Exhibit shows Adelman's civil rights-era photos
Miami Beach, Fla. • Flipping through a stack of color images he shot during a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., photographer Bob Adelman is casual about the history they represent.
He pauses at the image of a group of people with clasped hands raised in victory at a Montgomery, Ala., cab stand, where people had gathered during the city's long bus boycott a decade earlier, and calls them "real King fans." Pointing to the second floor of the Alabama Capitol, behind a line of green-helmeted troops, he chuckles as he remembers, "Gov. Wallace was hiding behind the curtains up there."
Then there's the man with his fist raised in mid-speech, whom he calls "Doc" better known as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Now they seem like momentous events. At the time, they were covered in the back pages of newspapers, for the most part. The only time blacks appeared in newspapers at that time was when there was violence," Adelman said.
The images are among roughly 150 assembled at Nova Southeastern University's Museum of Art-Fort Lauderdale for an exhibit marking the half-century since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Adelman volunteered his services as a photographer to the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He went on to shoot the covers of national magazines and the front pages of national newspapers, but he always considered himself an activist.
"Unlike photojournalists trying to get the shot, this is somebody that is part of the circle really recognizing the role he can play in bringing about change through his images," museum director Bonnie Clearwater said.
The exhibit is titled "The Movement," referring to both the efforts to end segregation in America and Adelman's aesthetic as a photographer, Clearwater said.
Adelman wanted to capture the spirit of the demonstrations on film, but frame after frame focuses on bodies how the people in the movement physically moved.
Another image from the march to Montgomery shows King and his wife at the front of a crowd that seems endless behind them, in spite of the rain that has dampened their clothes. The descendants of enslaved people who had no rights to their own bodies were marching en masse across a landscape in which signs and white people told black people where they could and could not go.
"I told my friends, 'This is history,' even though it was not apparent to many people," Adelman said. "I thought this using your body to try to change things, whether you tried to vote or went to the bathroom or you were trying to go into a movie theater or whatever that was inescapable and it was I guess very, very provocative and confrontational."
In his Miami Beach home, above a fireplace filled with dozens of the books he has published, hangs Adelman's iconic image of King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, raising his right hand over his head as he crescendos with the words of an old spiritual, "Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The contact sheet with that image has been enlarged for the exhibit. The frame is in the center of a row of negatives and has a crack through its center. It was reprinted so many times that the negative tore.
"I've spent 50 years wondering, with all these photographers there, why I took the definitive picture," said Adelman, 83. "I only came there because I knew that Doc was the most extraordinary speaker I ever heard and he would speak in an unforgettable way."
Another contact sheet enlarged for the exhibit shows several frames of demonstrators being sprayed with fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala. Adelman remembers the force of the water peeling bark off a tree, but the demonstrators in the photo huddle together, refusing to scatter. The last image of the sequence shows a small group of young black people struggling to stand under a blast of white water.
"That became, I guess, a symbol of resistance, that this white water and this white terror would be opposed by people who were not going to be intimidated anymore. Inside the movement, that became the image of what was really going on," Adelman said.
Adelman's standing within the movement allowed him to get closer to King than many other photographers. Other leaders of the era recognized him, too. Malcolm X once struck up a conversation with him about camera settings.
Adelman went on to cover the war on poverty, the women's movement, the gay rights movement and public health issues. He also amassed an archive featuring the icons of pop art Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein.
His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but Adelman wanted to have more of an impact on changing the law.
That's the relevance of these images a half-century later, he said. People are still fighting poverty and inequality, but Adelman thinks recent protests have lacked the focus of the civil rights era.
"The (Occupy) Wall Street people I think the whole country was outraged at Wall Street's behavior, but they didn't have a plan. It was more emotional, it had no stated goals other than protest," Adelman said. "The movement had very definite goals. The first was end segregation."
"The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography" opened Sunday and runs through May 17.
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