Perspectives: Birmingham's Forgotten Pictures Raise Deeper Questions

Mar 14, 2006

Perspectives label

 

 

By Bruce Young

So you’re rooting through an equipment closet looking for something – say it’s that ultra-wide-angle lens that someone uses about once every five years to make some artsy version of the picture that, well, has to be made about every five years – and your eyes fall on a box labeled: “Keep. Do Not Sell!” It’s full of negatives, which you find amusing, since the editors seem to treat your stuff with scant respect as it is, let alone feel it’s worthy of profitable sale. But you crack the thing open anyway, because you’re curious.

Believe it or not, I’ve heard variations on this story a number of times. Photographer Vince Musi rescued a box of contest negatives from the 1950s by Pittsburgh Press photographer Howard Moyer that were on the way to the dumpster. His eye was caught by the flash of Kodak yellow. Another photographer once told me he had a collection of old negatives acquired when he found the better part of his newspaper’s photography files in the trash. When he asked about it, he was told the newspaper had run out of room, so all files older than a set date were to go out. And while telling me of his experience, Musi said he had heard a tale that the parking lot of another newspaper was literally paved with old negatives.

Most recently, however, the Birmingham News came across a box of 5,000 negatives from the late 1950s and early 1960s, set aside, perhaps with an eye to the future, in a box labeled: “Keep. Do Not Sell.” Fortunately for them – and us – they had an intern there at the time, who researched 3,000 of the pictures, a selection of which the News published in a special eight-page section.

It’s a dramatic reminder of the many small events that made up the big event now put under the general heading of “The Civil Rights Movement.” These are pictures of people you’ve probably never heard of, like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was arrested for sitting in the "whites only" area of a Birmingham bus (there’s a photo of him doing it) and was physically prevented from using the segregated train station (that’s in there too). He was beaten, and a bomb was set off under his home. (A picture made shortly after the bombing shows him slightly disheveled, straightening his hat but speaking calmly.) This is the sort of stuff that becomes dusty history, forgotten or reluctantly studied by those too young to remember it, without the tangible example of pictures like this.

Lately, however, I’ve become easily distracted by the side stories of things. I’m left to wonder who, nearly a half-century ago, stacked that huge cache of negatives in that box and labeled it: “Keep. Do Not Sell.” Was his mind on its discovery, imagining that an intern not yet born – Alexander Cohn, who found and did the research on the pictures, is a 30-year-old master’s candidate at the University of Missouri – would tumble across this cardboard time capsule and wonder?

And I look at the pictures and am fascinated. This was also a time of transition for photojournalism. For example, one picture of Rev. Shuttlesworth as he confronts an angry man outside Birmingham’s Terminal station is square, displayed online apparently full frame, clearly the product of a medium-format camera. In the background, two other news photographers approach, their 4x5 Speed Graphics in hand. Though by 1957, when the picture was made, not only medium format but also 35mm was not uncommon, the 4x5 negative still clung to its place as the primary format for news photography. As we now seem to be seeing the last death twitches of film in news photography, with digital playing the role held by the smaller film formats in the 1950s and 1960s, my mind is often on that time and the photographers who worked then.

Imagine it: every great news photograph before 1950 or so, with a few notable exceptions, was shot by (most likely) a man with just one crack at it. He had to get the exposure right, estimate the focus, frame up using a little wire frame mounted above the lens board, and – BAM! – get the picture using a magnesium flash bulb because the film was so slow back then. Then the cover goes back on the negative holder, pull it out of the camera, turn it around, put it back in and pull the cover off the other side for the next exposure. Also, be sure to take out the used bulb (still hot, by the way), lick the bottom of the fresh one to ensure a good contact, and jam it in the flash. Okay. Now you’re ready to take one more frame. It’s a long way from a couple hundred pictures on a memory card.

Yet no small number of these pictures in Birmingham appear to be on 4x5 negatives. Imagine the simple courage of standing amidst these angry crowds, documenting these small but significant moments, with Just. One. Frame. Using that medium-format camera at the train station must have seemed the height of self-indulgent luxury.

And what about this box of negatives? Most of these pictures never got printed in the newspaper until now, and we’re left to wonder why. Sometimes, the reason seems significant. In its story on the pictures, the News quotes history professor Horace Huntley. “It was difficult for people to see,” he says of the events captured. “People were embarrassed by it.” However, in some small way, I wonder if there were also mundane reasons, like layout and impact.

