“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Stephen Somerstein – (born 1941, New York City) has been shaped by the complexity and richness of the urban-cultural landscape. His early photographic influences came from the great social-documentarians, Jacob Riis, Erich Salomon and the elegantly crafted images from the Farm Security Administration team. He has concentrated on documentary photography and pursued his avocation for well over forty-five years.
He began his documentary work in the 1960s, Steve while following the dual paths of pursuing his love of photography and science. While obtaining a degree in physics from the City College of New York (now part of the City University of New York), he also covered the rich cultural landscape of New York’s Greenwich Village, photographing artists, theater performances, music, Andy Worhol art happenings, club and night life. One summer of 1962 he vacationed in Europe and visited the divided East and West Germanys, to photograph the effects of the newly constructed Berlin Wall. Another summer he took advanced physics classes at U.C. Berkeley and hooks into photographing the Vietnam anti-war movement in Berkeley.
In 1965, with the rise in public consciousness in the importance of the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s pursuit of equal opportunity and voting rights, Steve, as Managing Editor and Picture Editor of MAIN EVENTS, the City College of New York evening newspaper, journeyed to Alabama to cover the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. It was an historic occasion that greatly tested his ability to shape beautiful and meaningful images, while on a short film quota, with rapidly evolving photo-opportunities. His first commercial sale was in 1966 to the New York Times Magazine, which gave a two-page spread to his Joan Baez portrait (seen in the present exhibition).
His compulsion to photograph, whatever the circumstances was well evinced during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, near San Francisco. The earthquake struck while he was working on a new satellite proposal at Lockheed, 40 miles south in Sunnyvale. Within minutes everyone was evacuated from the buildings. Determining that it would be many hours before people would be permitted to return, he jumped into his car and headed for San Francisco. He parked on a hill well above the smoking Marina district, where he spotted crushed buildings and gas fires. He worked his way through police lines and headed to the Marina District where much damage had occurred. His memories of the fine photos of the 1906 earthquake taken by Arnold Genthe informed his vision and he was able to create many evocative images.
During his science career he has built space satellites at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, as well as Lockheed Martin. His last instrument will be on the soon to be launched James Webb Space Telescope. Recently retired from his science career, he has happily returned full-time to photography. He continues his life-long pursuit of fine images, and is almost never without a camera. His is married to Eva Strauss-Rosen, an artist, and they live near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
His body of work spans a continuous thread from the 1960’s to the present, covering cultural, social and political subjects. Whether pursuing the “decisive moment” evinced by Cartier-Bresson or the ideal composition of W. Eugene Smith, Stephen seeks to imbue each image with a sense of time, place, humanity, grace and dignity.
Q: You’ve had a long successful career in photojournalism. Can you tell us about your professional path?
A: My career in photojournalism has been, to say the least, peripatetic. While in college (City College of New York, or CCNY, early 1960s) I was president of the Photo Society and Editor-In-Chief of Main Events, the evening newspaper. That I was majoring in physics was looked upon as quite odd by my serious newspaper compatriots. I never quite looked upon my work as photojournalism, but rather social-documentary photography. Though I had this committed dual interest in science and photography, I made a decision in the mid-1960s not to go formally into photojournalism, as the great photo-magazines, such as Life, Look, etc., were rapidly disappearing.
Besides being a photographer, I was an inventor, and I decided to pursue my career in physics while doing my own personal coverage of life’s events as I encountered them on my own terms. I maintained this dual parallel interest for the next 45 years. Following my graduation from City College I joined the Harvard College Observatory, designing instrumentation for rocket and satellite solar measuring spectrometers. Then I headed out to California to work in controlled nuclear fusion experiments at Occidental Research, and finally for the last 24 years to Lockheed Martin, where I returned to building satellite instruments. My last instruments are on the James Webb Space Telescope, soon to be launched in the next few years.
Early in the 1960s I had seriously immersed myself in photography and learning my craft while plunging into photographing the Greenwich Village art and cultural scene in the early 1960s. At that time I was a young member of the Village Camera Club, which had as members many of the editors and writers of the major photography magazines based in New York. They would have people give talks at our gatherings, such as the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith or Weegee, who covered the seamier side of New York. It was a heady and vibrant time for an ambitious young photographer.
