Bill Eppridge: A Legacy of Haunting Moments

Last Thursday photographer Bill Eppridge, who was 75, died in a hospital near his home in Danbury, Connecticut after a short illness. Eppridge, who took countless memorable photographs during his decades-long career, was widely known for his image of a slain Robert F. Kennedy lying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, with busboy Juan Romero trying to comfort him — a photograph taken just moments after Sirhan Sirhan had fatally shot the presidential hopeful. As Eppridge said later in life, following Kennedy was an assignment he begged his editors to put him on.

“Most journalists tried to maintain a separation between themselves and the politicians, and most accomplished that,” he recounted in an interview for the Leonard Lopate radio show on WNYC in 2008. “[Kennedy] was too powerful a figure for me to try and distance myself from him.”

That photograph of Kennedy had a profound impact on Eppridge, haunting him for much of his life. “He went on to many other assignments,” said photo editor Karen Mullarkey, who worked with Eppridge at Life and other publications. “But I believe in my heart that part of Bill perished that night.”

Though for years I had seen Eppridge’s photographs, it wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that I became intimately acquainted with his work. After discovering an old stash of GEO magazines at a thrift shop in Apollo, Pennsylvania, I came across an article titled “A Football High” by Pat Jordan. It chronicled the decline of Duquesne, an old mill town along the Monongahela River just outside of Pittsburgh, where football was as much a part of the town’s identity as steel production. Aside from Jordan’s excellent narrative reporting, what struck me were the accompanying photographs of this once-great mill town now in the throes of steep decline. Eppridge took those photos. His stark images of Duquesne telegraphed the instability of the Rust Belt in the early 1980s — from the small and colorful houses that dotted the hillsides of the Mon Valley to the social and economic uncertainty of a town on the brink of obsolescence.

Of course Eppridge’s work for GEO was not his most iconic, but that’s what I admired about it. Even in a one-shot assignment for a short-lived magazine that dreamed of competing with National Geographic, his approach didn’t waver. The same attention to person and place was at play, just as it is in his other more well-known images such as “Masked Riders,” “Hit the Deck,” or “Apollo 13,” among others. Look at any of Eppridge’s photographs and there’s an undeniable emotional weight that gets transferred to the audience, no matter the stakes or eventual outlet.

A prime example of the aforementioned emotional weight that Eppridge often captured is on full display in “Needle Park,”one of the most powerful photo essays of his career. To commemorate his death, Life has republished the original piece:

In February 1965, LIFE magazine published an extraordinary photo essay on two heroin addicts, John and Karen, in New York City. Photographed by Bill Eppridge, the photographs — and the accompanying article, reported and written by LIFE associate editor James Mills — were part of a two-part series on narcotics in the United States. A sensitive, clear-eyed and harrowing chronicle of, as LIFE phrased it, “two lives lost to heroin,” Eppridge’s pictures shocked the magazine’s readers and brought the sordid, grim reality of addiction into countless American living rooms.

Included below are several memorable shots from Eppridge’s archives, images that cemented his place as both a crucial photographer and an indispensable historian of modern American culture.

Robert F. Kennedy by Bill Eppridge

Robert F. Kennedy deep in thought on an airplane during a campaign trip (click to enlarge).

Hit the Deck by Bill Eppridge

Skateboarding in New York City, 1965 (click to enlarge).

apollo-13_bill-eppridge_life-magazine

Marilyn Lovell, family and friends watch television at home during the Apollo 13 crisis, April 1970 (click to enlarge).

(Photograph: Bill Eppridge. Caption: Needle Park: “Her arms around Johnny and his brother, Bro — also an addict — Karen lies hopelessly on a hotel bed.”)