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Friday, May 20, 2011

Night with Bill Eppridge a March through History

Night with Bill Eppridge a March 
through History:
Fairfield Museum hosts 
celebrated LIFE photographer
By Mike Lauterborn
(Posted to 5/20)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – He had a front row seat to some of the most memorable moments in American history, his iconic photographic captures are recognized the world over and a rapt local audience had the unique pleasure of hearing some of his related stories.

As part of its third annual IMAGES 2011 photography exhibit, the Fairfield Museum and History Center hosted an intimate presentation, titled “A Man and His Camera”, given by photojournalist Bill Eppridge Thursday evening May 19. To a full house, the 73-year-old New Milford resident and former photographer for LIFE Magazine, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic conducted a show-and-tell of shots that ranged from landscapes and small town scenes to encounters with sports figures, drug addicts, movie stars, musicians and politicos.

“We have been waiting for this all year,” said the Museum’s Director of Development Robin Valovich. “Bill is an amazing human being and living history book. His work covers all the key historical events since the 60s – moments like the Bobby Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock and the Beatles first U.S. tour.”

Over 50 of his images are included in the current exhibit, dating from his high school days in the 50s to present day imagery of barns bearing American flags in Litchfield that Eppridge began documenting after 9/11. Several of his cameras, press passes and photos of him on the job are also on display.

“One of my favorite images is a classic photo of Casey Stengel when he was general manager of the Mets in their inaugural year,” said Kathie Bennewitz, the Museum’s Director of Exhibitions and Programs. “Every picture is worth 1,000 words. He recalls each experience with absolute clarity. As a photojournalist, he knows the critical moment when to click the shutter to communicate an event to a national audience.”  

Joining Eppridge for the presentation was his wife Adrienne Aurichio, who is also director of Bill Eppridge Photography. “This is only the second retrospective that has been done on him,” she said, “and it’s a teaser for a big book we’re working on of his life’s work. It’s nice to see so many people come out to support him – Bill’s always excited to talk about his work.”

Following a brief wine and cheese reception, the Museum’s Executive Director Michael Jehle introduced Eppridge, commenting, “His lifelong work is a testament to the importance of photojournalism in documenting our nation’s history.”

Apologizing for the cane he was using for support, the modest and thoroughly congenial photographer said it was 52 years ago that he bought his first Nikon and it still works. It has supported his role as photojournalist, though he preferred to use the term “generalist”, explaining, “I’m not a specialist. Given any story, I’d say, ‘Why not?’ I’m a storyteller, and I’ve never tried to do the same thing twice.”

While a young boy in Richmond, VA, a photographer visited his family’s home. Eppridge found his job interesting. “He got to travel, meet interesting people and work with technical things,” he said. “I thought it would be fun to do.”

At the University of Missouri, Eppridge was asked to do a cover for a farm supplement and managed to get off one dramatic photo of a pony tearing off through a tornado-like storm. It got him national recognition.

“I started working for LIFE and one of my first assignments was to photograph Jackie Kennedy,” he said. “My boss’ advice was to stand between UPI and AP.”

Eppridge said he carries a camera all the time. “You never know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know,” he said. “And I’m always testing my eye to see if it’s still working.”

One story he did for LIFE was on heroine. “We found it had been absorbed into the white middle class,” he said. “We spent three months figuring out how to do it then found a young white husband and wife to follow. My job was to be invisible, a fly on the wall. He was a thief and she was a prostitute. Nobody complained much about me being there.” With dramatic black-and-white shots, he captured drug deals, stints in jail and daily interactions.

In 1964, Eppridge “had a little chance to spend a lot of time” photographing actress Barbra Streisand. “She was so poor at first that she bought frames without art in them to hang on her walls.”

About his experience in Vietnam, he said, “LIFE wasn’t terribly happy with some of the pictures I was taking, especially of prisoners. After my assignment, I never covered war again. I’m kind of glad of that.”

The most riveting part of his talk was about Senator Robert Kennedy and his ultimate assassination June 5, 1968. “He was the smartest one in the family,” he said, “and it was uncanny how much he looked like his brother sometimes. Kids liked him, women liked him, the Catholic Church liked him. I was with him at the Ambassador Hotel when there was debate about which way to exit a ballroom after he gave a speech. He decided to take a shortcut through the kitchen. I was just catching up to him when I heard bang bang, then bang bang bang bang bang. I knew exactly what it was. I’d hunted before. I realized I was no longer a journalist but a historian as I captured the scene.”

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