In the summer of 1962 I motor-scootered around Europe. Working my way across East Germany to Berlin, I arrived a few months after the Berlin Wall was built. I quickly set about photographing the wall from both sides, avoiding secret policemen and snipers situated on rooftop hidey-holes. Back in the U.S. and being attentive to photo-opportunities as they arose, I set out to also cover political protest rallies as well as the Democratic and Republican conventions, In the summer of 1965, while taking summer physics classes at UC Berkeley I covered Vietnam War protesters attempting to block troops at the Oakland Army terminal leaving for the front. Everything was my meat.
Q: What were the circumstances that led you to cover the historic 1965 march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to demand free and clear voting rights for African Americans?
A: At my newspaper, Main Events, we had been running stories on CCNY students that had spent the previous summer in Mississippi working to register black voters. We were well aware of the difficulties they had encountered. In order to stay informed we were continually in touch with campus members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP (National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). On March 7, 1965, we were following the television news reports of the violent beatings of John Lewis, Hosea Williams and 600 marchers as they attempted to peacefully march from Selma to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery to protest the inability of blacks to register to vote. This public attack by the police on nonviolent demonstrators really shocked me. Within a short time I heard that Dr. King had called for people from across the country to join them in a massive march from Selma to Montgomery. I immediately knew that there would be a large contingent from my college, and I wanted to join them and cover the march. It was clearly a unique and pivotal historic moment, yet it was so rapidly evolving that I didn’t dwell on that. I met with my editorial board, and we decided that I would cover the photography and a staff reporter, Tom Kelly, would supply the text.
When the word came that the buses were ready I rushed home to tell my mother that I was leaving for Alabama. She was a bit worried, but supported my effort. One item that disturbed me was that I thought I had a large stock of film in my refrigerator to take with me. But all I found was about 15 rolls of film. It was evening and there were no stores open to obtain any more film. It would have to do.
Photographer Stephen Somerstein in front of his 1965 Selma March “Things Go Better With Coke” photograph. (Photograph by Stephen Somerstein)
Q: As one of the four photographers in the Fahey/Klein Gallery exhibition, you had the least amount of time with this subject matter. What did you recognize as the most important aspect you wanted to capture in the short time you were there?
A: I’d photographed protest marches before, but I didn’t want to merely cover the marchers, or even the well-known luminaries who I knew would be there. Somehow I wanted to capture the sense of the historic moment and a view of the people for whom this voting rights march was directed. As I marched I knew there was a multiplicity of panoramas unfolding around me. The marchers, the onlookers, both black and white, the military protecting the marchers, the friends and foes of the march’s goals. I envisioned each image as a tableau, a window for the viewer, with different elements contributing to the overall social, political, emotional and artistic content. There would be one moment when all the elements merged into the best possible arrangement, and most articulately told the story. Above all, I wanted at least one singular image of a local black family that would be a timely emblematic representation of them at that moment of hope for a better future. My favorite image is my “Things Go Better With Coke” lady in the billboard overseeing the multi-generation black family.
Q: Did you ever imagine the photos you made at the rally would have the historical significance that they do now? Did you feel you were documenting something historic at the time?
A: I knew that I had captured a body of fine images of the march. But its historic significance and deep meaning for people only emerged slowly as we approached the 50th anniversary. I knew that history was making its way across my camera. At the time, I noted it and suppressed any further thought. I had to remain completely focused on the evolving image and capturing it at exactly the best moment. Except in rare cases, each photograph is a “one-off”. There was no second shot. Each one had to be emblematic of the moment as I saw it and to perfectly tell its story. There was not enough film to do backups. Each image had to stand on its own.
Q: What was it like rediscovering your photographs after not seeing them for so many years, and realizing you recorded this historic time and place?
A: Except for a few iconic images that I had reprinted several times over the years (Joan Baez in front of the line of state troopers and the “Things Go Better With Coke” photograph), I had not realized how well I had covered that last day, and how powerfully the photographs stood up. Once I decided to revisit the work and seriously entertain exhibiting them, I enlarged every frame to 8 by 10 inches from all the rolls. I then swiftly realized that there was great historic meaning and emotional connection to the people in the images and how remarkably well I had composed each frame than I had previously realized. About five years ago I showed my work to my friend Jim Marshall, a remarkably fine and acclaimed rock-and-roll photographer. He quickly realized their importance and contacted Theron Kabrich of the San Francisco Art Exchange. They have a once-a-year civil rights exhibition. I brought over my work and I was quite amazed when he selected 24 images for the exhibition. This was my launching and led to my exhibition earlier this year at the New York Historical Society. Fortuitously, it also led to me winning a New York Emmy award for a video based on my Selma-to-Montgomery photography.
