Bill Eppridge knows the rules of photography have changed. The ways of the ’60s, when he was a staff photographer at LIFE magazine, are long gone: Staff photo positions are near extinct, everyone with an iPhone now claims to be a photographer and film seems to be a four-letter word of antiquity.
That said, Eppridge, who has shot many of the historic events of the last half-century, believes the power of documentary photography will always live on, no matter how many photos are out there in however many formats.
“The best still images, they just nail you, you remember them,” he says, as is evidenced by his iconic work.
Millions of people likely have one of his images burned into their consciousness and will always remember certain events the way Eppridge saw them — from his photo of Bobby Kennedy lying nearly lifeless on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, to his shots of the Beatles arriving in the United States for the first time.
“The process of keeping that iconic image in your head is important,” he says.
For Eppridge, still images can only do their job if you give them time to sink in. As someone who came from the analog world, where people got much of their news from magazines with ample photo spreads, Eppridge says he’s not impressed with many of the ways we choose to view photography today.
“The speeding up of the universe has not helped the type of photographic journalism that we used to do,” he says. “Consequently, we are going to have to start thinking of changing our methods of working and find a way that the person can look at the image and retain that image.”
Eppridge is not a luddite; he just doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. He posts his photography on the internet, he shoots with digital cameras and he thinks there’s a place for multimedia projects that combine the still frame with video and audio. But he’s also made sure his work continues to find a home in print magazines, books and gallery shows.
The importance of having time to absorb the still frame comes from his desire to use photography as a tool for change. An image needs to be remembered in order to make a difference. After years of documenting environmental disasters, murder and war, Eppridge no longer believes in objectivity. Instead, he hopes his work has educated the world about the events he’s covered and has helped avoid repeating past mistakes.
“You stay objective until the point where you understand what is right, and what is proper,” he said. “Once you see that, I don’t think the objectivity remains.”
Eppridge says there are several instances where he went into a situation with an open mind but quickly formed an opinion about what he thought was right or wrong. In Vietnam he tried to appreciate the situation facing American soldiers, but he couldn’t look past the atrocities they committed, either.
During the funeral for James Chaney — one of three Civil Rights leaders murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964 — he says it was difficult to see the disdain the family received from the surrounding white community while suffering through a tragic personal loss.
“The treatment of the Chaney family was hateful and I couldn’t remain objective,” he says. “If you’re any kind of a journalist, you don’t remain objective.”
Several of Eppridge’s most moving frames from the Chaney funeral are currently hanging in a larger show of his work at the well-known Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe. He was also recently honored with the 2011 Lucie Award for Achievement in Photojournalism, an honor awarded to him by his peers.
Ultimately, Eppridge says he hasn’t given up on the power of photography or any kind of documentary work. While the days of 20-page spreads in LIFE magazine might never come back, he knows people are still out there telling stories for the right reasons.
“We’re in such a state of transition, I don’t think any of us can predict where we’re going to go,” he said. “But I can tell you one thing, we’re gonna’ win, the good people will end up on top, and that story has to be told.”