The first time Bill Eppridge
met Robert Kennedy was aboard Air Force One. He'd been assigned by Life
magazine in 1966 to cover Lyndon Johnson — the first outside photographer permitted to photograph a president on the plane.
Johnson was on a tour of the Northeast, and Kennedy was there because he was the senator from New York. During the flight, Kennedy lit up a cigar and sat down near Eppridge to talk to then-White House press secretary Bill Moyers. Eppridge surreptitiously shot his picture, which appeared in the magazine.
Awhile later, Life
assigned him to shoot pictures for a story about whether Kennedy would run for the presidency. Eppridge decided to formally introduce himself and get permission to shadow the senator for the next several weeks.
"What did you say your name was?" Kennedy asked. "Eppridge," he said. Kennedy thought for moment, then said, "You can come along, but no cigars this time, OK?"
Eppridge was stunned that Kennedy remembered him. "From then on, I was his," he said.
Two years later, Eppridge would shoot the iconic image of Kennedy sprawled on the kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, felled by an assassin's bullet, the busboy whose hand he'd just been shaking looking up in anguish.
Eppridge, 74, is the recipient of FOTOfusion's 2013 FOTOmentor award recognizing lifetime achievement and impact on younger photographers. "He's influenced several generations of photographers," said Fatima Nejame, president and chief executive offficer of Palm Beach Photographic Centre. "Everyone speaks highly of him. His pictures are awesome." The photography festival, which is organized by the center, opens Tuesday and runs through Saturday at the center and the Mandel Public Library in West Palm beach.
Eppridge's work will be featured in the exhibition, Fifty Years in Photojournalism by Bill Eppridge. Also, he will attend two receptions and a dinner, give a lecture and participate in a panel about working in the media business today.
Eppridge was just 12 feet behind Kennedy when the shots rang out. He rushed forward, and saw Kennedy on the floor. "When I got there, the first thing I thought was when Jack Kennedy was killed no still photographs were made," Eppridge said. "This was history being made in front of me. It was my job to record it."
Eppridge positioned himself at a good angle and fired off four shots. The first was out of focus, in the second the busboy's head was down, the third was the history-making photograph.
Eppridge lost interest in politics after Kennedy's death. "If you photograph a politician, you want him to be a good man and someone you trust," he said. "That was Bobby. I could not find another Bobby."
During his long career Eppridge photographed for National Geographic, Life
and Sports Illustrated
and covered stories such as The Beatles' first American tour, Woodstock, the funeral of murdered Civil Rights workers in Mississippi, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Olympics.
One of his most memorable assignments was a landmark 1965 story for Life
about heroin addiction moving into the young, middle-class white community. It took months to find a married couple willing to be photographed. At first, the wife demanded to be paid. When told that wasn't possible, she asked why she should bother to do it.
"I told her, if you do, a few people who were going to get into your position might not after they see the story," he said. "That's what convinced her."
Eppridge spent almost every day for three months photographing the couple, turning himself into a fly on the wall. "You just kind of mentally back off and let whatever is going to happen in front of you happen, without making determinations about what you're seeing," he said. "Later on, of course, you think about it a lot."
Just as he's never forgotten seeing Robert Kennedy killed.
He's willing to live with painful memories. For him, the FOTOmentor award not only recognizes his accomplishments, but also affirms of the power of the still image.