Q: How long did you cover the event and where (and how) were the images published?
A: The buses bringing the final 25,000 marchers and myself arrived at the City of St. Jude School early in the morning hours of March 25. This was the final day of the march into Montgomery. Federal Judge Frank Johnson, Jr. had ruled that only 600 marchers could march from Selma to the outskirts of Montgomery, because the U.S. Army could not protect a larger number. Our buses arrived at daybreak, just as people were waking. It was overcast and the school fields were muddy from previous rains. I thought the sky’s diffused lighting was especially perfect for photography. Without the strong shadows of a sunny day I was freely able to move around subjects and photograph them from whatever angle I thought optimal.
The first publication of my photographs was in the April 5, 1965, edition of the CCNY weekly student newspaper Main Events, which was mostly dedicated to the march. I remember bringing my negatives and contact sheets sometime later to the New York Times, but they used only my Joan Baez photo as a two-page photograph in a Feb. 27, 1966, Sunday Magazine story on her by Joan Didion.
Q: What was it like to photograph Martin Luther King? Was he very charismatic?
A: I’d photographed Dr. King close-up several years previously when he was the CCNY 1963 graduation commencement speaker. Then, as now in 1965 at the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he struck me as being very self-contained, exuding a calm gravitas that pacified the normally emotional atmosphere. He was a pleasure to photograph, with his striking, memorable features. As he was a foot shorter than me, I was able to make my memorable photograph of him from behind as he spoke to the 25,000 civil rights marchers. This photograph was framed exactly as I envisioned it. I was standing in front and below Dr. King during his speech, capturing a nice image of him with his head encircled by numerous microphones. The thought came to me that this photograph could have been taken at any speech by King. How could I frame a photograph that combined King and the attentive crowd of 25,000 before him? Instantly, I knew that I had to be directly behind him, capturing his well-known head with the crowd listening raptly in the distance equally spaced on either side of his shoulders. I checked my cameras, their exposure settings and walked quickly along the base of the platform, up the steps and worked my way to a place behind Dr. King. I knew I had no more than 30 seconds to a minute to capture the image. I took one photo from the left, the center, the right, then a small backup camera, as I could not afford to lose this opportunity. Then I was off the platform to look for other images.
Q: Have you ever been back to photograph in Alabama at that location since? If so, what brought you back?
A: No, though I have been in touch with people planning the celebration of the 50th anniversary, as well as working with Douglas Watson, the director of the City of St. Jude, to help plan his exhibition, which used many images I took at the school grounds. No one ever contacted me to attend the anniversary. I would like to go back and perhaps find some of the young people in my photographs and see what 50 years and the Civil and Voting Rights Acts have brought them.
Q: At the time of the Selma march, you lived in New York City – you went to the South (for the first time?) to photograph this event. Was the atmosphere and people in the South what you expected and/or were prepared for?
A: My encounters with Southern people, both black and white, were quite civilized, with the exception of the young rowdies that I photographed and the suppressed hostility of the police and state politicians. My experience then, and over the years knowing first-hand of Southerners and their culture, is that whatever they personally may have thought of the march and the marchers from across the nation, they would act publicly courteous and benign.
Q: The exhibit – “We Shall Overcome: Documenting the Road to Freedom” – featuring the work of Danny Lyon, Steve Schapiro, Flip Schulke, and yourself at the Fahey/Klein Gallery until May 2- feels as if the four photographers planned their coverage together – which didn’t happen- as the images flow together so effortlessly together as a group shown. How do you feel about the collaboration?
A: Though photojournalists have their own individual visions and approaches to frame and assemble a photograph, it is the editors and gallery curators that select and harmonize the arrangement. There is always an overlying common conceptual framework that guides photographers to tell their stories. By carefully extracting images that share a common theme or visual construct, the overall thematic flow can be quite powerful and unifying.
Q: Is there one photograph that stands out in the show more than another one for you? If so, can you tell me which image and why?
A: The one favorite that always comes to mind is “Things Go Better With Coke.” Apart from its remarkably fine composition, I enjoy its subtle humor and the marvelous, extended, multi-generation black family, below the lady in the Coke billboard.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: It’s a mixture of fulfilling the needs from gallery sales in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, developing new shows for other museums and galleries, lectures, sifting through and extracting the best from my more than 50 years of other documentary work for future exhibitions … and of course my never-shuttered camera.