Photographer Bob Adelman was a Zelig-like observer of people and events that helped define 20th century pop culture in America. He was a New York art-scene insider who was close friends with Roy Lichtenstein and ran with the Warhol crowd. He exchanged letters with Raymond Carver, witnessed the torment of James Baldwin and took uneasy portraits of the famously reclusive John Steinbeck.
But the subject that left the most profound mark on Adelman was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Era.
It is Adelman’s eyewitness accounts of that dark chapter in history that will fill the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale for “The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography,” on view Jan. 19 through May 17. The exhibit, curated by the museum’s Peter Boswell as part of its Foto Fort Lauderdale series, will get a special preview on Saturday evening with Adelman in attendance.
Adelman was idealistic but politically aimless when, while working on a Ph.D. in Applied Aesthetics at Columbia University, he drifted into a position as an assistant to Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary and demanding art director at Harper's Bazaar.
“His aesthetic was, ‘Startle me. Show me something I’ve never seen before,’ " recalls Adelman, 83, now living on Miami Beach.
Adelman was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, where he developed connections to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who asked him to use his photography skills to document the struggle for civil rights and voting rights in the South.
“I didn’t know a lot about blacks in the South, except they were getting the short end of the stick,” Adelman recalls. “Once I started going south, I saw the terror people were living with. … It was an organized system of terror.”
The 150 or so images in “The Movement” were taken between 1963 and 1968, from Adelman’s first trip into the South, to chronicle a voter-registration effort in Sumter, S.C., to an astonishing close-up of King in his casket. Many have been collected in the book, “Mine Eyes Have Seen,” published in 2007.
Adelman’s CORE connections allowed him to take his camera into King’s inner circle — he was just a few feet away from King during the “I Have a Dream” speech — and his white skin gave him a pass to photograph scenes of horrible brutality.
One group of pictures in the exhibit, including a large blow-up of multiple images on a contact sheet, depicts the law-enforcement response to a march by a group of children in Birmingham, Ala., who are seen being deluged by fire hoses.
“I had never seen people treated … You know these are our brothers and sisters, and they were being treated in such a horrific way,” Adelman says, looking at a print from that day. “You know these hoses, they could peel the bark off a tree. I was hiding behind a tree, and there was as much water behind the camera as in front of it. It was really terrible.”
Adelman’s favorite memory of King came when the civil rights leader saw the picture for the first time: “I gave it to him, and he looked at it for a moment, and he said, “I am astonished that out of such pain, some beauty came.”
"THE MOVEMENT: BOB ADELMAN AND CIVIL RIGHTS ERA PHOTOGRAPHY"
When: The exhibit runs Jan. 19-May 17, and opens with a reception 5 p.m. Saturday, with speakers including Adelman and Isaac Newton Farris Jr., nephew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., followed at 6 p.m. by a free RSVP public preview. To RSVP, call 954-262-0296 or email MOAReservations@moafl.org.
Where: NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas. Blvd.
Cost: Museum admission is $10, $7 seniors and military, $5 students, 12 or younger free
Contact: 954-525-5500 or MOAFL.org; for more on Adelman, go to BobAdelman.net.