Rein Jelle Terpstra, Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train, The People’s View

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover in a hard slipcase, 144 pages, with 135 color and black and white vernacular photographs. Includes a 16 page booklet of previously unpublished work by Paul Fusco. Texts by David Levi Strauss, Taco Hidde Bakker, and Rein Jelle Terpstra. In an edition of 1500 copies. Design by Jeremy Jansen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Amplified by the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just a few months earlier, the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 5th, 1968, right in front of news cameras, had a powerful and immediate effect on America. The funeral took place in New York, and after the service, the train carrying his coffin was scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C. for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The usually four-hour journey stretched to eight, the train moving slowly as crowds of locals along the Eastern seaboard gathered to pay their respects by standing alongside the tracks. Paul Fusco, a staff photographer for LOOK magazine, was on the train and documented the thousands of mourners along the train’s path. His images, however, didn’t make it into the issue that week, which was already on press at the time of the assassination.

LOOK closed down in 1971 and its entire archive, including Fusco’s original photographs, was donated to the Library of Congress. The RFK funeral train photographs remained largely unknown until they resurfaced in the late 1990s when Natasha Lunn, a photo editor at Magnum, made a selection of Fusco’s slides for the thirtieth anniversary publication of George magazine. A few years later, some of the photographs were published by Fusco in a Xerox print-on-demand edition, and then again in 2001 as a trade edition (entitled Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train). In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination, Aperture published an expanded edition, Paul Fusco: RFK (here).

The Dutch photographer Rein Jelle Terpstra was eight years old when RFK was shot. He grew up in the Netherlands, but his father was fond of the United States and all things American, and was a big admirer of Bobby Kennedy, often telling his children stories about the Kennedy family. A few years ago, Terpstra received the Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train photobook for his birthday. As an artist, Terpstra is interested in the relationships between perception, memory, and the absence of images, and he spent hours looking at Fusco’s photographs. After the close inspection, he realized that all the people in the photographs (those who lined up along the tracks) generally look in the same direction, right at the train (which is not visible from Fusco’s images). Many of them had cameras and were taking pictures themselves.

Terpstra immediately had the idea to track down these onlookers and reconstruct the journey of the RFK train from their perspective. He spent the next fours years looking for people who had both witnessed the event and taken their own photographs, which were often placed in family albums. He began with historical societies and local libraries, and it became clear that no institution had thought of collecting these photographs. He then searched for people using announcements in local newspapers and social media, as well as taking multiple trips to the towns located on the train route and talking to people in person. After all of his in depth archive work, he was able to assemble a few hundred photographs, as well as numerous slides and home movies. The project was recently published as a photobook titled Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train, The People’s View, and it has also taken shape as video installation, which was shown earlier this year at SFMOMA (here) and is currently on view at the ICP (here).

While we might assume that a video-based narrative of this alternate history would be the richest and most memorable experience of Terpstra’s findings, the photobook is actually much more compelling. The book form thoughtfully combines various elements of the project offering an in-depth perspective of the event and creating an intimate and engaging experience. It is hosted inside a black slipcase, with movie frames of the approaching train printed in silver and a quote on the side reading “I can remember the thickness in the air”, setting the atmosphere for the narrative. The rediscovered images are assembled in a near-exact chronological timeline, indicating the time the train was passing by the station on each spread (a detailed list with stations, precise times, and makers of the photographs appears at the end of the book). The story starts at 1:35 p.m. in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the first image captures a crowd of people waiting for the train.

In book form, the photographs vary in size and are placed in various parts of the page, often continuing from one spread to another (working particularly well with French fold pages). This design decision resembles the progressive movement of the train, while the free placement of the photographs creates an impression of visual narrative being created out of multiple fragments. Throughout the book, the forward flow is interrupted by frames of homemade movies printed in color on black paper, creating short interludes and digressions and adding an intimate cinematic perspective.

As we move through the book, and the train passes various stations, we see a parade of more or less the same images: shots of the train itself, from both far and near, crowds of people at the station, people waiting near the rails and on the banks, with multiple cars parked on a side of the road. These now-faded photographs, taken by amateurs, are often blurry, crooked, and lack a sense of deliberate composition. But their immediacy is what gives them life. Brought together, they create an indelible picture of a historical event witnessed and documented not by professional photojournalists but by ordinary women and men who happened to have cameras. There is an authenticity (and sadness) to the images that is richly felt, the honor of paying tribute to a beloved leader coursing through the humble snapshots. 

Terpstra also collected the verbal memories of the day, and sprinkled throughout the book and seen together with images, they give voice to the photographs: “I remember my mother dragging me along to watch the train pass through. I was five”, reads one. “I was really scared of what was happening in the world. First JFK, then MLK, then Bobby Kennedy. It was truly a sick feeling in my stomach”, recalls another witness. And a small selection of Paul Fusco’s unpublished photographs is printed in a separate booklet (inserted at the end), offering a contrasting reminder of his primary viewpoint and the initial impetus for Terpstra’s artistic effort.

In a time when archival and vernacular imagery is being resurfaced and repurposed by countless photographers, Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train, The People’s View is a singular example of turning that research process into something unexpected and original. Terpstra’s book is a meticulously crafted inside-out view of history, almost like an alternate universe, where we see events unfolding from the other side of the mirror. By aggregating the memories of so many individuals, he has effectively recreated a “national” crowdsourced memory, the step-by-step progression of the book design propelling the collective narrative down the tracks. The photobook form allows us to savor each perspective and to patiently follow each reaction and response, and by using the page flips to catalyze the momentum of the story, Terpstra’s unlikely artistic contribution to RFK’s history is made that much more engaging.

Collector’s POV: Rein Jelle Terpstra does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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