Paul Fusco, photographer on a funeral train, dies at 89

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Paul Fusco, photographer on a funeral train, dies at 89
Paul Fusco, Untitled, from the series RFK Funeral Train, 1968, printed 2008; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Randi and Bob Fisher, Nion McEvoy, Kate and Wes Mitchell, The Black Dog Private Foundation, Candace and Vincent Gaudiani, Michele and Chris Meany, Jane and Larry Reed, and John A. MacMahon; © Magnum Photos, courtesy Danziger Gallery.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Paul Fusco, a photographer whose eye for the human impact of earthshaking events was perhaps never more evident than in the pictures he took of trackside mourners while riding Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train in 1968, died July 15 at an assisted-living center in San Anselmo, California. He was 89.

His son, Anthony, said the cause was complications of dementia.

In a long career behind the camera, Paul Fusco worked for Look magazine and the Magnum photo agency and pursued self-financed projects, including a photo series documenting the sobering aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

His varied body of work included images of hard-luck coal miners in Kentucky in 1959, Cesar Chavez and his farmworkers in 1966, AIDS patients in San Francisco in 1993 and the funeral and protests that followed the death of Alberta Spruill during a botched police raid in Harlem, New York, in 2003.

The Kennedy funeral train photographs, though, later compiled in several books and used in an HBO documentary, may have been his best known. That wasn’t true when they were first taken, however. On assignment for Look, he shot thousands of images, but the magazine used only one — “not because they didn’t like them,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2008, but because the magazine, a biweekly, was “a little behind the story.”

After Look folded in 1971, the photographs ended up in the Library of Congress, largely forgotten, except by Fusco.

“As I remained the owner of my photos,” he told the French publication L’Indépendant in 2008, “every five years, on the anniversary of Bobby’s death, I offered them to magazines. They never took them.”

That is, until George magazine, whose founders included Kennedy’s nephew John F. Kennedy Jr., published some for the 30th anniversary of the assassination. That led to a book, “RFK Funeral Train,” in 2000. For the 40th anniversary of the assassination, in 2008, Lesley A. Martin of the Aperture Foundation was seeking to update that book.

“Paul had mentioned that there were ‘some’ images at the Library of Congress,” she told Publishers Weekly, “so in good conscience and due diligence, I checked it out.”

She found more than 1,800 Kodachrome slides.

“Paul’s body of work on that single day — already so unique, impressionistic, emotionally powerful — was so much more,” she said. The photos were gathered into a book, “Paul Fusco: RFK,” with an introduction by Norman Mailer.

By the 50th anniversary, there was an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In The San Francisco Chronicle, Charles Desmarais looked back, assessing what Fusco had made that day in June 1968.

“He would have not have framed his project as conceptual art, a term then only recently coined, and one that an editorial photographer would have rejected in that day,” he wrote. “Yet his instinctual response to what he saw as his train car slowed, city by town by curve in the track, was to extract something human from an almost algorithmic serial record.”

Fusco said the funeral train series had not been planned; his editor had been vague in issuing the assignment.

“He told me, ‘There’s a train, get on it,’” Fusco told Publishers Weekly in 2008. “No instructions.”

He boarded the train as it set off in New York after the senator’s funeral there but was mostly looking ahead to the burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia that was to follow the train’s arrival in Washington.

“All I was thinking about was how to get access when we got to Arlington,” he said. “Then, when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through — it went very slowly. I just opened the window and began to shoot.”

During the eight-hour ride he captured images of all sorts of Americans, standing on rooftops, waving flags, bowing their heads.

Some of the pictures, shot from a moving train, are understandably blurry.

“The motion that appears in a lot of the photographs, for me, emphasized the breaking up of the world,” Fusco told The New York Times in 2008, “the breaking up of a society, emotionally.”

John Paul Fusco was born on Aug. 2, 1930, in Leominster, Massachusetts, to Peter and Marie Rose Thibaudeau Fusco. He became interested in photography as a teenager, and, after graduating from high school, studied for six months at the New York Institute of Photography.

Fusco enlisted in the Army in 1951 during the Korean War and trained at the Army School of Photography. Sent to Korea, he was wounded in combat and, his family said, received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

After his military service he used the G.I. Bill to study at Drake University in Iowa and then at Ohio University, which had a fine arts program in photography. He graduated in 1957 and joined Look as an assistant in the photo department but was soon made a photographer. He joined Magnum in 1973.

In addition to the Kennedy funeral train pictures, Fusco examined death and loss in “Bitter Fruit,” an exhibition documenting the funerals of soldiers killed in the war in Iraq. The government had banned the photographing of flag-draped coffins at U.S. bases where the dead were initially taken, but Fusco went to cities and towns where soldiers were being memorialized in various ways.

“This is not some weepy melodrama engineered for a Hollywood movie,” Benjamin Genocchio wrote in reviewing the exhibition for The New York Times when it was at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, “but a window onto a world of shocking and realistic grief.”

Not all of Fusco’s work was somber. In 1968 he took a particularly evocative picture of Janis Joplin performing at the Fillmore in San Francisco. In 1977 he and his wife at the time, Patricia Sayer Fusco, collaborated on a book (“Marina & Ruby: Training a Filly With Love”) about their daughter and the horse she raised. In 1999 he shot a series at the Cowtown Rodeo in New Jersey.

Fusco’s marriage ended in divorce in 1993, though he and his ex-wife remained close. In addition to his son and daughter, Marina Fusco Nims, he is survived by five grandchildren.

The photographs he shot in the Chernobyl area during visits in 1997, 1999 and 2000 documented birth defects among the population, patients in a children’s cancer ward and more. They were collected in a 2005 book, “Chernobyl Legacy.”

In the 2008 interview with L’Indépendant, he called that project “the most important job of my life.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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