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Revisiting SFMOMA's 'The Train' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 March 2018

One of the perks of this job is getting invitations to press briefings of various sorts, not the least of which are for SFMOMA's photography shows. But when the invitation to preview The Train arrived, it sat in our in-box for weeks without a reply.

We were, in a word, reluctant to revisit that day.


We had been but a boy watching the black-and-white television set in the kitchen as President John F. Kennedy's casket was carried on a horse-drawn caisson followed by a riderless horse down Pennsylvania Ave.

slide show

The Train. A slide show of the exhibit.

We may have been just a boy but old enough to tell the difference between Kennedy's eloquence, wit and intelligence and Nixon's cunning and calculation. We had been elated with Kennedy's victory and inspired by the goals he set. Going to the moon wasn't a pipe dream like going to Mars. It was a bold response to Sputnik, the Russian satellite launch in the Cold War era that had us all doing nuclear attack drills at school.

It was no stretch to call Kennedy's short era Camelot.

We had just come out of a small grocery store with a couple of buddies on the track team after a grueling practice in April 1968 when we heard the news about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

And when Sen. Robert Kennedy was gunned down on his way out of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic Party primary only a short while later, we felt an era had been vanquished, eternal flame or not.

And we were not wrong. The nation took a turn for the worse.

The high school football coach had a "Nixon's the One" sticker on the door to his history classroom. And Nixon did prevail over Vice President Hubert Humphrey that November. We spent that night at Humphrey headquarters in San Francisco stunned by the defeat.

But Nixon had already interfered with the Vietnam War peace negotiations, we now know. And he eventually resigned the office in disgrace under the threat of imminent impeachment. President Ford quickly pardoned him. He was "the one," all right. The wrong one.

So no, we were not anxious to attend the press briefing for this show.


Still, we couldn't dispose of the invitation. So we replied and when the day came, we arrived despite the rain to listen to Senior Curator of Photography Clément Chéroux, Assistant Curator of Photography Linda Lehtinen and Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra talk about the installation in three rooms.

Paul Fusco. Kennedy funeral train, 1968.

Chéroux began his remarks by pointing out that the exhibit did not attempt to describe RFK's political career but only to reflect on the event of the train trip carrying his remains from New York City's Penn station to Washington, D.C.

When the eight-hour journey ended, the Senator's body was interred under floodlights at Arlington National Cemetery.

There was a need, Chéroux said, for people to gather together that day. To express their sorrow, to deal with their trauma, to reflect on what had been taken from them. The funeral train provided that.

The three rooms provide three different perspectives on the journey, he added, before discussing the photographs on four walls taken from the train by Look staff photographer Paul Fusco.

Prohibited from photographing the people in the train, Fusco's photos (there were between one and two thousand of them) captured the people who had come to see the train. He didn't have a clue how to cover the event, he remembered.

"When the train came out of the tunnels," he said in an interview reprinted in the exhibit catalog, "the first thing I saw was hundreds of people in mourning crowding together on platforms almost leaning into the train to get close to Bobby."

He had found his subject.

Look wanted a color story so he shot with Kodachrome 64 and a few rolls of Ektachrome 400, both slide films. He used two Leica M rangefinders and a Nikon SLR.

The catalog describes what he captured:

Fusco's images of different individuals, communities and families holding farewell signs, saluting and praying captured an astonishing and poignant portrait of the American people. Even as the light of day began to fade, Fusco continued to photograph, using a panning motion that allowed him to isolate certain people and scenes. In addition to the remarkable light in each photograph, there is a blurriness that heightens the sense of the train's motion, as well as the sorrow expressed by the American public that day.

But Look, which published a week after Life, killed the story, preferring a retrospective on the life of RFK. So the photos didn't see the light of day until Magnum got them published in George magazine on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination in 1998.

The 25 large prints in the show are but a fraction of the many Fusco took. But they stop time.

There are Brownies and Instamatics in the crowd. Kodak Super 8 movie cameras. American muscle cars of the 1960s before imports became prevalent. And the clothes of the 1960s.

The people stand as close as the companion tracks and as far away as adjacent hilltops. They are stilled by the camera but ghosted by the moving train as the light fades. There are salutes and signs but mostly just quiet, respectful stillness as the funeral train passes by.

You are looking at history. What actually happened that day.


