BILL EPPRIDGE HEADSHOT © ADRIENNE AURICHIO
Given the epic photo assignments Bill Eppridge has covered during 50-plus years, it’s hard to single out just one anecdote to encapsulate his career. Eppridge, now 73, is a photo legend; he hung out with the Beatles during their first four days on American soil, brought viewers behind the scenes to reveal iconic 1960s Barbra Streisand portraits for Life magazine (which Jennifer Aniston revisited in 2010 for Harper’s Bazaar) and most famously recorded Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign—and his tragic assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Eppridge was in the South during the Civil Rights movement and in a muddy press tent at Woodstock, and he has covered everything from slingshot competitions to Arctic fishermen for Sports Illustrated. “Occasionally, I worked on Swimsuit issues, but only on the travel part,” he says. “They wouldn’t let me photograph the models—I wasn’t fast enough to get away from them.”
That sense of humor and a constant camera at his hip are what have kept Eppridge fresh in a sea of young photographers and evolving technology. At lunch in Midtown Manhattan, where they often travel from their Connecticut home, Bill and his wife, Adrienne, were energized, having just visited the new Apple store in Grand Central Terminal. Aside from a few medical ailments—a hearing issue and a back problem for which he uses a self-rigged cane (lacquered wood from his apple orchard with an opposable spiked stopper for snow and ice)—Eppridge is as sharp as any 35-year-old photographer at the top of his game. He’ll tell you his precise opinion of Lady Gaga’s December 2011 Vanity Fair cover and pictorial (“we still don’t know who she really is”), and he’s well versed on the latest trends in technology, blogging and videography. “As a photojournalist, anyone with an iPhone is your competition,” he says. “The equipment is more complicated now, but also quicker, more precise and available to anyone for not much money. If you want to be in this business, you have to really want it and be a lot better than you used to be.”
Eppridge’s life started as an adventure: Originally Guillermo Alfredo Eduardo, he was born in Argentina, where his American father was working as a chemical engineer for Dupont. “My folks liked ‘Billy,’” he explains. “My birth certificate is in Spanish, so the name William is the English translation.”
The family moved back to the States when Bill was still young, settling in Virginia, Tennessee and Wilmington, Delaware, where he graduated from high school in 1955. By then, he was already taking pictures and experimenting with image composition on a Brownie Star Flash 620 that his father had given him. Eppridge says sibling rivalry was the impetus: “My sister Terry is a very fine artist, painter, sculptor and potter, and I could not draw a straight line; jealousy was the motive force.”
Eppridge originally enrolled in the University of Toronto to major in archaeology, but after being named director of photography at Varsity, the university’s daily newspaper, during his sophomore year, photojournalism took a front seat. He transferred from Toronto to the respected journalism school at University of Missouri and was twice named College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) by the National Press Photographers Association. In 1959, he won first prize in NPPA’s Picture of the Year competition with the picture of a white horse running in an open field under a dark, ominous sky.
After all the accolades that college brought, Eppridge’s momentum continued. His first professional gig was a nine-month dream assignment, documenting the International School of America in 11 countries for National Geographic; the story ran as 32 pages in the magazine. Although National Geographic wanted to bring Eppridge on staff, he took the advice of then-editor Bill Garrett and went to New York to meet with connections he’d made through CPOY. Eppridge happened to run into Roy Rowan, one of the competition judges who was then director of photography for Life. In its heyday as the photojournalism magazine, Life was looking for fresh, young photographers. Rowan asked if Eppridge would consider moving to New York to shoot for the magazine; Eppridge agreed, and within a year, he was given a contract. Six months later, he was put on staff at Life, and continued in this role until 1972, shooting historic events for more than a decade.
AT THE CENTER OF HISTORY
Eppridge recalls one of his most famous assignments from 1964: “The magazine had done the story on a gang of guys being chased by teeny boppers all over London. A few weeks later, Life photo director Dick Pollard called me and said, ‘Ever hear of the Beatles?’ I said, ‘Barely.’ He said, ‘They’re pretty popular in England. Why don’t you go to the airport and see what happens?’ I got there, expecting to see a bunch of dope fiends stumbling off the plane.” Instead, to Eppridge’s surprise, there were four respectable gentlemen dressed in suits. He called the Life offices and was given the go-ahead to stay and photograph them for a few days. “The Beatles said, ‘Mr. Life magazine, what can we do for you?’” Eppridge remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t want you do to anything. I just want to sit here and be invisible. You do what you want, and I’ll shoot. If I miss something, I won’t ask you to do it again. I’ll get it, eventually.’ They respected that and said, ‘OK, stick around.’” The resulting photos—now classics of the Fab Four at the Plaza in New York City and John Lennon relaxing on a train to D.C.— have been shown across the country in the traveling exhibit, “The Beatles! Backstage and Behind the Scenes.”
