In March of 1968 I had been on the Modesto Bee photo staff just under two years and had long since earned my stripes with the editors and photographers, so I was given my first big assignment of national importance: to photograph Robert F. Kennedy at the Senate Hearings in Stockton, California.Â As a lifelong Democrat, getting to photograph RFK was a dream comes true. The Photo Assignment appeared simple and straightforward, â€œOld Stockton High School Auditorium, Stockton, Senate Hearings, Robert Kennedy, 1:00 p.m.â€Â Chuck Rodgers, the chief photographer at the time, called out to me with a big grin as I went out the door, â€œScrew on your objectivity glasses!â€Â I knew what he meant.
I arrived at the school an hour early and was greeted by some of my fellow photojournalist friends who asked me, â€œWhy werenâ€™t you on the tour?â€Â There was a tour?Â I didnâ€™t know about any tour.Â They quickly informed me that since the hearing was about poverty in America, RFK had taken a tour into Stocktonâ€™s poorest areas for several hours that morning.Â One of the more blowhard photographers gloated about the great photos he got, as Bobby talked one-on-one with kids.Â Immediately, I realized the missed chance to get great classic images of Bobby in the midst of real poverty and real people in the Delta.
This first lesson was one of those hard experiences that have made me a better photojournalist.Â I never again left so much to the assignment editor.Â When I finally talked to him later that day, I found out that his priorities were different from mine.Â He knew about the tour but dismissed it because he didnâ€™t think it would contribute to the written piece he planned (even though it would have).Â From that point forward, I did my own research so I wouldnâ€™t miss a morning tour or whatever extras might enrich an assignment beyond what the assigning editor had envisioned.Â I also learned that it was essential to discuss with my editors what factors they believed were visually important to a storyâ€”not only so that I would capture the images they wanted, but also so that I could anticipate what they had overlooked.
This image of Bobby is my favorite.Â Using a clunky Nikkor 300mm f4.0, wide open at 1/60th of a second, I squeezed off a handful of images from the press area. Â To see my images on Photoshelter click here.
Before the hearing, a good-sized group surrounded RFK and greeted him with smiles and outreached hands.
This image was taken from stage left on the steps leading to backstage.Â I went through a side door that I calculated would get me backstage.Â This is where Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and RFK bodyguard, taught me the second lesson of the day by knocking me into the stage rigging as he demanded, â€œWhere is your pin?â€Â He then explained the credentialing process as I apologized.Â He said he would have hit me harder if he had really thought I was a threat.Â It was a memorable introduction to the importance of credentialing.
The crowd was cheerful and excited except for this nun who caught my eye.Â She started crying when Bobby came close.
I havenâ€™t done much with these portraits of RFK.Â At the time, the Modesto Bee ran only the photo of the crowd greeting him as he arrived at the school.
Members of the Mexican American Political Association greet the Senator on his arrival at Stagg High School.
Stagg students get their chance to shake Kennedyâ€™s hand.
By May of 1968, Robert F. Kennedy had declared his candidacy for the presidency and was in the thick of the California primary.Â On May 30, 1968, Kennedy and his wife were traveling up the Central Valley on a train doing whistle stop campaign speeches.Â AP and the bigger papers were on the train the full trip, but we were told a photographer and reporter could get on the train in Turlock and ride as far as Modesto.Â I wanted that assignment, but it went to Chuck, the chief photographer.Â I would be on the ground at the rail station in Modesto.Â So I set out to make the best images from the vantage point I was given.Â At first I was disappointed that the Los Angeles AP photographer was in my frame, but now I like the whole feeling of a hectic campaign stop.
The train arrived in Modesto late in the afternoon and most of the activities were in the backlight.Â Golubâ€™s Corollary to Murphyâ€™s Law states that the best possible image comes in the worst possible light.Â I knew before I got there that I wanted to shoot from the left, from the right, and from the center.Â I was so inexperienced I didnâ€™t know that capturing all these angles should be standard.Â Photographers often take too many shots from one side because crowds can be difficult.Â This crowd certainly turned out to be hard to move through, but I stuck to my plan.Â First, I worked my way to the East side of the observation deck and got as close as possible to the candidate.Â Next, I pulled back and cut a path to the other side where I saw Ethel Kennedy waving to the crowd.Â Finally, as the train pulled out of the station I moved to the rear of the crowd and got images of the spectators and candidateâ€™s party as they left.
