Bob Adelman is one of the iconic photographers of the 1960s civil rights movement. He was the official photographer for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality (one of the “Big Four” civil rights organizations) led by James Farmer. This gave Adelman close access to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other movement leaders. He rode buses with Freedom Riders, marched with demonstrators and walked the neighborhoods with Voting Rights workers. He was the photographer closest to Dr. King during the “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.
Adelman studied philosophy at Rutgers, followed by a brief stint at Harvard Law School. He began working on his master’s degree in aesthetics at Columbia University but left to study with Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. He later became a teaching assistant for Brodovitch.
Adelman’s photographs have been published in TIME, LIFE, PEOPLE, Esquire, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, American Heritage, The London Times Magazine, Stern, LOOK and Paris Match. His books include Down Home, On and Off the Street, Gentlemen of Leisure, Ladies of the Night, King, The Art of Roy Lichtenstein, Carver Country and Visions of Liberty. He has taught at the International Center of Photography in New York and at The New School, as well as lecturing at Columbia University, Stanford University, Union College, Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Miami.
Adelman’s awards include a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts grant and Art Directors Club awards from New York, San Francisco and Washington. His photographs have also been honored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
A major retrospective of his civil rights photographs premiered at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art from January through May 2014. He has had exhibitions at the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and many others. Adelman proudly describes his latest recognition: Consulting Photographer at the Library of Congress, which is essentially an artist in residence.
Bob Adelman’s house is on a quiet residential street near South Beach, Florida. We sat in his living room for the interview, surrounded by large prints of his iconic photographs. The room is dominated by his photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the apex of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I was surrounded by history.
Ken Lassiter: Where were you born and what was your early life like?
Bob Adelman: I was born in Brooklyn in 1931 and grew up during the Depression in Rockaway, New York, a beach community on the Atlantic Ocean. My father was a flooring finisher trained in Germany and sometimes out of work. My mother rented part of our house to beach people each summer to get by. I remember asking for a dime to buy candy and being given a penny.
My father was a serious amateur photographer with a darkroom in our house. He encouraged me to dabble in photography starting when I was about 10. I liked that pictures helped me remember what I saw, and I became fascinated. My father was an exacting and demanding craftsman and taught me to do things properly.
KL: What did your college experience bring to your photography?
BA: When I was studying history, my senior paper was on the slave trade in Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama. I was appalled by how horribly the slaves were treated, and that stayed with me. Later, when civil rights became a national issue, I felt I had to be involved. I had never been to the South but felt strongly about how black people were being treated there. I believe segregation was a system of discrimination enforced by terror. It wasn’t just separation of the races. Terror kept people afraid to challenge the unwritten rules.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2015 issue.