Bob Adelman, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85

March 21, 2016

By David Walker

© Bob Adelman/Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

Water hosing demonstrators, 1963.

Bob Adelman, who photographed the leading figures and seminal events of the Civil Rights movement, was found dead on Saturday at his home in Miami Beach. He was 85 years old.

According to the Miami Herald, police are investigating Adelman’s death because he was discovered with a head wound. Police said there was no sign of forced entry at his home, however.

Adelman stood a few feet from Martin Luther King, Jr., photographing the Civil Rights leader as he delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. He documented lunch counter protests, the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters in Birmingham, and the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Adelman also photographed the speeches–and funeral–of Malcolm X, the riots during the late 1960s in Newark and Harlem, and the hardships of African-American life in the rural south and in cities in the northeast.

Adelman, who was white, had unusual access to Civil Rights insiders and events because he covered the struggle from its beginnings in the 1950s, and approached the movement as an activist first, and a journalist second. In the early 1960s, he served as a volunteer photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality, a leading Civil Rights organization at the time.

“His subjects knew which side he was on. And he stayed the course,” according to an unsigned essay on his website about Mine Eyes Have Seen, a 2007 retrospective of Adelman’s Civil Rights work.

Adelman combined courage with a sharp eye, moving close to the action “in areas that were really dangerous,” says his gallerist, Howard Greenberg. His iconic photograph “Water hosing demonstrators, 1963” (shown above) “looks biblical. It goes way beyond the moment,” Greenberg says, adding, “He was as good a picture editor as he was a photographer…He was a funny guy, with a great wit, and he always had something insightful to say.”

Born in 1931 and raised on Long Island, New York, Adelman earned a BA from Rutgers, studied law at Harvard and earned an MA in philosophy from Columbia. He also studied photography with renowned Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, according to a Library of Congress biography published in conjunction with a 2013 exhibit commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Adelman became interested in African-American life and culture during the late 1940s, after hearing performances by Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, according to an obituary published by NPR.

In addition to Mine Eyes Have Seen, Adelman’s other books include King: A Photobiography, Carver Country: The World or Raymond Carver, “I Have a Dream”, MLK, Down Home: Camden, Alabama, On and Off the Street, and other titles. He also contributed to numerous magazines, including Time, LIFE, The New York Times Magazine, and Paris Match.

His awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Adelman also taught photography at International Center of Photography, the School of Visual Arts. and other schools.

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