RFK's Shooting Turned Photographer into Historian

A wounded Kennedy lies on the kitchen floor. i i

Bill Eppridge was following Sen. Robert Kennedy into the kitchen when shots rang out. He continued snapping photos, sensing he should document the moment. Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.
A wounded Kennedy lies on the kitchen floor.

Bill Eppridge was following Sen. Robert Kennedy into the kitchen when shots rang out. He continued snapping photos, sensing he should document the moment.

Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.

In Focus

When shots rang out in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, Ted Sorensen's first thought was: How could this have happened to another Kennedy?

Sen. Kennedy puffs on a cigar. i i

Bill Moyers (left) and Sen. Kennedy aboard Air Force One during President Johnson's campaign tour in August 1966. Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.
Sen. Kennedy puffs on a cigar.

Bill Moyers (left) and Sen. Kennedy aboard Air Force One during President Johnson's campaign tour in August 1966.

Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.
A newspaper photographer leans out of the driver window. i i

A newspaper photographer takes his hands off the wheel and eyes off the road to snap pictures of Kennedy. Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc. hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.
A newspaper photographer leans out of the driver window.

A newspaper photographer takes his hands off the wheel and eyes off the road to snap pictures of Kennedy.

Bill Eppridge/Life/©Time Inc.
Sen. Kennedy rides on the back of a convertible. i i

Kennedy campaigns while riding on the back of a convertible in Watts, Calif., in 1968. Copyright © 2008 Bill Eppridge hide caption

itoggle caption Copyright © 2008 Bill Eppridge
Sen. Kennedy rides on the back of a convertible.

Kennedy campaigns while riding on the back of a convertible in Watts, Calif., in 1968.

Copyright © 2008 Bill Eppridge
Campaign convertible on I-405. i i

A Kennedy campaign convertible barrels down I-405 in California. The motorcade received more than 150 traffic violations from the LAPD. Copyright © 2008 William E. Eppridge hide caption

itoggle caption Copyright © 2008 William E. Eppridge
Campaign convertible on I-405.

A Kennedy campaign convertible barrels down I-405 in California. The motorcade received more than 150 traffic violations from the LAPD.

Copyright © 2008 William E. Eppridge

Who Was Bobby Kennedy?

Read a brief snapshot of his life and accomplishments and listen to excerpts from some of his speeches and interviews.

Photojournalist Bill Eppridge captured Robert F. Kennedy in every possible political setting: speaking through a bullhorn, signing autographs, hanging off the back of a campaign convertible, extending his hand to adoring crowds.

He also took the iconic photograph of the senator lying on the floor of the kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Kennedy, who had been shot by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, would die early the next morning.

The night of the shooting, Eppridge says, his vocation shifted from photojournalist to historian. He recounts his years with the senator in his new book, A Time It Was: Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties.

'No Cigars'

Eppridge, 70, remembers well his first photograph of Kennedy, which was taken while he was on assignment for Life magazine. The photographer was with President Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One when he spotted Kennedy puffing on a cigar.

"I took the camera out very quietly and grabbed a couple of pictures," Eppridge tells Renee Montagne.

One of those images ran in the magazine. A few months later, Eppridge was assigned to photograph Kennedy campaigning in 1966.

"I went and I introduced myself to the senator, told him what I wanted to do," Eppridge says. "I said, 'I wanna stick right with you,' and he looked at me kinda funny and he says, 'OK, but no cigars, huh?'"

To Eppridge, the senator was a gentleman who aided him in getting candid photos by ignoring him.

"He allowed me to photograph moments that were really true moments," the photographer says. "Not setups, not photo ops, but just moments that happened, and I loved it."

No Protection

That night at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, Life was closing its issue and time was tight, Eppridge says. He was told to shoot only in black and white film and stay close to the candidate.

"When the senator was finished speaking, the exit that we were going to go out was across the ballroom, and the photographers usually formed a wedge in front of the candidate so that we backed through the crowd and gave him room to shake hands," Eppridge says.

"[The] senator came off the stage. The bodyguard said, 'Senator this way,' pointing to the door, and ... Bob Kennedy said, 'No, this way' and turned and went to the right, to the kitchen and he had no protection in front of him."

Then the shots rang out.

"I got through the curtain into the kitchen and I first heard two shots, and I turned to my left and there was the senator lying there. And at that point my profession changed. I became a historian," Eppridge says.

What he saw was "almost like a crucifixion." Eppridge says he took three frames of a white-shirted busboy holding Kennedy — the third one became the icon.

From the Hip

Kennedy's wife, Ethel, asked photographers to leave the room, but Eppridge remained behind, backing up into the crowd.

"Every once in a while, I would reach around and click the shutter on the camera that was hanging around my neck," he says. "I never put it up to my eye; I shot from the hip and came up with one quite acceptable picture.

"I know it was the right thing to do," Eppridge says. "I think that kind of a situation has got to be documented, it has to be told, and it has to be told to people who do not understand the horrors that we can face."

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