Ethel Kennedy waving to the spectators with full sun on her.
My back-up camera was my Rolieflex twin lens reflex, so I used it to get all of the images of the crowd as the train left the station.
I learned a lot from these two assignments, although it was also clear that at the age of 25 I still had more to learn.
Wow to the max!!!
Phenomenal! Great work.
Your images really make me feel this event and the anticipation of the faces of hope and the tension is awesome! Fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing this historic
visit and you wonderful photographs.
What a great treasure to have not only these amazing snapshots in time but the historical memories to go along with them. You may have been “inexperienced” at the time, Al, but 43 years later, your photographs perfectly capture the feel of the era.
wonderful pictures. wish you had more.
Al, great photojournalism! Only correction is that the hearings took place at the old Stockton High School. It was being used as Stockton Jr. High at the time of RFK’s visit. I was a ninth grader there at the time at got a glimpse of him going into the auditorium. Students weren’t allowed into the auditorium. What a great civics lesson that would have been though.
I lived in Modesto when this occurred. There was great concern whether RFK would win California at that time. The whistle stop tour went a long way towards determining the final outcome. A school teacher of mine got a super 8 video of the visit. He showed it to us after the assassination. Very haunting. Someone a day after the assassination left a wreath at the site in Modesto where the train had stopped that day. Great photos.
Brilliant view of history, and great insight for those learning the business.
These photos so capture this moment in time. I was there in 68.I was only 15 years old and asked to be a cheerleader for Robert Kennedy. Myself, and three other girls led the crowd in chants and song…campaigning and promoting Robert Kennedy. I remember handing him milkshakes and him teasing me and appealling the crowd with his comment(thanks but you’re too young to vote.)These photos bring everything back so clearly to me. Al is such a magnificent photograhpher. What a mirror on history he has caught.
These photo’s bring back memories, My aunt took me to the Turlock Station that day when I was only 10 yrs old. All I remember was that he joked about Turlock turkey.
I was there in May 1968, when RFK came to Modesto. I was 5 years old, and my Uncle Dick and my father took me to the train station to see RFK. It’s one of my earliest memories, and a moment I was always treasure. Thank you for the photos.
I would love to get a copy of the photo that ran in the Modesto Bee back in 1968. My Mother and Grandmother are front and center in the crowd and my Father is nearby, back a few rows. Kennedy is in the corner, waving. I love, love, love reading about the Kennedys, especially Bobby. I really enjoyed reading your account of that day and seeing your remarkable photos. Thanks.
I have mentioned and thought of that event in Modesto day many times over the years, and now I can actually find the particulars. I was a Young Democrat for Kennedy campaign worker under local c. manager John Martin, and attended the whistle-stop rally. Age 16. Imagine the shock six days later. I always had it in my mind, in the haze of that week, that he had gone directly on the train to LA. Your posting and some others cleared that up a bit.
I am currently teaching university English in Morocco and wanted to use RFK speeches for examples of persuasive rhetoric. Young Moroccans know who he was! Looking for my favorite speech, Bobby’s MLK Jr. Eulogy, led me back in time to that chrystalized moment, and Google rewarded me with your website to verify it.
I was there that day in Modesto 52 years ago. A college sophomore at Modesto Junior College. I was watching the Joe Biden whistle stop this morning and was amazed of what a flop that was. I told my wife about being there on that sunny day in the heart of the Central Valley of my home state and feeling the absolute excitement of crowd and seeing Bobby Kennedy and his beautiful wife on that train platform. I have thought about it over the years, but today I was compelled to try and see some images thru the wonders of Google. Thank you for this website
I estimated in my recollection of that day of 500-1000 people, but these images are fantastic and it appears like there were more there in the crowd that that. I wish we had that kind of excitement in our candidates today.
I was enjoying your pictures of the whistle stop for Bobby Kennedy in Modesto. I was there that day and was standing right below the train. I could have reached up to shake their hand if it had been allowed.
I was wondering if you have any pictures that show the crowd below looking at them? Or perhaps the person you said was on the train with them may have one. It was such a special day for me to be there. My boss let me off work to go and I did not have time to go home first and get my camera. It would be fun to show my grandkids I was there.