Chéroux introduced Rein Jelle Terpstra who led us into the second room where his collection of stills, video and audio interviews were presented.

Richard Taylor. The funeral train in Elizabeth, N.J..

The Dutch artist uses photography to explore the connections between perception and memory. He had discovered Fusco's photos of the funeral train from the book published by Aperture in 2008 and became fascinated by them. As he studied them he noticed the cameras used to record the moment and began to wonder what had become of those images.

In 2014, he launched a research project called The People's View to complement Fusco's view from the train. He researched historical societies, libraries, museums and archives along the route. But he wanted to collect the historical artifacts. So he thought of reaching out directly to the people who had them.

He relied on social media, starting with train groups on Reddit and Yahoo. But Facebook was more useful. He joined 450 Facebook groups (being banned five times for spamming). Over two thousand people on Facebook responded to him.

Taylor Slide. We restored a bit of the color information to the small slide image.

He then set up a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book of the ongoing project's collection.

He eventually traveled the route of the train himself to collect the scrapbook pages, original snapshots, home movies and color slides people had saved. And to interview people.

In the catalog, Terpstra described his most moving experience:

My most impressive meeting was with a person named Michael Scott who became a very good friend of mine. He was fifteen years old when he went to see the RFK funeral train pass by. Just a few months later, a member of the Ku Klux Klan threw a bomb at his house in an attempt to murder the whole family because his father was engaged in the civil rights movement. His family had to guard the house and a few weeks later the FBI avoided a second bombing attempt. Michael really adored Robert F. Kennedy because of his work for the civil rights of African Americans. Michael's whole story and past, his life as a black American, is a kind of metaphor for the causes and issues that RFK stood for.

Along two walls in the exhibit room, a line has been painted representing the journey from New York City to Washington, D.C. In small white frames, his collected artifacts are grouped by location.

The color prints are mostly faded now. Even the slides taken by Paul Taylor, a professional photographer, lack much color information. The black-and-white images held up much better but they are mostly amateur work with composition and exposure issues as the placard available in the room and here shows.

And you'll see the reference to "President Kennedy" on at least one scrapbook page, as if he had indeed been elected. He was not. Nor did he win the nomination, the convention being held in Chicago later that summer.

You have the sense you are looking at people's memories of that day in this room. Waiting and waiting for the train. Its brief appearance. The sense of it (and even more) passing. And the hope of holding onto what it meant somehow in a photo or a scrapbook page.


Lehtinen then introduced us to Philippe Parreno's film.

The French artist was also affected by Fusco's images. In 2009 he filmed an elaborate reenactment of the funeral train using Fusco's images to set some of the scenes and even renting a train and a set of tracks (in two locations). He filmed scenes with a 70mm Panavision camera to show, in his own words, "the point of view of the dead."

As he explains in an interview published in the catalog:

We're not watching the event; it's the event that's watching us. What's more, that event is connected to death. I began to work on this idea: the event is watching me, it has passed and thus it's ghostly.

The film is projected on the full wall of the exhibition space, making the figures life size. The figures along the tracks remain eerily still even as their clothing and the grass around them is blown by the wind.

Parreno Still. One scene from the film.

The point of view changes, floating above the front of the train looking down the tracks, looking off the train to the scenes along the track, poised away from the train at a scene almost unrelated.

The sound also varies from occasional silence to the rolling of the heavy engine over the tracks. As Chéroux mentions in the catalog's introduction, people put coins on the track to be flattened by the train as a memento. You can almost feel them being crushed.

Parreno encloses the 70mm projector in a clear booth so you can see it working. As it rewinds the film, a leader pattern is intentionally shown on the screen, Chéroux said.

It is a powerful work despite its mere seven minutes.

What most struck us, watching it, though was the impression we had of the weight of the train, the power it took to move it and the deep rumbling over the tracks it made.


That power stood in strong contrast to the life of a man that could so easily be ended by a bullet fired in a hotel kitchen, we thought as we left the room to revisit the exhibit we had not wanted to see.

We saw it again a few days later when we revisited the exhibit after it had opened for the images in our slide show. It was busy. And full of children.

It was proof, we thought, that while Robert Kennedy's life had been taken from us much too soon, "the dream," as his brother Edward Kennedy once said, "will never die."

Like the train, it rolls on and on, impossible to derail from its destination, with a power that can still move generations.

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