The images in this intimate show may never have been seen by the public if it were not for the longtime friendship between Jesse Alexander and Patricia Clarke. Upon seeing one of Clarke’s brilliant and moving photos of Barack Obama from 2007, Alexander offered one of his shots of Robert Kennedy from 1968 in exchange. Now, fortunately for the rest of us, that trade between two artists has grown into this wonderful reminder of a great American. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s heroic, tragic campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, it’s worth remembering a little of the context of these remarkable images. Most were taken in San Francisco, where the candidate worked the streets, alternately riding in an open convertible and walking in close proximity to the thousands of people who came out to see and hear him.
Kennedy ran in a close and complicated race. Once the incumbent president Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run, Kennedy faced two rivals, vice president Hubert Humphrey and Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy. Humphrey had the still-powerful Democratic Party machine behind him, and the liberal antiwar crusader McCarthy put the increasingly unpopular conflict in Vietnam in front of everyone on a regular basis. In addition to these two challengers from within the established party, an independent candidate, Alabama governor George Wallace, was attacking the Democrats on a vulnerable flank, the working class. Kennedy won the Indiana primary on May 7, and then lost Oregon to McCarthy on May 28, a blow that nearly knocked him out.
Doubling down on his candidacy, Kennedy vowed that he would either win in California or quit the campaign. He scored a victory over McCarthy in their first televised debate, which was held in San Francisco, and went on to conduct one of the most ambitious election eve trips in history by parading through San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego all in a single day. Moments after concluding his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed by the assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
For Jesse Alexander, who is best known for his body of work documenting the stars of motor sports, photography has always been about the people, and not the ostensible subject. In these vivid images he captures Kennedy’s presence as few have managed to do, despite the multitudes of photos that exist of this photogenic politician. The excitement of the historical moment remains subservient to the artist’s core goal, which is to connect with another human being. There’s no better time to revisit and remember what American leadership once looked like.
RFK: California, 1968 shows through September 16 at the Patricia Clarke Studio, 410 Palm Avenue, A 18 Palm Lofts, in Carpinteria, (805) 452-7739.