Bill Eppridge:
A Personal Reflection on the Photographer
in a Tumultuous Time
June 2008

by Barbara Baker Burrows

By any formal definition, Bill Eppridge may not be a Boomer, and I'm not sure that even Boomers are required to accept the Sixties as halcyon days, but I'd challenge anyone to find a photographer better attuned to those times.

The Sixties – love 'em or loathe 'em, and all they represent – almost certainly don't need much introduction by now. But for the photographers, writers and editors of Life there has always been something of a debate about which period constitutes the magazine's glory years: The runaway success following its launch in 1936? World War II and the recovery from it? Hollywood's golden age? For many, it was quite simply the Sixties. For anyone in the business of gathering news they were incredible, and so they were for Bill.

His assignments were as varied, exhilarating and tumultuous as the times, and while this reflection, and the re-publication of Bill's pictures, are occasioned by the anniversary of one of their many low points, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, it is an opportunity to look at so much more.

Like all of Life's great photographers, Bill brought to an assignment much more than the ability to take a properly exposed and well-composed photograph. He has curiosity and anticipates, he is sensitive and respects his subjects, and he is versatile.

For a while it seemed that he specialized in riots and revolutions: in Panama, where he shot his first cover, in Managua, and in Santo Domingo where, in "rebel territory," his 500-mm mirror lens almost got him killed. It seems that, after days of provocation by someone they had nicknamed 'One Shot Charlie' – someone into whose position Bill and his lens innocently stepped – the U.S. 82nd Airborne determined "to get the bastard whenever he moved." The shot from a .50-caliber spotting rifle missed Bill by inches.

With well over 100 assignments, Bill had already proved his talent by the time he was formally made a member of the exalted Life staff in 1964. Months earlier he had been assigned to cover a less than illustrious New York airport greeting amidst the hustle and bustle of the 'working press,' an imperious term with overtones of elitism, and some disregard for the locals. This was to be his, and America's, introduction to the Beatles.

Of course, since he was shooting for Life, Bill was expected to find a position quite apart from everyone else, and he found what he thought was a decent enough spot, but discovered that he was not alone. Shooting the arrival for AP, Eddie Adams had also been determined to occupy the perfect camera angle. It was Bill and Eddie's first meeting, and after introductions, they went on to discuss whether there was a better spot to be had. Both agreed, the best vantage point would be on the plane, right behind the Beatles as they disembarked. From there they could capture the band and give some perspective to the melée to come.

When the jet's door finally opened, the Beatles appeared – and there was photographer Harry Benson right in their spot. For Bill and Eddie it was the beginning of a life-long friendship, and shortly afterwards both were sent to Vietnam. Harry would settle in the U.S., and on that June night in 1968 find himself in the Ambassador Hotel's ballroom. This time, however, it would be Bill who would have the coveted position, approved by Bobby Kennedy, right on the platform behind him.

Traveling with the Beatles, forced by a snowstorm to take the train to Washington, Bill captured some wonderfully fun and memorable pictures. But, if the Beatles' first U.S. tour marked a beginning of the Sixties musically, Woodstock was a musical and cultural milestone. Bill's attempts to alert some of Life's less informed editors to its coming were to little avail until it was almost too late. "What do we do?" asked one editor finally. Bill's response was "the freak department." At his urging Life parked a motor home just yards from the stage, not far from Abbie Hoffman's medical tent – and resisted all pleadings to move it. For a week or so, it became home to a spirited group of entertainment department staffers and others, with Bill and John Dominis given free reign to shoot everything. For their efforts, far from the small space budgeted for a Woodstock festival story, Life published a special issue.

With "Needle Park," Bill gave us one of the most powerful and memorable photographic essays Life ever published, one still highly regarded today. The story was to run in two parts, the first focusing on an addicted couple to give the nation's narcotics problem a human face, the second to explain what was being done to treat it.

Research to find the ideal subjects for the story was almost as intense as the actual shooting. Weeks spent with the detectives of New York City's Narcotics Bureau were followed by months of "hanging out" in "Needle Park," on the street corners where connections were made, and in the fleabag hotels where the heroin was shot up. That the couple, Karen and John, were white was deliberate; it was not to be a race story.

Trust, between subject, photographer and magazine, was essential. It helped that Life had a reputation for being respectful and fair. Of Karen and John, writer Jim Mills found that "intellectually, they committed themselves very quickly, but the emotion okay came gradually over a period of weeks."

