Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Covering a riot

Washington DC in 1971

An American nightmare

The morning sky was dark with heavy clouds and a chill nipped at my neck as I watched the police ready for a battle that I knew would come. Over 10,000 students had descended on Washington DC in 1971 with the stated objective of shutting the city down. Anti-war protest had grown in intensity as the Vietnam War had groaned on.

I had suffered a broken collarbone covering the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and had watched white American students become more radicalized in the intervening years. There had been a time when the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims had been America’s most radical voices. Now it was young white groups that led the list of America radicalism that was sweeping the country.            

I had arrived in Washington three days earlier. I had been covering protest stories back to back from New York to California. Along the way I had met three different women whom I thought would change my life and didn’t. I was in need of companionship, a head on a soft pillow and someone to talk to. Now I was faced with covering a demonstration that I knew would be filled with violence.  With both sides on edge I would again put myself in the middle as I tried to broker a good story.

The day started with a ritual I always followed when covering a demonstration. I put a small bottle of vinegar and cotton in my shirt pocket-- my tear gas protection— and a mouth guard between my teeth. I had sports finders on my cameras so that it would be easy to see through them if the tear gas was bad. I put a blanket under my shirt to protect my body from the blows I knew were coming, and in my back pocket, a small flask of bourbon to steel my courage.           

It was just after 9am when the long line of protesters I had joined started their face off with the police. I had spent the previous night with the chief of police and he had told me that he had pledged to the attorney general that he would keep the city open at all cost.

It was the perfect storm of a protest. White and black radicals had come together to fight the government over the war. They were well organized and backing down from the cops was out of the question. I was in the front row and to my left and right were two young women, both holding small flowers in their hands. As I watched, they held them forward as a peace offering to the line of police officers that was moving toward us in a slow and deadly march, their helmeted faces covered with gas masks. Over a loudspeaker I could hear the words “Disperse now or you will be arrested.”

 A cry went up from the protesters, “Kill the pigs,” as we moved forward. It was during moments like this that I always wondered to myself why I was doing this. I started to shoot pictures, my cameras my only defense as the police drew closer.

The police were launching tear gas into the crowd now and everyone around me was struggling to move forward. Reaching into my top pocket I pulled the cotton from the bottle and shoved it into my nose. My eyes burned but I could see well enough to shoot.

The police line was now only ten feet from where I stood. A young cop who couldn’t have been more than 20 swung his nightstick at me, catching the camera I was holding to my eye, smashing it to the ground. He pulled at my press tags and hit me hard on my blanketed shoulder, then on my legs and hands, dislocating my thumb. I buckled but didn’t go down. On my left shoulder I had a camera with a 300mm lens, and using it as a club, I swung wildly and the built in lens shade caught the young cop on his left cheek, causing him to stumbled backward. I pushed forward past him, somehow evading his grasp. Up ahead I could see the police command post. It was ten feet off the ground—the perfect spot to shoot.

On the police stand I saw a number of other photographers and they thankfully waved me up. It was like a life raft for a drowning man; the relief I felt made my heart skip about 50 beats. From there I had a great view of the action and was away from the grasp of the now-crazed police that had turned on the protesters with a vengeance.  

The protest lasted for another three days. In all, 2,500 protesters were arrested, 800 injured and four were killed.

 The image that leads this post was taken at 8:20 in the morning at the urging of Jerry Wilson, police chief of the Washington, DC police department.  As I looked at him addressing his top commander with his men behind him, I thought that it would be a short day for the demonstrators. I was so wrong. They came to Washington with passion and a cause they believed in: End the war at all cost. That anthem carried them for three long days and nights, but in the end, they had no choice but to choose the course of cessation.  

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Prachard Alabama jail

 Prichard, Alabama jail

A cry of innocence that went unheard

People often ask me what it was like to work at the weekly Life magazine. I tell them that they should read The Bridges of Madison County. It was a book and a movie that made me cry. It captured in many ways what life was like for me as a photographer on the road. Mine was life always full to overflowing with new people, people that I often cared deeply about. People that I often formed a lasting bond with, people that I met once and would never see again.

            Horace Wilcox was just such a man. I had been on the road for almost two months straight when my best friend at the time, and fellow Life staff photographer, Vernon Merritt, sold the magazine on doing a story on Prichard Alabama. Vernon, a white man born in Alabama, had a perfect insight into the southern mindset and I, a New York-born black kid, felt deeply the need for freedom that all blacks felt. We were a perfect team to cover the changing city, and the magazine was eager to send us. We had worked together often over the years covering riots in Birmingham, Selma, Watts, Detroit, Newark, New York. We photographed back to back; I shot in one direction, he in the other, our bodies never more then two feet apart. That way if the cops were coming after us, we would see them and could beat a hasty retreat into a near by crowd. 

