Before their panel on 1960s photojournalism held in Collins on Tuesday, Oct. 18, Dr. Annie Segan—writer, oral historian, editor, multi-media artist and curator of her father, Arthur Rothstein’s, photographs—and Rothstein’s mentee, John Shearer, sat down for an interview with the Wellesley News. Both Rothstein and Shearer were significant figures in the Golden Age of Picture Magazines in the 60’s, and have been acknowledged as “sociologists with cameras” by historians and photojournalists inspired by their work. Many consider Rothstein as the father of photojournalism, citing his iconic photographs of the Great Depression, which continue to represent the era in museums and history textbooks throughout the United States. Meanwhile, Shearer is known for his groundbreaking stills of social unrest in the U.S., including KKK activity and the Attica Prison riots. Working during the peak of photojournalism, Rothstein and Shearer went on to photograph for major picture magazines “Look” and “Life” from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, where they constructed stories of some of the most pivotal events in U.S. history regarding human rights, civil liberties and race relations through photography.
The photojournalism panel began with a presentation featuring images selected by Dr. Segan from the Rothstein’s personal family albums. With great fondness and enthusiasm, Segan recounted the story of “Dad” and his influence on the worlds of photography, history and advertising. Rothstein’s photography became iconic for its perception of the devastating Great Depression, particularly with his photograph of a farmer and two sons on a barren farm in the midst of a dust storm, which became a symbol of the Dust Bowl. Later on, Rothstein photographed nine presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan and invented a camera called the Xograph that produced 3D images. He additionally catapulted the methods of product placement and augmented advertisement sales by creating “feel-good picture stories” integrated with major productions like General Motors, Keds, Kodak and Levis.
When questioned about her father’s legacy, Dr. Segan asserted that her father was most influential in his ability to orate stories through photography. On an image her father took of Churchill and Roosevelt: Segan explains that Rothstein doesn’t capture a stiff, formal picture of powerful political figures; instead, he captures them in casual conversation while sitting on a bench— transforming the story from one of intense political discourse to that of an intimate heart-to-heart, one that humanizes the subjects and tells a new story. Segan compared her father to the “Mad Men” protagonist Don Draper, a man who had the capacity to transform still images into storybooks. He was someone who understood that crafting a good advertisement, or a good picture, meant reinforcing a story through a feeling of nostalgia.
Segan’s presentation was then followed by a one-on-one interview between Ileana Selejan, curator of the new Charlotte Brooks’ exhibit in the Davis Museum, and Shearer.
John Shearer is an extension of the powerful standards of photojournalism that Rothstein began and left behind. At 17 years old, Shearer crossed paths with Rothstein, and Shearer’s dreams of becoming a relevant photographer for “Look” and “Life” magazines came true after producing a ground-breaking photograph of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. A twist of fate caused a boiler to go off in Shearer’s dark room while developing his negatives, producing a unique quality to his images that magnified the details amid the shadows and highlights, enhancing the sentiment within the photo to tell a story.
Shearer was the second African-American photographer for “Life” magazine during a feverish time of racial tensions and civil unrest. Wellesley News asked Shearer how his race affected his experience as a photojournalist and consequently, his work. He admitted that it wasn’t easy. One of the realities Rothstein made Shearer aware of was that it was going to be “very difficult for [Shearer] to go and travel throughout the country,” specifically because of his race. Shearer was not only facing racism in the outside world, but also within the photography sphere. While the “magazines were very liberal,” they were also “very much Jim Crow.” However, Shearer was granted access to some of the most riveting events and difficult social turmoil in the country. Shearer’s tenacity, enforced more fervently by the obstacles he had to overcome as an African-American, prompted him to cover the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, the Attica Prison riots, Martin Luther King’s funeral, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier and more.
Indubitably, Arthur Rothstein and John Shearer were successful photojournalists because they were pictorialists illustrating entire stories with their pictures. Shearer credited his photography techniques to Rothstein’s mentoring. However, Shearer’s inability to read made him “interested in telling stories because [he] made them up so often;” he became an expert at retelling historical events with pictures versus text. Shearer also clearly distinguished the difference between photojournalism during his peak in the 60’s and today. In his youth, photojournalism was about being invisible, while modern photojournalism applies an obtrusive camera. “Today,” much of what is covered by the media is captured in first person, so that the frame is centralized on the perspective of the photojournalist and how the subject reacts directly to him. But for Shearer, photojournalism was successful when it was shot in the third person, which makes invisibility key. As a shy kid, Shearer saw the camera as “an amazing shield,” something that made him “feel like Superman or something.” In the case of MLK’s funeral, the images Shearer sought to capture were not about capturing a reflection along the casket, but rather what happened before getting to the church memorial service. This is how Shearer, Rothstein and other successful photojournalists of his time integrated emotion into their pictures, and “in order to do that you have to find the emotion in yourself.”
Take a look at the newly curated photography gallery by Charlotte Brooks, the only woman among Look magazine’s staff for 20 years, in Wellesley’s Davis Museum.