22
Feb
15

Exhibition: ‘Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein’ at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library, New York

Exhibition dates: 16th January – 19th April 2015

 

And still it goes on… whether it be so called Chelsea football “fans” singing racist songs and abusing a black man on the Paris Metro, the Australian government’s “intervention” in Aboriginal communities, or Channel Seven’s adverts for Australia: The Story of Us which states, “This is the story of how a bunch of convicts transformed Australia from a barren, frontier prison into one of the richest countries in the world.”

The use of the word “barren” insidiously supports the hidden tenants of racism, surreptitiously reaffirming the idea that Australia was a terra nullius when it was invaded. And for one of the richest countries in the world, the Aboriginal and refugee population is sure not seeing the benefits, both in terms of freedom (refugee children and Indigenous people from incarceration), health, education and life span.

When will the human race ever grow up? We have been fighting this stuff since time immemorial, or perhaps that should be time ‘in memoriam’ – in honour of those who have passed – and in honour of those that continue to suffer. In the end it all comes down to the intersectionality of power, race, religion, money, gender and place, a moveable and fluid feast of fear and loathing, possession and patriarchy. I don’t believe that it will ever change, unless something truly momentous happens to this world…. the earth self regulates and rids itself of this disease, this human ‘race’. But we can and we will still fight the good fight, against bigotry, war, corporations and government surveilllance, everywhere.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to the New York Historical Society Museum and Library for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“All through the march I was thinking, ‘This is history in the making. Can I capture it? Can I give a sense to other people of what I am experiencing myself?’ That was the thread that always wove through the back of my mind. Am I up for the task?… I turned my camera most consciously to the people watching the march. It was meant to free them. The march was meant to give them voting rights. The march was meant to change their lives… I wanted the pictures to be a window for people to look back in time and see what it was like then. I needed to capture a sense of their vision.”

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Stephen Somerstein

 

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery 
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. '"Things Go Better With Coke" sign and multi-generational family watching marchers' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
“Things Go Better With Coke” sign and multi-generational family watching marchers
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

This is among Somerstein’s favourite shots from the march. “Only in this instant are they looking mostly in the same direction,” he said, recalling that a second shot he took just after lacked the “unity” of this composition.

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Nuns, priests, and civil rights leaders at the head of the march' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Nuns, priests, and civil rights leaders at the head of the march
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Two mothers with children watching marchers' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Two mothers with children watching marchers
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

“I had to be totally cool about it,” Somerstein said of getting this shot, taken from the platform where Martin Luther King was speaking. “You don’t ask people, you don’t discuss it, you just do it… I had 30 seconds to take the photograph.” This image inspired the poster for the current film Selma.

“Somehow, the photographer managed to position himself directly behind Dr. King as he delivered the sonorous “How Long? Not Long” speech: “Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ ” it began, ending, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Holland Cotter)

 

 

Iconic Photographs by Stephen Somerstein Capture the Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

The New-York Historical Society showcases a powerful selection of photographs by Stephen Somerstein that chronicle the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March, honoring the 50th anniversary of the protest that changed the course of civil rights in America. On view from January 16 through April 19, 2015, the exhibition Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein will feature the work of the 24-year-old City College student, who felt he had to document “what was going to be a historic event.” He accompanied the marchers, gaining unfettered access to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and Bayard Rustin.

Through 55 black and white and color photographs, Freedom Journey 1965 will document the quest for equality and social justice over the five-day march. Then the managing editor and picture editor of the City College newspaper, Stephen Somerstein recalls “When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera.”

The Selma-to-Montgomery March marked a peak of the American civil rights movement. From March 21 to March 25, 1965, hundreds of people marched from Selma to the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama to protest against the resistance that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups had encountered in their mission to register black voters. By March 25, the group had grown to 25,000 people, which Dr. King addressed from the steps of the Montgomery State Capitol. Three months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Somerstein took approximately 400 photographs over the five-day, 54 mile march. Exhibition highlights include images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the crowd of 25,000 civil rights marchers in Montgomery; folk singer Joan Baez, standing before a line of state troopers blocking the entrance to the State Capitol; white hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers; families watching the march from their porches; and images of young and old alike participating in the demonstration.

Somerstein pursued a career in physics, building space satellites at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Lockheed Martin Co. Upon retiring, Somerstein revisited the Selma photographs. Though he had sold a few of them, the majority were not showcased until he participated in a civil rights exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange in 2010. “I realized that I had numerous iconic and historic photographs that I wanted to share with the public,” says Somerstein.

This exhibit features the stunning and historic photographs of Stephen Somerstein, documenting the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March in January 1965. Somerstein was a student in City College of New York’s night school and Picture Editor of his student newspaper when he traveled to Alabama to document the March.

He joined the marchers and gained unfettered access to everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin. “I had five cameras slung around my neck,” he recalled. Over the five-day, 54-mile march, Somerstein took about four hundred photographs including poignant images of hopeful blacks lining the rural roads as they cheered on the marchers walking past their front porches and whites crowded on city sidewalks, some looking on silently-others jeering as the activists walked to the Alabama capital. Somerstein sold a few photographs to the New York Times Magazine, Public Television and photography collectors, but none were exhibited until 2010, when he participated in a civil rights exhibition at the San Francisco Art Exchange.

