Friday, August 20, 2010

Access to History

Saw an amazing set of photographs last weekend at the ProPhoto Expo by Stephen Somerstein who stopped by the Camera West booth for a visit. The black and white images were taken by Somerstein in 1965 in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama when he was the editor for a small college newspaper at City College in New York.

This was of course during the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was calling for a march to Selma to protest discriminatory voting laws and many of the students at City College were heading down to participate. And Somerstein, being a dedicated journalist went with them to report on the story with his cameras. It was his first foray into the South and a memorable one.

This historic march brought together thousands of people from all over the country, from politicians, and union leaders, to students, and many others to support a federal voting rights law and Somerstein was right there, up close and personal.

What amazes me most about Somerstein's images is the intimacy. We see a photo taken directly behind Dr. King while he was on the podium speaking. Another image shows folk singer and political activist Joan Baez all alone except for a line of state troopers behind her and another of Rosa Parks who was a key figure in the civil rights movement. It is as if Somerstein was part of the civil rights leaders entourage instead of just a college student with a camera.

Access like that these days is nearly impossible.

I covered many political events during my time at the SF Chronicle. Whenever a national or international political figure was coming to town, we had to fill out an application days in advance with our name, date of birth, and our social security number. And that was just to get into the same building! And once inside, after going through metal detectors and having our equipment sniffed by explosives trained dogs, we often had to shoot from assigned positions, on risers 30-50 yards away. That's as close as we could get so long lenses were the norm. Sometimes if we were lucky, they would escort us to the base of the stage for a few minutes where we could at least get a close perspective and angle.

And even when the politician was visiting a business or public place, we were corralled to a certain area and told to stay there for our photo op. Everything was  controlled, rehearsed and staged and because of that, I hated covering them. Sometimes I would carry just one camera and try to blend in with the crowd to get a more intimate photo and sometimes it worked, especially when the politician would work the crowd in a grip and grin session as they often did after a speech. But most of the time it was difficult if not impossible to get the access Somerstein and other shooters had in the 60's.

With the political and social climate being what it is today, we will never see that kind of access. It's unfortunate because those kind of images are unique and are an important record of our history.

Stephen Somerstein is hoping to publish a book of his images. Until then, you can see them on his SmugMug page which you can access through his website.

Check them out...they are truly amazing.

Photos above of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen Somerstein

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