Bill and Jim earned that "okay" by living the addicts' life. Bill blended into the scenery, his presence often forgotten, his photographs taken with available light – he may have missed a few, but he probably gained much more. So convincing was Bill that he was picked up by the cops who thought that he had stolen his cameras and Life credentials. He also had some explaining to do to many of the magazine's readers who believed that the photographs were too real; they must have been faked.

The story complete, Bill, Jim and Life did what they could to find for Karen and John long-term care by a psychiatrist who specialized in drug addiction. The sensitivity that was necessary for Bill to photograph them assured that he would remain interested, but it isn't easy to keep track of addicts battling a devastating habit. And caring – about a subject, about your pictures – takes a toll.

In fact, Bill worries all the time: "They'll pay you for one day's worth of work," he says, "but it's usually about three. One to worry, one to shoot and then, one to recover."

Probably more than any other Life photographer, Bill was a natural to chronicle the Sixties' culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll – I never have asked Bill about the sex part. I do know that during the run-up to Apollo 10, when Life had the exclusive rights to the astronauts' stories and we shared a bungalow on a beach at the Cape, Bill was waiting up for me after a late-night stroll down the sand: "What does he mean, show you his launch pad?" he asked protectively. Bill was quite prepared to take it up with any fly-boy astronaut – the motorcycle-riding photographer of revolution and rock stars, ever ready to do the right thing.

There may have been one time though when Bill did let the situation get the better of him, when he even perhaps "faked it." Three weeks in New York, Paris and Rome with Barbra Streisand could do that to a photographer. Bill and Barbra have a couple of things in common. She is very controlling; so is Bill. She is a perfectionist; so is Bill. She was always late.

"It was like riding a roller coaster 24 hours a day," he recalls. "Trying to get her in front of the camera was like bargaining at a push-cart."

For a studio portrait, Bill had set up a rear projection of another of his photographs of Streisand. She was unhappy with the picture and, in fact, everything. She had brought her dog with her, but Barbra just didn't want to be there. Unreceptive to Bill's best efforts, totally stiff and uncooperative, she sat expressionless. Suddenly, in exasperation, and in a scene reminiscent of Karsh yanking Churchill's cigar to produce that glaring bulldog expression of his most famous portrait, Bill grabbed Barbra Streisand's dog and shoved it into her arms. "Here, take this damn dog," he almost yelled. "It's the only friend you've got in the place."

A bit startled: "Oh," she uttered and smiled for one frame. Bill had his cover.

Of course, every great photographer has that one picture, an icon, which sometimes even distracts attention from his other work. For Bill that's the one taken in the early hours of June 5th, 1968.

After the campaigns of '66 and '68, in a time when there was no Secret Service protection for presidential candidates, when press contingents were small and access available for the asking, he could even call the senator a friend. So too did millions of Americans whose only connection to Robert Kennedy was that they saw in him hope for the future.

I well remember thinking how exciting it was for Bill and reporter Sylvia Wright to be so very close to RFK during that campaign. To me, he was "real" and he was young, and it was the first time I would be old enough to vote. Somehow he would deal with Vietnam and our recovery from Dr. King's assassination. He was the antidote to the spirit of disharmony so many of us felt.

The events in Los Angeles that day and the next are best told by Bill for there's the knowledge and a sensitivity that come with the intimacy of his experience. [Read his passages of those events in the accompanying photo gallery.]

At the home office here in New York it had been a fairly typical Tuesday evening. That meant that a respectable number of the Life staff were to be found in a local bar. The magazine closed on a Wednesday and so, while it may have been latish, it was early to go home, and we didn't have to return to work. It was easy to find volunteers to keep the bar open.

Successful at last negotiating my key into my apartment's lock, by now it was really quite late and I tried desperately not to disturb my roommate. But Susan was awake, not because of my antics but because of the horrific news from California. She welcomed me with: "Bobby has just been shot."

I'll never forget the way she screamed at me to get back to the office immediately. Obviously, in 1968, there were no cell phones, and they had frantically been trying to reach the bar-crawling picture department.

Gathered again somberly on the 29th floor, we shed our tears, but went to work quickly and professionally. We spent three days, 'round-the-clock, putting together the regular and a special issue. We had the convenience of office showers in those days and they, and the adrenaline, refreshed us. For the cover, we chose Bill's very serene and touching picture of Bobby running down the beach with his dog, Freckles; the assassination photograph went inside.