How many pictures, over the years, slipped by because the people at the time thought they were unimportant? Take, for example, Dirck Halstead’s picture of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky at a 1996 fundraiser. “I have a theory,” Halstead says, “that every time the shutter captures a frame, that image is recorded, at a very low threshold in the brain of the photographer.” He recognized Lewinsky when the story broke two years later, hired a researcher and, four days and over 5,000 slides later, there was the picture. (Halstead tells the whole story here.)

That was a sort of instant karma – not only was it recent enough for Halstead to remember, but it was recent enough for him to be around to remember. By the time Vince Musi snatched those contest negatives from the garbage in Pittsburgh, Howard Moyer was gone, taking with him the stories and significance and history of all those pictures. Now, they’re just beautiful images, but they remain, as Diane Arbus once wrote about photographs, “a secret about a secret.”

At least there were negatives. Admittedly, this is no assurance of permanence. Jacques Lowe, a photographer who gained unique access to the John F. Kennedy White House, had some 40,000 mostly black and white negatives carefully stored in a safety deposit box at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co - in the World Trade Center. “They were able to open a couple of safes,” Lowe's daughter Thomasina told Reuters after the 9/11 attack. “What they found was just ash. It must have been like an oven in there.” But, barring fiery disaster or ignorant corporate filing decisions, negatives are more or less permanent. (Okay, okay, they fade and colors change if not kept cool – that’s why Corbis has started freezing their stuff in a cave – but you know what I mean.) With the advent of digital, we don’t even have something that permanent.

Take that picture of Rev. Shuttlesworth at the train station. It’s a nice moment: each man is moving his hands to his hips, both faces showing signs of firm determination. The sense of coming conflict is clear. However, the framing could be better; much of the frame is empty, showing the distant ceiling of the station’s arched entry. It’s understandable in the tense, fast-moving situation, but would a photographer or editor today have looked at that and decided it wasn’t so good? Click, click. A couple of keystrokes and history is gone forever.

And what about Professor Huntley’s embarrassment factor? “The editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away,” said Ed Jones in the Birmingham News article. Jones was one of the photographers who made those negatives. What if – and let’s say it was totally innocent, a desire to only cover a story as much as it seemed to deserve – the editors decided, well, that’s enough of that. We’re moving on now. Hit the delete button. Put simply, there aren’t 5,000 pictures to put into the box then.

Before I finish my little rant, I want to return to that embarrassment factor, and the question of why these pictures weren’t published, because that raises another question: Why were they shot in the first place? The News explains that when Alexander Cohn was interviewing them to research the pictures, “All of the photographers said they didn’t see special significance in their photos when they were taken.” How true that is. How often have you been surprised by your reaction to a picture when you come across it later, or to the public’s reaction? How often have you covered something – just another gig in a crowded schedule – to find it spread all over the front page? Okay, not every day, but it’s happened. The late George Tames, a great New York Times photographer who covered Washington from FDR to George H.W. Bush, once confessed to me that what is perhaps his most famous picture – that of John Kennedy leaning over his desk, in silhouette, the weight of the world apparently on his shoulders – was a grab shot. No big deal when he made it. Maybe we do need to think a little more about just what we’re doing.

Meanwhile, as I write this, The New York Times’ technology columnist, David Pogue, has a piece on Witness. This is a group co-founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel for the purpose of “video advocacy.” What he means, according to Pogue, is “helping native citizens film human-rights violations as they happen, so that the world can see what's really going on. It's much harder for wealthy countries to ignore the violence and oppression, Gabriel said, when they're watching a video of it.” They’ve given camcorders and training to 200 human rights groups in 60 countries. Meanwhile, news photographers just keep slogging out there to do the gig. Sure, it’s usually the high school science fair, but who knows. Does that kid in the back have a cold fusion experiment?

Bruce Young is a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist living in Southwest Virginia. He was the director of "Stolen Years," which examined Stalin's regime of terror. He's currently working on "A Thousand Words," a history of the presidency as seen through the eyes of news photographers.

 

(Editor’s note: Since this piece was first published we’ve learned some more details. Cohn says that not all of the images published in “Unseen, Unforgotten,” came from the box in the equipment closet. “The incident at the train station was filed next to everything else in the filing cabinets. The incidents like that, which did not make it into the history books, were not stashed away. The box uncovered contained negatives depicting events that are well known. The photography department’s administrative assistant and the former director of photography compiled the box with well known images to prevent further theft of well known images. Alongside those known images were the images the News is publishing after so many years.” Also, the photographer to the side in Robert Adams’s picture of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at the train station is Tommy Langston of the Birmingham Post-Herald. In 1961 he made the only image to survive a mob attach of the first group of Freedom Riders to reach Birmingham, Cohen says.)