeared in the magazine, both in black and white.

Fusco’s photographs from the RFK funeral train were sent to the Library of Congress after Look closed in 1971. He held on to a few images himself, but for 30 years he could not interest anyone in publishing them.

Several finally appeared in 1998 in George magazine, founded by Kennedy’s nephew, John F Kennedy Jr. In 2008, an editor from the Aperture Foundation, which advances the art of photography, went to the Library of Congress and discovered Fusco’s trove of photographs, which included more than 1,800 pristine Kodachrome slides of people watching the train pass by.

In the years since, Aperture has published several editions of RFK Funeral Train, the most recent of which contains more than 100 images. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented an exhibition of Fusco’s funeral train photos in 2018.

“Fusco’s photographs are amazing in pretty much every way,” critic Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker. “Individual faces are often captured in focus against a slightly blurred background. There is a nakedness in them that is rare in public – these people don’t think that anyone is looking at them – a nakedness that many photographers have tried to capture. It’s here.”

John Paul Fusco was born on 2 August 1930, in Leominster, Massachusetts. His father was a musician, teacher and machinist, his mother a factory worker.

Fusco, who always went by his middle name, took up photography as a hobby in his early teens and studied in New York before joining the US army during the Korean War. He was wounded while photographing combat operations and received the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart.

He used the GI Bill to attend Ohio University, one of the few colleges at the time with a photography programme. Soon after graduating in 1957, he became a staff photographer at Look.

After the magazine closed, Fusco joined the Magnum photo agency. Among other subjects, he did in-depth studies of rebel groups in Mexico and Aids patients in San Francisco.

Fusco lived in Mill Valley, California, for more than 20 years before moving to a log cabin in West Milford, New Jersey, in 1993. After recovering from lung cancer in the 1990s, he stopped accepting outside assignments and focused exclusively on personal projects.

In Ukraine, he photographed people dealing with the aftermath of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. One of his last major projects, called Bitter Fruit, chronicled dozens of funerals of US service members killed in the Iraq War, beginning in 2003.

He published several books, including ones on Chernobyl, migrant farmworkers and Marina & Ruby, about his daughter and her horse. He returned to California in 2009.

His marriage to Patricia Sayer ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, Anthony Fusco of San Francisco and Marina Fusco Nims of Portland, Oregon; and five grandchildren.

Fusco did not see most of the images from the Kennedy funeral procession until 40 years after he took them. When he finally viewed the 1,800 slides, he could finally recognise what he had accomplished from the window of a slowly moving train.

“The occasional blur and motion,” he said in 2010, “added an emotional aspect – the disintegration of life, the passage of time. My whole take on photography is to answer the question, ‘What are people feeling at that moment?’”

Paul Fusco, photographer, born 2 August 1930, died 15 July 2020

© The Washington Post

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