“Be invisible” is Eppridge’s approach to photography in general. He had a commitment to embedding himself with subjects that enabled him to get to the truth in pictures. It’s exactly what he did during charismatic senator Robert Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, and it’s how he was able to capture the gripping image of the young senator’s head being cradled by a hotel busboy, as he lay bleeding on the floor just moments after he was shot. “At that point, the moment that gunfire went off, I realized that I was no longer a journalist,” Eppridge explains. “I’m a historian. Especially when thinking again about what came from President John F. Kennedy’s work and from his assassination in the way of recorded material,” he adds. “There were no still photographs.”
According to Eppridge, documenting Bobby Kennedy’s campaign was the most enjoyable assignment of his entire career. As he reminisces, it’s apparent that the experience profoundly affects him more than 40 years later. “It was a joyous time, and we had fun with him,” he says. “He was made to be in front of a camera. I’d do anything I wanted; if I wanted to ride in his car with him, I’d just ask him. We don’t have that access anymore. Now it’s totally controlled.” Although Kennedy’s campaign now brings a lot of warm memories, Eppridge was extremely discouraged postassassination and needed to take a sharp turn from documenting personalities. “I was just really unhappy dealing with people,” he says. “So I had to start all over again, thinking about what I wanted to do. I still wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t really have a direction.”
His next assignment was to spend three months documenting wild horses on the Wyoming-Montana border. Because the light was best in early morning and late afternoon, Eppridge’s days were often free; he would join archaeologists on the site, sifting sand and looking for arrowheads and pieces of bone.
It was at this time that Eppridge started to focus his interest on the outdoors, which evolved into a staff position at another Time-owned publication—Sports Illustrated—documenting what he calls “sports with no balls.” “I was out doing hunting, fishing, outdoors sports. If they had a story to assign and didn’t know who to give it to, I’d take it,” he says. That also included slingshot competitions, baseball games on the Texas-Mexico border and three trips to Costa Rica with one fisherman who was trying to catch the world-record tarpon on a two-pound test line. Through assignments such as these, Eppridge slowly regained the trust in humanity that had been lost after Kennedy’s assassination.
It was also while on staff at Sports Illustrated that Eppridge met then-rookie picture editor Adrienne Aurichio, in 1986. “Bill came to my door one day—I didn’t know him, but I knew of him,” she recalls. “He had a whole bunch of negatives he wanted to stash somewhere; he was going to Texas to photograph exotic animals on ranches. The picture director at the time, Barbara Henckel, told him to stash them in my office because I was newer and my office wasn’t already crammed with film. Three months later, when Bill came back, he was so surprised that his film was still there.” The two worked on several stories together and eventually married. Adrienne has managed and directed Bill Eppridge Photography since 2003. In Eppridge’s lectures to photo students, his one key piece of advice is to “find a good picture editor and marry her.”
In all seriousness, Eppridge enforces that young photographers should be out of the classroom and in the field. Being aware of the medium on which your photos are viewed is also key. “A traditional Cartier-Bresson image had a lot of things going on at once, and every time you looked, there was something else to see,” he explains. “That is no longer possible on a small screen. Consequently, you’re seeing a lot of monodimensional images where there’s only one thing going on, and people are looking at images a lot faster. The picture essay as we knew it at Life isn’t terribly valid anymore, because there’s no place to put it. There are no more Life magazines. Our images are changing, and you have to be aware of that.” Eppridge not only stays aware but also continues to shoot daily, whether it’s for his seven-year documentary of a Connecticut farm family, studies in light of his 18 percent gray cat, Bear, or his “Bill vs. Doctors” series, where his camera proves an absolutely necessary accessory for sometimes unpleasant doctors’ visits. Shooting different subjects—be it for himself or on assignment—is what staved away boredom and sustained his career. “If I bring a camera, I’m 100 percent into that camera, and from the time I leave home, I’m looking for pictures,” he says. “It keeps my mind off the fact that I have to go to the dentist or doctor, and every once in a while, you end up with something really good,” he points out. “It’s not a part-time business.”
CAMERAS: Nikon D7000, Nikon P300, Nikon 1
LENSES: AF NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4 D
AF-S NIKKOR 12-24mm f/4G ED
AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f3.5 to 5.6G ED
AUDIO: Olympus LS-10
MEDIA: Sandisk 16G cards
STORAGE: G Drives - 1, 2, and 3 terrabytes
ADDITIONAL GEAR: Merrell sneakers and kneepads (any brand that works)
BAGS: Think Tank, KATA, Hempmania
COMPUTING POWER: Macintosh Powerbooks
EDITING SOFTWARE: Photo Mechanic, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Bridge