Civil Rights photographer Bob Adelman, who died over the weekend at the age of 85, was profiled recently in an essay titled “Shooting Civil Rights” by photographer Matt Herron. A friend and colleague of Adelman’s, and a fellow Civil Rights activist, Herron wrote the essay for a traveling exhibit called “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.” The exhibit, which Herron curated, is currently at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania through May 15, and will open next in Cincinnati. The following excerpt is reproduced with Herron’s permission.
Bob Adelman was working in New York in the early 60’s as a darkroom assistant at Reader’s Digest. “When the sit-ins started, it seemed to me the country was paralyzed as far as dealing with discrimination was concerned, but I saw the sit-ins as a way an average person could do something about an insoluble problem, so I volunteered with New York CORE.” As a teenager, Adelman had had no contact at all with black people, but he loved jazz and used to sneak out at night to Birdland, one of New York’s principal jazz clubs. “I didn’t think of black people as oppressed, I thought of them as from some other planet, with this fantastic talent. Because I was Jewish, I had my own problems with discrimination, so I identified with black discrimination. My college thesis was on slave breeding farms in the upper South.”
Shooting for CORE, Adelman covered attempts to integrate eating establishments along Baltimore’s route 40. Eventually magazines began asking to see his contact sheets, and from this beginning Adelman gradually found his calling as a magazine photographer. He continued shooting for CORE in the deep South, handling magazine assignments on the side and documenting life in remote black communities in Louisiana and Alabama. But he is best known for his incredible pictures of Birmingham police attempting to hose down demonstrators in Kelly Ingram Park.
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Most of us had our personal strategies for staying safe while staying in action. But one overriding principle governed us all: our job was to get the pictures and get them out into the wider world, not to collect glory or jail time as some civil rights hero. As photographers we worked fully exposed and if we got arrested and/or lost our film, we had failed at our job. Consequently, any tactic or ruse that kept us going, no matter how cowardly, was perfectly acceptable. On occasion we lied, used fake press credentials, toadied up to police, or pretended to be someone else — all in the service of our cause. Mostly, we never admitted we were working for or with the Movement. Simply being there was tough enough.
Bob Adelman is a big man and a charming one, and he often used his charm on the Powers That Be. He remembers shooting in Sumter, South Carolina during a CORE voter registration drive.
“When I wasn’t busy I would wander around town taking pictures. A city official asked me what I was doing. I told him I was a service man from the nearby Air Force base and had pleasant memories of the town, so I was taking some pictures for memory’s sake. He was so won over that he took me on a personal tour of the town. In the courthouse I saw blacks lined up to register and I asked him, ‘Do those people actually vote here?
“I had the reputation in the movement of being rather fearless. I thought I was doing the right thing and that I had a right to photograph. It was probably a stupid idea, but that was the way I felt. I was routinely arrested. They’d feed you some turnips and when the demonstration was over, they’d let you go. I wasn’t bound by non-violence because I wasn’t a demonstrator, so occasionally I would use my Leica as a weapon, whipping it around when I felt threatened. Toward the end of 1965 driving through Mississippi and Louisiana I got so paranoid I carried a gun in my car. And everywhere I went both blacks and whites had guns.”