Photographer Stephen Somerstein was a 24-year-old college newspaper editor at City College of New York when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to join the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The pivotal march, which led Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, is the subject of the new MLK biopic (and biggest Oscar snub), Selma, directed by Ava Duvernay and starring David Oyelowo.
Somerstein captured this historical event in 400 striking and beautifully composed photographs, and when he watched the trailer for Selma, 26 seconds in, he recognized his work re-staged by the actors onscreen. In fact, Somerstein's most iconic image, a shot of the back of Dr. King's head as he addresses a sea of protestors in Montgomery, seems to have inspired the Selma movie poster.
Over five days and 54 miles in March of 1965, Somerstein captured the marchers, spectators, and leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and Bayard Rustin. From intimate portraits of Dr. King (according to Somerstein, the lack of security back then meant anyone with enough guts could get close to famous figures) to striking compositions of children on the porches of Alabama homes, the photographs capture a crucial moment in American history. Today the photos are going view at the New York Historical Society for an exhibition called "Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein," which runs until April 19.
During a press preview for the exhibition on Wednesday, Somerstein described how he and a group of City College students boarded buses for Selma that were so packed many slept on the floor. "It was a self-induced assignment," he said. As his school's newspaper editor, Somerstein felt the responsibility to document the students' involvement in the movement. Armed with only 10 rolls of film and five cameras, he was able to capture so much more. "I had no idea how extensive, how remarkable it would be," he said of his first impression of the march.
Working with steady hands, limited film, and the good fortune of an overcast sky (which made for uniform light), Somerstein shot with a highly selective eye. The photographer's frame continually changed as people wove throughout the march and the spectators' concentration wandered. One of Somerstein's favorite photos shows a family in front of a Coke sign, which he called a "symbolic, remarkable composition." Yet this composition only lasted a second, with the family all looking in one direction. A second shot of the same family was completely different, Somerstein said. This eye for composition and ability to capture perfect, fleeting moments makes many of Somerstein's images look staged, but it's also what makes them so powerful decades later.
When Somerstein recalled the 1965 march, he remembered the absence of shouting or cheering. Instead, "the most impressive thing was the seriousness of people on the roads bearing their own witness," he said. He spoke of the speculative atmosphere, of people knowing they were on the cusp of something great and wondering what would happen next. He wanted to convey this tense and hopeful environment through his images: "I wanted to give a feeling to what it was like to be there."
But even though Somerstein was witness to a pivotal moment during the Civil Rights movement, he played the role of photographer before citizen. During the press preview, Somerstein was asked what he felt when he first saw the state capitol (his photograph of the building is blown up mural-size in the exhibition). "Good composition," he responded. For Somerstein, it was important to maintain emotional distance in order to accurately record what was happening around him. "I couldn't burden myself with the historical complexity," he said.
Although Somerstein's "photographer first" attitude might come off as coldhearted, his calculated approach is what's made his images so timeless. Just like Dr. King, Somerstein understood the power of an image. 50 years ago, Martin Luther King knew that images of Civil Rights protests broadcasted across the country would incite America to join his cause, a strategy that's addressed in Selma. Somerstein's photographs, then, became part of this fight for freedom and equality.
"Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein" opened today at the New York Historical society and runs until April 19.