Life Magazine Legend Bill Eppridge, 75

Life magazine and Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Eppridge, last year at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm Workshop in Jeffersonville, NY. Photograph by Donald R. Winslow
Life magazine and Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Eppridge, last year at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm Workshop in Jeffersonville, NY. Photograph by Donald R. Winslow

By Donald R. Winslow

DANBURY, CT (October 3, 2013) – Former Life magazine photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Bill Eppridge has died. 

Eppridge, 75, had been in an intensive care unit at the Danbury Hospital for several weeks suffering from a blood infection that was the result of a fall where he injured his hand, friend and photojournalist Bill Snead told News Photographer magazine today.

"I just saw him on September 16th in ICU, and he was unconscious and on some support," Snead said. "He had fallen downtown and banged up his hand ... by then he had a blood infection, it was bad news ...". 

Eppridge was a student photographer at the Missourian when he shot a picture of a white horse in a field that won and award in NPPA's Pictures of the Year competition. The prize was an internship at Life magazine. After graduation he also went on a nine-month photographic tour of the world for National Geographic magazine. During an amazing career spanning decades, Eppridge made iconic photographs that included the 1968 assassination of his friend and story subject, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and picture essays like "Needle Park" (about heroin addiction), which was made into a blockbuster, award-winning Hollywood movie.

"Bill's wife Adrienne Aurichio, and his sisters Terry and Randi and Radio Roger Norum, were with him this morning when he died," Snead said. "Bill and Adrienne had been working on a Beatles book and were into the final proofing. It's due to come out in early 2014 on the 50th anniversary of their invasion of New York. Eppridge spent over a week shooting them, hotels and all, while a staffer at Life."

"Most of the superlatives being used right now to describe Bill Eppridge ... well, they're all true," Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John Filo said. "He was a friend who continued to inspire. He never looked at any photography assignment as another row of bricks to be set. For him, it was building another row of something that inspired, like a great cathedral."

Filo said Eppridge, who was a frequent speaker at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm Workshops, was showing photographs and speaking once at Barnstorm when Adams leaned over and whispered something into Filo's ear. "He's the only photographer I ever feared who would out-shoot me on assignments," Adams said.

"As a photographer who knew both of them, I don't think you can describe someone's ability better than that," Filo said.

Karen Mullarkey, a New York photography editor who worked at Life in the 1960s, remembers taking with Eppridge at the time about the photographs of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. She says Eppridge commented that you could tell the photographer was not a professional photojournalist because he had waited until Dr. King's body was covered before shooting photographs of the hotel's balcony.

"I was shocked," Mullarkey said today. "I said to him, 'Do you mean to tell me that if Bobby Kennedy, who you adore, was shot in front of you ... you wouldn't put down your camera and try to help him?' To which Eppridge replied, 'I am not paid to do that. I am paid to record the event completely. Not to edit it in my camera. That's the job of photo editors here at Life and the decision of the managing editor as to what they will publish."

The conversation could not have been more prophetic. Months later Senator Kennedy was murdered and, true to his statement, Eppridge made the incredible image of the dying candidate on the hotel kitchen's floor which would become iconic and win a Pulitzer Prize.

"Later, I looked at Eppridge's contact sheet," Mullarkey said. "Only six frames were not sharp. The rest were totally in focus. And the ones that were soft were in the middle of the contact sheet. It took that long for [Eppridge's] brain to register what had happened, and how awful it was to see the man he so admired and adored, dying at his feet."

She says Eppridge was never really the same after that night. "I believe with all my heart, a major part of Bill also died that on that day. A piece of him, psychologically, died that night. He never really recovered."

"Eppridge was a man of vision, integrity, and passion," his friend Bill Frakes, who shot the Olympics and other Sports Illustrated events with him, said today. "He gave us decades worth of smiles."

Eppridge was honored with NPPA's higest award, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial, in 1996, and with a President's Medal in 1995.

Shooting for Life and Sports Illustrated, Eppridge covered wars, political campaigns, Olympic games, Woodstock, and heroin addition. During his career he taught photojournalism in many college classrooms and at intensive workshops, including his friend Eddie Adams's Barnstorm workshop in New York. He also taught at Yale University, the Missouri Photojournalism Workshop, Rich Clarkson's Photography at the Summit, and SportsShooter workshops.

He started his career at a high school newspaper in Wilmington, DE, when he was only 15. He graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism program in 1959 and was the NPPA/Missouri College Photographer of the Year at the same time. He was a two-time winner of the CPOY title. In 2009, Eppridge received the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

Friend David Hume Kennerly responded to the sad news today on Facebook. 

"Bill was the first 'big time' photographer that I met as a young shooter in Portland, Oregon in 1966," Kennerly said. "He extended a helping hand and a bushel of inspiration to me, and his kindness shaped the course of my career. He will be missed greatly by all who knew him. I am terribly saddened by this."

Eppridge was a resident of New Milford, CT, and is survived by his wife and sisters. Snead told News Photographer magazine that plans will be made for a memorial service, with details being announced soon.

BELOW: Photojournalist Bill Eppridge signed a copy of his book about the last campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy for Caroline E. Couig last year at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm Workshop in Jeffersonville, NY. Photograph by Donald R. Winslow