Thursday, February 12, 2015

Somerstein in Selma

By now, you’ve probably heard of the movie “Selma.” Directed by Ava DuVernay and including Oprah Winfrey in its cast, it is based on the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The marches were led and organized in part by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a member. It took five days for the marchers to reach Montgomery.

Among the photographers capturing shots of the marches was a young man named Stephen Somerstein, the picture editor for the City College of New York’s campus newspaper. He arrived in Alabama just in time for the final day of the march, but the images he captured “serve as a reality check on a history that in ‘Selma’ becomes a seductively shot and charismatically cast docu-opera” (according to the New York Times in an article published Jan. 15).

Somerstein shot around 400 photographs, 55 of which are in an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society called “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein.” Images of King and other civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, are included, but a writer at the New Yorker believes that Somerstein’s best images are not of these great leaders, but of the crowd watching the marchers, which “[reflects] the soulful quality of Somerstein’s own role as history’s witness.”

A version of one of Somerstein’s photographs appears on one of the film’s posters. Although his images were never exhibited until around 2008, appearing only in the pages of newspapers and magazines, their effectiveness has not lessened since the day he shot them.

Photo credits: The New York Times

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