Remembering Bill Eppridge

Bill Eppridge died, and the obituaries were justifiably effusive in praise of his photojournalism artistry. Our little group that hung around Max’s, the bar and grill across from Missouri’s J-School, always knew he was destined for greatness. Didn’t he win first prize in a National Press Photographers Association competition while still in school, as well as being named College Photographer of the Year two years running? (We always wondered what he did with two sets of encyclopedias.) The rest of us sat drinking beer and eating Max’s delicious and economically priced  hamburgers while reassuring ourselves that we were never going to “quote, prostitute our talent,” but Bill would be roaming the room, the always–present camera in hand on the chance a promising picture presented itself.

After college he was an intern at Life magazine and then went to work for National Geographic until returning to Life where he remained until that magazine’s demise. He also worked for Time and Sports Illustrated.  He was at Life when he volunteered to cover Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. Kennedy won the California primary and had just delivered his acceptance speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot by a lone assassin in the hotel kitchen. Bill’s haunting photo of the senator sprawled on the floor, his head cradled by a distraught busboy, became an iconic image, one of many in that violent chapter in our nation’s history. The obituaries say the death of Bobby Kennedy, whom Bill had grown close to, marked the rest of the photographer’s life. He covered other political campaigns, including part of George McGovern’s presidential run, but it was never the same.

Bill’s book, A Time It Was – Bobby Kennedy in the Sixties is on display in our home library and his photo of the last issue of The New York Herald Tribune coming off the press is part of a journalism-themed coffee table I decoupaged many years ago. We look at it every day as we drink our morning coffee and read two newspapers. Our journalist daughter has dibs on the table  when we die, but I wonder if she and her friends will recognize some of the images: the pressmen in their paper hats, the hands of a page makeup guy arranging metal type, the linotype and teletype machines, and of course the newsroom with rows of desks and typewriters. That was a time as well.

In an impetuous move that became symptomatic of much of our life together, Ed and I decided to marry two months before my graduation. Bill and another old J-School friend Mort Engleberg took pictures. You know how wedding photographers frequently take pictures of the bride and groom waving from inside the car? Bill’s photo was shot from beside the car to show all our friends waving to us. Brilliant, and much more meaningful.

We admired Bill’s career from a distance, losing touch with him and the others from Max’s. A few years ago we read of the death of an especially revered editor at The New Yorker and realized it must have been our old friend Pat Crowe. For thirty years we lived across the river, fourteen miles from Manhattan, and didn’t know he was there. That’s very sad. My daughter says that thanks to Facebook her generation will not lose track of friends from college and other times in their lives, and I suppose she’s right. At this point in my life I will have to wait for obituaries and the nostalgic reverie they engender.

weddingwedding guests

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[Wedding photos, Herald-Tribune photo: Bill Eppridge]

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