The movie keeps playing in his head
I was a junior at the University of Missouri, studying to be a journalist and learning it the hard way, as news editor of the campus paper.
It was a Saturday in October when Bill Eppridge first walked into my office to show me some shots he had made of a nighttime panty raid at a girls dorm – back in the old days when genders were separated and beer-sodden guys would gather beneath the dorm windows and shout for panties to rain down on them. Clean panties, please.
We didn't use the photos – "I never got lucky at a panty raid," Eppridge says today – but he and I became friends and worked on a number of stories together.
Not the big ones, of course. Not when he graduated and joined Life magazine and covered the Beatles' first trip to the United States or the war in Vietnam or the day Bobby Kennedy died.
He had covered Kennedy during his 1966 congressional campaign and joined his presidential campaign for Life in 1968. By that time, he knew his subject, hung out with him from time to time, had shot some already-famous photos, including one of Kennedy puffing on a cigar.
On this evening, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, it was Kennedy who varied his routine. It was Kennedy who walked into the bullets, Eppridge says.
"Everything I saw and everything I heard, it's still there inside my head like a slow-motion movie," he says of the night of June 5, 1968.
Kennedy had just won the California primary and made a short victory speech. At www.nikonnet.com Eppridge recalls, "We had a procedure where a couple of photographers and the television crew would form a wedge to get him through a crowd. ... The senator could shake hands ... could move around behind us as we walked backwards through the crowd, photographing him."
But instead of turning left to go back to his suite, Kennedy made a sudden decision to turn right. He lost the wedge. Eppridge was about 12 feet behind him when he heard gunshots.
"I realized what it was. I had been in riots and wars and revolutions and I knew the sound of gunfire, especially the sound of gunfire coming at me."
He reacted instinctively. He grabbed the CBS cameraman who had a lighting technician with him because Eppridge had no flash.
"I needed that light. People were frozen in place – it was like one of those nightmares where everything is stopped and you're the only person moving. ... When we came on the senator ... I said to myself, the picture isn't right from here – I was at the senator's head – and I went around to his feet. ... The busboy who had been shaking his hand as he went down was still holding him ... I started to make pictures. I made three frames: The first one was totally out of focus; the second was in focus, it was pretty good, the busboy is looking down at him; and the third one, with the busboy looking up as if he were saying, `Somebody help,' that's the photo that's become the icon."
Reading Eppridge's memories on the Nikon Web site tells most – but not all – of the story.
I remembered how those photos changed his life.
"Yes, oh yes, I decided after that I didn't like people very much so I went outdoors to shoot from then on," he tells me in a telephone conversation from his Connecticut home.
Life sent him to the Pryor Mountains on the Wyoming and Montana border, where he spent more than three months shooting a story on wild horses.
"I never got back into war or politics," he says. "I spent some time with Hubert Humphrey and realized I was always looking around behind me. I was skittish. You're no good as a photographer unless you're watching what you're supposed to photo."
He concentrated on hunting and fishing pieces until Life folded, and now works for Sports Illustrated doing the same thing. Of course, he did have to do background shoots for some of the SI swimsuit editions. "Those girls are tall," he says with feigned amazement.
For almost two decades after the Kennedy killing, he refused to look at his contact sheets, his negatives from that night. Finally, 25 years after the event, in June 1993, his book, "Robert Kennedy, the Last Campaign," was published.
He's seen Emilio Estevez's new movie, "Bobby," which makes its debut Wednesday.
"I think the scene in that room is about as accurate as they can do it. They've taken a very, very difficult situation and made it more difficult because they've injected actors into real footage. But they do it very well. A person not in that room wouldn't know what was real and what was not," he says.
"I've looked at it five times. And every time it's over, I'm crying. This movie is pretty damn strong to do that to me."
His photographs have the same effect on people. A few years ago, Nikon took an exhibit to France and strung the enlarged photos down the nave of a 15th-century cathedral. People started at the beginning and by the end they were crying, Eppridge recalls.
"I sat there and watched them. I was very proud of it." Eppridge was criticized by some journalists for taking his photos. I remember the nasty comments hurt deeply at the time. "It went into my mind not to take the pictures," he says today. "But it was history and I'm a journalist and that's instinctive.
"Yes, they will be in history books. I would rather be in history books for something else. But it had to be done."