The assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King. A turn against Vietnam. The Summer of Love set alight by the Days of Rage. 1968 was the year that rocked the world and left America, who faced a specific set of issues on the home front, reeling as hopes for liberal democratic change crumbled one by one around a discontented population.
50 years later, Rein Jelle Terpstra’s ‘The People’s View’ looks back at one of 1968’s most memorable moments to gather Americans together in disbelief: the funeral train of Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, which travelled from New York City to Washington DC, on 8 June 1968.
Terpstra’s work is a response to Paul Fusco’s ‘RFK Funeral Train’, a series of over 1000 photographs taken by the ‘Look’ journalist who shot the mourning crowds from aboard the train. Fusco’s images come from ‘above’, as he sped past the gathered crowds. Terpstra, meanwhile, gathers and curates moments remembered - in the form of photographs, letters, newspaper clips and films - from the same people watching from ‘below’, in an even truer, grassroots portrait of a turbulent time.
Several previously unseen images of Fusco’s are included in the exhibition. A tableau of the ‘other’ 1968 to the high society on board the funeral train - the Kennedy family, media, celebrities and activists - Fusco turns his lens on the tracks. In doing so, he builds a portrait of ordinary American society - African Americans, blue collar workers, farmers, women clasping the hands of children and husbands, and GIs home on leave.
Fusco focuses on one person in each image, blurring the other visible figures into a sea of swirling colour, as if we too speed by with him. Visually, this encourages us to empathise with the feelings of the one clear individual amid the mass mourning. The complete blurring of some people’s faces, meanwhile, evokes the feeling of looking at those forgotten or unrecognised by the establishment at that time. Stratas of American society stand apart from each other, united only in their grief. Some darker skin tones are still not picked up due to the film stock being used at the time Fusco was working, adding to the reality of separation and segregation of the period. The Kodachrome stock colours, meanwhile, add a hazy, sun tinted, nostalgic feeling to Fusco’s style, allowing us to look back to at a time seen to have been lost with the death of Kennedy.
Tepstra adds a new context to Fusco’s photos, with an inventive use of ephemera and photography that captures the collective memory of the event and a view of American blue collar zeitgeist of the late 1960s from the people who directly experienced it.
Some of these fragments of visual culture, snapshots taken by the viewers on that warm June day, are displayed along three walls, lined up according to the map of where they were taken - Baltimore, Wilmington, Elizabeth, Harman and Philadelphia - passing through farming areas, steel towns, shacks by roads, workers suburbs and the outskirts of cities. The tiny slides, Polaroids and scrapbook pages, tattered and blurry, offer an enchanting peek into the past highlighting domesticity, poverty and social history. These are not images of late 1960s revolutionary zeal but of ordinary folks, tainted with a sadness for the passing of their ‘Bobby’ and all that he stood for and who have since clung to mementoes of this time for over half a century.
Prior to the project becoming public, Terpstra spent time in America, tracing people and their memories to bring them together as a body of work. A touching addition to the exhibition is a mix of original Kennedy election materials, notes and letters to a band who played as the train passed by, photos of participants in the 21st century looking at their own past, and a copy of ‘Look’ magazine from Summer 1968, which in the end carried just a few of Fusco’s original images, the media at the time preferring to concentrate on the celebrity of the day.
The Super 8 footage Tepstra sources further brings the history alive. A hammering sound of a train on a track draws you to an installation in a dark corner of the exhibition space. Four screens like windows hang in the centre of the room, showing a montage of the Super 8 footage. The images flash up quickly, moving along the screens, adding to a feeling of motion.
In the weeks after ‘RFK Funeral Train’ was shot, the people in Fusco’s images see their new President, Richard Nixon, escalate the war in Vietnam and execute a set of politics that meant the hope felt by those who lined the train tracks, for the racial equality and social justice promised by Kennedy, became a lost dream. The children in Fusco and Terptra’s images would come of age in the early 1980s, in Ronald Reagan’s neo-liberal America. Their grandchildren are now coming of age in President Donald Trump’s America, an era of borders, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The present state of the American nation is of one where the concerns of 1968, which Fusco captured and which Terpstra’s participants recorded and which he brings to an institutional context, are not fully resolved.