An Urgent Message
February 21, 2014 | by Ann Beattie
Bob Adelman’s amazing photographs—the majority of them black-and-white prints—fill the second floor of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, where they will be on display until May 17. He photographed what came to be significant moments in the civil rights movement as they were happening. As a photographer for CORE, SNCC, Life magazine, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he was on the scene for moments both momentous and not, to photograph Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and also never-to-be-famous individuals, families, children—people we wouldn’t have seen again, had Adelman not been there to show them on the sidelines as well as in the forefront, their eyes their own camera lenses, looking back; exiting “White Men Only” bathrooms at the courthouse in Clinton, Louisiana; and then kids who climbed up in a tree to view the memorial service of Dr. King, attended by Robert Kennedy (what a portrait of grief), who’d be dead himself only months later. As a documentary photographer, nothing stopped Bob. It was dangerous work, as was pointed out by one of the speakers at the January 19 museum opening, but Bob found inequality inexplicable and insupportable. In his college years, he studied philosophy to try to figure out the point of being alive. In the civil rights movement, he found his answer.
Don’t miss (not that you could) the enormous enlargement of the contact sheet from when Bob was first focusing on the police’s attempt to blast away protestors in Birmingham by aiming fire hoses at them. It gives you a chance to see the photographer’s mind at work, frame after frame, and is unforgettable as an image, the people holding hands, some with their hats not yet knocked off, in Kelly Ingram Park, struggling to remain upright in the blast, a fierce, watery tornado that obliterates the sky as it seems to become a simultaneously beautiful and malicious backdrop that obliterates the world. The large photograph in the museum took two days to print. Dr. King, upon first seeing Bob’s photograph: “I am startled that out of so much pain some beauty came.”
Ann Beattie’s story “Janus” was included in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century.