“Look at this photo”

It’s been a long hot summer here in New York, and we are only halfway through the season.

Paul Fusco died on July 15th. Two days later, on July 17th, John Lewis died.

John Lewis needs no introduction. By now, you’ve probably seen this 1963 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, featuring a young John Lewis:

1963 sncc poster john lewis

In the midst of another long hot summer, Danny Lyon hitchhiked to a small town in Illinois called Cairo. It was 1962. As Lyon recounted in an essay for the New York Review of Books, “One of my classmates, Linda Pearlstein, had been arrested in civil rights demonstrations in Cairo, Illinois. With contacts from Linda, I put my 35 mm Nikon F reflex into an old army bag, asked my sister-in-law to drive me to Route 66 at the city’s edge, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked south. I thought I was just going on an adventure.”

Lyon made this photograph on his second day in Cairo. He followed “a small group” to “a segregated swimming pool that sported a “Private Pool, Members Only” sign.” The group knelt to pray, and Lyon saw before him “a sublimely beautiful moment: the grace of the three, the two men kneeling at each side, the child in the middle.”

Lyon met John Lewis in Cairo. The two would go on to work together in the SNCC, and they also became lifelong friends. You can see the two in conversation in this interview from 2016, on the occasion of Lyon’s retrospective, “Message to the Future.” Lyon recalls how he found his calling as a photographer that same hot summer: “[When I arrived in Albany, Georgia,] over my shoulder was a Nikon F reflex. “You got a camera,” James Forman—then SNCC’s executive secretary—said to me when we met at the Freedom House. “Go inside the courthouse. Down at the back they have a big water cooler for whites and next to it a little bowl for Negroes. Go in there and take a picture of that.”

Go in there and take a picture of that.

*

Paul Fusco had a long and productive career as a photographer. He began as a staff photographer for Look magazine in the heyday of magazine photography. After LOOK shut down, fusco joined magnum photos. Fusco is perhaps best known for his photographs of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train. Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968. After the funeral on June 8th — held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where for 2 days crowds lined up for blocks to pay their last respects — a slow train carried RFK’s casket from New York to Washington. D.C. Fusco was also on that train.  “All I was thinking about was how to get access when we got to Arlington,” he said. “Then, when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through — it went very slowly. I just opened the window and began to shoot.”

*

I invite you to take some time to sit with these photographs.

And then, turn your attention to Danny Lyon’s reminiscences of John Lewis, interleaved between other topics–some heavy, others mundane.

I invite you to sit with these images, sit with the people in them, some of them ghosts now, and look upon them with a regard both raw and tender.  Walk through their blind departure. Feel the rush of the past, the still point of the present.

*

Danny Lyon, again: ‘That day in Washington when John showed me the star where Dr. King had stood, I listened to Al Sharpton, the keynote speaker at the 2013 march, as his voice boomed out through the public address system.

“And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers. Take out a photo of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner. Take out a photo of Viola Liuzzo.

“They gave their lives so we could vote. Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.”’

*

Look upon them with a regard both raw and tender.

Take up the labor they left undone.

 

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