The Library of Congress (LOC) has acquired the archive of Bob Adelman, a photographer who helped document the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continued to be active in social justice issues in the decades that followed, until his death in 2016. The trove, gifted by an anonymous donor, comprises 575,000 images, negatives, and slides, including 50,000 prints.
Born in New York City in 1930 and growing up on Long Island, Adelman began his photography career after earning a master’s in philosophy from Columbia University and studying law at Harvard. He studied the form with Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar, and then volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality as a photographer. “I realized that my involvement would be very dangerous, but I had a long think with myself and decided that this was something worth risking your life for,” he told the New York Times in 2014.
In 2008, he described one of his images from this era for the Guardian’s My Best Shot series. The 1963 photograph from Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, shows a group of protestors being pummeled by the cascade of an unseen firehose:
The hoses were so powerful that people were knocked down and propelled 15 or 20ft. But instead of running away, some began to hold on to each other and stand up. I was hiding behind a tree — to protect my person and keep my camera dry. I managed to shoot several rolls with a Nikon F and a telephoto lens, even though I was appalled, frightened and very upset. I tried to find that moment when the water and the people were both readable and formed some sort of a pattern.
Afterwards I went up to Doc — which is what we called Dr King — and gave him a print of the picture. He said he was startled that beauty could come out of so much pain.
The LOC acquisition also includes Adelman’s haunting photograph of Reverend Joseph Carter in silhouette on his porch; he holds a gun in his hands, waiting to see if the Ku Klux Klan would attack his home after he registered to vote in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana — the first black person to do so in 60 years. Adelman himself was white, yet his personal involvement with the Civil Rights Movement often makes his images seem more than just documentary. He had an ability to convey the humanity of his subjects, whether an unnamed demonstrator holding an “I Am a Man” signboard in Memphis in 1968 or Martin Luther King, Jr, delivering his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.
Among the later highlights of the archive are shots of the 1970 first women’s liberation march in New York and portraits of artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. As his mentor Ralph Ellison once said of Adelman’s photographs: “Adelman has moved beyond the familiar clichés of most documentary photography into that rare sphere wherein technical ability and social vision combine to create a work of art.”
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