Rather than choosing photography as a career, Somerstein became a physicist and worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and at Lockhead Martin Company. It was only after his retirement in 2008 that he returned to his photography remarking that he wanted “to have exhibitions of my work and that I realized that I had numerous iconic as well as historic photographs.” Among those photographs were his moving photographs of that memorable march to Montgomery in 1965.”

Press release from the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library

 

 

Selma – Montgomery March, 1965

 

A powerful and recently rediscovered film made during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Stefan Sharff’s intimate documentary reflects his youthful work in the montage style under the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The film features moving spirituals. Marchers include Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. (NJ state film festival)

Director: Stefan Sharff

Cameramen:
Stefan Sharff
Christopher Harris
Julian Krainin
Alan Jacobs
Norris Eisenbrey

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Coretta Scott King and husband civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on platform at end of 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March - March 25, 1965' 1965

 

Stephen F. Somerstein
Coretta Scott King and husband civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on platform at end of 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March – March 25, 1965
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

It had taken them 54 miles on the march and their entire lives to reach their goal of voting rights for blacks. Somerstein, who took that photo as a CCNY student, says it’s one of his favorite images from that time.

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Folk singer Joan Baez in Montgomery' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Folk singer Joan Baez in Montgomery
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

 

“For all involved, danger was ever-present. The march, which covered 54 miles and took five days, from March 21 to 25, had been preceded by two traumatic aborted versions. On March 7, 600 people trying to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River leading out of Selma to Montgomery were accused by local law officials of gathering illegally and were savagely assaulted by state troopers. Two days later, a second group, this one led by Dr. King, approached the bridge, knelt to pray and turned back. If the retreat was intended as a symbolic rebuke to violence, it did no good. That night, a Unitarian minister from Boston named James J. Reeb, in town for the event, was beaten on the street by a group of Selma racists and died.

By the time of the third march, certain protective measures were in place. The force of public opinion was one. Pictures of the attack at the bridge had been widely seen in print and on national television: All eyes were on Selma now. An Alabama judge had finally granted legal permission for a march to proceed. Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, enraged at Gov. George C. Wallace’s refusal to shield the marchers, ordered federal troops to guard them…

Scads of photographers were on the job that day and, inevitably, certain subjects – political leaders, visiting celebrities – were the focus of many cameras, including Mr. Somerstein’s. Yet most of the people in his pictures are not stars; they’re rank-and-file participants. It’s from their perspective that we see the march. In one shot, we’re in the middle of it, surrounded by fellow walkers. In others, we’re looking out at bystanders who line the way: white office workers; hecklers; multiracial shoppers; African-American children on porches; women, dressed in Sunday best, on the steps of black churches.

This viewpoint subtly alters a standard account of the event, one perpetuated in Selma, which suggests that a small, elite band of high-level organizers were the heroes of the day. They were indeed heroes, but they were borne on the shoulders of the countless grass-roots organizers who paved the way for the march and the anonymous marchers, many of them women, who risked everything to walk the walk…

… in the film, the image [of the back of Dr King’s head] seems to be about the man and his drama; in Mr. Somerstein’s photograph, it seems to be about the crowd. For an account of this and other civil rights era events that balance symbols and facts, I look back to the documentary series Eyes on the Prize that ran on public television between 1987 and 1990. Its use of archival images and contemporary interviews with people involved in the Selma-to-Montgomery march gave equal time to personalities and larger realities. And its news clips of the bloody attack on citizens by the police on the bridge in Selma, despite being choppy and grainy, are to me far more wrenching in a you-are-there way than a Hollywood re-enactment, however spectacular. Mr. Somerstein’s quiet photographs are moving in a similar way.”

Extracts from Holland Cotter. “A Long March Into History: Stephen Somerstein Photos in ‘Freedom Journey 1965’,” on the New York Times website [Online] Cited 19/02/2015

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Family watching march' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Family watching march
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

Stephen Somerstein. 'Man with American flag and marchers walking past federal troops guarding crossroads' 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein
Man with American flag and marchers walking past federal troops guarding crossroads
1965
Courtesy of the photographer

 

 

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) delivers his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, 1965

 

 

Eyes on the Prize (VI) – Bridge to Freedom, 1965

 

Stephen Somerstein talks about a photo he took during the famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march at the New-York Historical Society

 

Stephen Somerstein talks about a photo he took during the famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march at the New-York Historical Society on Wednesday. Somerstein was a 24-year-old college student when he photographed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the march from Selma to Montgomery that changed the course of civil rights in the U.S. REUTERS

 

 

New-York Historical Society Museum and Library
170 Central Park West
at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
New York, NY 10024
Tel: (212) 873-3400

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Thursday, Saturday – 10am – 6pm
Friday – 10am – 8pm
Sunday – 11am – 5pm
Monday – CLOSED

New-York Historical Society Museum and Library website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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