Bill's film had been processed in Los Angeles and, despite some pushing, needed further coaxing in our New York lab to produce the single print from which we could engrave. The negatives were handed to me for safekeeping, and I, discreetly, placed them under my large, and badly faded green desk blotter.

I wasn't the most obvious person for the two burly FBI agents to question about the whereabouts of the film when they hesitated at my desk, but my helpful and rather disingenuous "I know that whoever has the negatives will certainly help you gentlemen out by making really big prints for you to study" seemed to move them along. "We will obviously do whatever we can to cooperate, especially at a time like this."

The miniskirt too may have helped them believe in my innocence. But it was a different time: No cell phone, but a desk blotter, and even negatives. There was certainly no Department of Homeland Security. We were anxious to help, but with one negative, possibly the best lab in the country, and no such thing as a digital copy, we weren't taking a chance on losing that negative and its image.

Bobby lingered for almost 26 hours after the shooting, and Bill flew into New York, later meeting the senator's coffin at the airport, attending the service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and being invited on to the funeral train to Arlington.

Bill and I spent a considerable amount of time together over that couple of days although it's difficult to calculate where those hours came from. My most vivid memory is of a quiet dinner shared, both crying and comforting one another. I was, and remain, in absolute awe of how he had the wits about him to capture so memorably that horrible moment. I asked him directly: "What was going on in your mind? Your dear friend had just been shot. How could you think that quickly under those circumstances?"

He explained – he talked about his reaction to the sound of the .22-caliber shots, and what he instinctively understood when he looked down at the man. There was nothing he could do to save him. There were plenty of other people to tend to him. So, his duty was to his profession, and, struggling to keep his emotions in check, he took one of the most significant photographs of the 20th century.

Many have described the picture as having a Pietà-like quality. Jack Newfield saw something religious too, and something more: "The expression on Robert Kennedy's face seems serene and accepting," he wrote, "his arms spread like Jesus on the Cross. The face of Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy who loved Kennedy and served him the night before, is shocked and appalled. Robert Kennedy's mood that last night was serene and liberated. The bullet arrived so swiftly it did not have time to alter the emotions Bob's face was reflecting in the final moments of his conscious life. Each time I see this photo I think it should be called 'History Slipping Through Our Fingers.' That's when history slipped through our fingers, leaving behind a photograph with its tragic traces of promises."

It's those promises that I have missed.

As is often said about the Sixties, they didn't end merely to conform with the calendar. By 1973, Life had ceased publishing as a weekly and Bill, after a short stint at People magazine, moved on to Sports Illustrated. "I wasn't shooting baseball, basketball or football," explains Bill, although of course he did shoot all three. "My motto is sports with no balls."

Principally, he didn't want to photograph the same thing twice, which is why his S.I. credit is most likely to be found next to stories about hunting and fishing, or falconing, or poaching in Africa.

He enjoys the Olympic Winter Games, in part because of the challenges provided by the weather. He always has an eye on the weather. I remember his increasingly desperate warnings from Calgary in 1988, as I packed for the trip, forced me to purchase arctic gear known only to polar explorers. Another photographer, goaded by Bill's alarm, sent me the jacket he had used covering the Iditarod. Finally, after weeks of sometimes macabre stories of frozen body parts, my bundled arrival at the Games nicely coincided with the Chinook – that warm Rockies wind. It turned so balmy, Bill could have photographed the downhill in his bathing suit.

Besides his wife, Adrienne, and photography, Bill's other great love is fly-fishing, an art he compares to photography. "In each skill there's one – and only one – perfect moment," he declares, "and when it comes you have to be ready to set the hook or snap the shutter."

With some health problems in recent years, Bill snaps the shutter less often, but he conducts workshops and creates exhibits, and he has been digging through his archive.

It just seems that all those great stories – the Beatles, Woodstock, Bobby Kennedy's last campaign – keep having anniversaries. And Bill's pictures are as great as ever. And he's still fun even if the Sixties are over.

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© Barbara Baker Burrows

Barbara Baker Burrows is the director of photography for LIFE; she has had an association with Time Inc. for over 40 years. Previously, she has been a contributor to The Digital Journalist with articles on photography legends Alfred Eisenstaedt, David Douglas Duncan and Gordon Parks. In the great tradition of LIFE couples, the author gratefully thanks her husband, Russell Burrows, for his collaborative efforts to produce this article.

To read her previous Digital Journalist profiles, click on the following links: