Thursday, July 7, 2011
BOB ADELMAN AND CHARLES JOHNSON: KEEPERS OF THE DREAM
The older I get, the more I experience what we call "senior moments" of forgetfulness. ("Why did I walk into this room?") That forgetfulness can be merciful since there are some things we don't want to remember in detail. I'm mentioning this business of memory only because two days ago I was scouring my 44-page, single-spaced curriculum vitae to locate and date the event at which I first met the great civil rights photographer Bob Adelman. But the entry wasn't there. So I asked Bob to help me remember, and this is what he said:
"To answer your question, we met at the Miami Book Fair where you were reading from Dreamer that was either just published or was coming out in paperback, I remember lining up for you to sign a book I bought, and I gave you little photographs of our mutual friend Ralph Ellison and some of MLK, I think, too. You were so generous and receptive and delighted. I recall asking if you would want to write about Doc and your saying you would like nothing better. Our agreement for the KING book is dated soon after, May of 1999. Who knew how fortunate and productive that meeting was!"
Fortunate and productive, indeed. Bob Adelman is a veritable cornucopia of creativity, exactly the kind of artist I've always loved to collaborate with. Furthermore, he is one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. The iconic photos you've seen, the ones that are now part of our national consciousness---the police dog in Birmingham tearing at a black man's trousers, King at the microphone delivering his "I Have A Dream Speech"---were captured by Bob's camera. Like the photographers on the staff of the Farm Security Administration in the 1940s (Roy Stryker and Gordon Parks among them), his gift is for capturing the emotion-laden drama of a moment in time. As Stryker might say, Bob's photos "reveal what is behind the action. They present a much broader statement---frequently a mood, an accent, but more frequently a sketch, and not infrequently a story." Bob volunteered his services as a photographer to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and with both compassion and courage---since he risked his life to take many of these pictures---Bob Adelman conjured for many decades the humanity, grace and dignity of his black subjects.
Our meeting that day in Miami turned out to be a blessing for me. In order to write Dreamer, I immersed myself in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement for eight years. However, the time-frame for that story stretched from 1966 when King launched his first northern campaign in Chicago to his death in 1968. I had a great deal of information about King and the Movement that I hadn't been able to use until Bob asked me to write the text for King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Viking Studio, 2000). The joy of working on that book was the opportunity it gave me to examine in detail each of King's campaigns from Montgomery to Memphis. Dramatically, each was a fascinating story in itself. Added to which, for someone who started out in the visual arts, as I did, writing to a particular photograph (or painting) is a creatively enjoyable experience.
But that was just the beginning of our collaborations. Soon enough I learned that Bob Adelman is the kind of artist who is always on the prowl for something exciting and fun to do. He's produced every kind of book from Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver to Street Smart, from Roy Lichtenstein's ABC to Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930-1950s, which has an introductory essay by Art Spiegelman. His gusty sense of humor is infectious---he will keep you laughing all day long---and equally great are his entrepreneurial skills that have led to our collaborations being translated into French and Japanese, released in paperback and as a "bookazine." His heart is as big as all outdoors. Being on a book tour with Bob makes that fatiguing experience bearable. Even lots of fun. Our last co-authored book is Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to the Struggle for Civil Rights (Life Great Photographers Series, Time, Inc., 2007).
I know we're going to work on something else, because Bob is always tossing new book ideas at me. His imagination is bottomless. And when we start working together again, it will be the most legal fun two artists can have.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 12:26 AM