Prichard had been the center of Klan activity in Alabama and had just elected its first black mayor a man named Jay Cooper. Vernon covered the city’s whites, and I its blacks. Cooper had vowed to change Prichard, to shatter the Klan’s long strangle hold on city government and bring an end to the violence and segregation that had marked Prichard’s past. Looking back on that period, I sometimes think that the problems our current president is facing are mild when compared to the problems and racial hatred that Cooper faced his first days in office.

It was against this background of racial hatred that I heard about Horace Wilcox. Wilcox was from the windy city of Chicago. He moved to Prichard to work on the Cooper campaign, but with the campaign two years off, he started working as a social activist with the goal of ending segregation in the local high schools. His work put him in touch with many students, both black and white. In the course of his work, he attended many school football games, dances and other social events sponsored by Prichard’s many black churches. Horace was well liked and as his work with white students started to become more visible in the local press, the police and other white city officials marked him as an outside northerner, a troublemaker who wanted to change the status quo. They found their chance after a school dance. He was falsely arrested for dancing and later raping a young white woman.

I went to see Horace in the Prichard county jail. The jail was a grim place that looked like it was pulled from an old thirties movie. Its broken windows and cracked walls provided little shelter from the outside winds and rain. The smell of unwashed flesh filled my nose the moment I stepped from my rental car. As I entered the jail, I watched two rats run along the jailhouse wall and thought about what a night in the jail must have been like with a rat as a bedside companion. As I walked through the maze of tunnels that led to Horace’s cell, voices called out to me from behind locked doors. “Cigarette, mister, cigarette, mister,” was a constant refrain.

When I got to Horace’s cell I found him staring at me with a look that could have frozen the dead. I was able to take one picture before he pulled back from his cell’s only window. The window provided his cell’s only light and was his only contact with the outside world. The cell door was secured with a small lock and had a tray of rotten food sitting at its base. The bread was blue with mold.

“How long has this food been here?” I asked.

“This morning,” he said.

“How long have you been in here?”

“I don’t know, maybe a year. They never turn off the outside light. I don’t know when one day starts and another ends.”

“People tell me that you never raped that girl.”

“Everyone at the so called trial told them that I didn’t do it,” his voice boomed from deep inside his small-blackened cell.

“Then why are they holding you?” I asked.

“You’re in Prichard, mister,” Horace said.

That was the last thing that Horace ever said to me. I told Vernon what had happened to Horace. He shook his head and repeated what Horace had said to me.

“You’re in Prichard mister.”

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fall guy

New York Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald at attica prison riot


Portraits that tell a story


It’s been awhile since my last post; sometimes life gets in the way. I have started a new web site, which you will see the link for in the upper left corner of my blog page. I hope you enjoy it and if you’re interested in purchasing prints, please contact me.

 In looking through my pictures for the web site I started to think about portraits and how they have changed over the years. Early portraits were very formal. People sat before the camera dead still, the exposures often lasted twenty or thirty seconds. They were often beautifully posed but beyond a strong look in the eyes, a turn of a shoulder, the nature of what they wore, the viewer new little about who they were.

Russell Oswald was the New York Commissioner of Corrections. The Attica prison riot left a deep stain on the America conscious; see my August 6, 2009 post. We lived in a world of deep denial, we had fought a war very few supported and race relations in America, was nearing an all time low.  Oswald was one of the good guys who took a fall for the man above. Nelson Rockefeller was the governor of New York at the time of the Attica prison riot. Everyone wanted him to come to the prison, talk with the prisoners, make things right. He didn’t come.

Oswald had been a reformer. He cared about the inmates. He wanted them to leave prison better people than when they came. He cared about family and had set up a program where wives could spend the weekend with their husbands twice a year.  He developed retraining programs that worked and hired a stream of consultants who delivered on his promise.

1972 had been a turbulent year for me. I had covered a story on George Jackson, the Black Panthers leader who was killed in San Quentin in an alleged prison escape that never happened. Prison authorities said that he had a gun in his hair when he escaped but anyone who knew him recognized the fallacy of this statement: at a half inch it would be hard to hide a gun in his hair.

I was traveling twenty-nine days a month and breaking up with my girlfriend as a result. I was very much alone and trying to find myself in all that I had covered. People seemed to be very happy with my pictures but I found it hard to be an observer, which by now was my life’s first rule. I had covered gangs and race riots of all kinds and just watched people at their worst. Hardest of all was that there was no one to talk to about what I was feeling. Making a great picture that was all that mattered.

Attica prison was not far from Buffalo. I had just gotten home from the Jackson story and I had turned off my phone. My girlfriend and I were lying in bed when we heard a loud knock on the door. It was Bob Stokes, a writer from Life magazine. A riot seemed to be starting at the Attica prison. I packed quickly and we were off.

There must have been 500 journalists when we got there on that rain-filled morning but I was lucky. The inmates wanted me inside as an observer, a merit badge for all the civil rights stories I had covered.  Early on in the struggle, a prison guard who had been taken hostage had been killed and the inmate leaders didn’t want anymore violence, just their rights. Getting inside was a lucky break for me. For Bob, his view from the outside would later cost him his job.

I remember the sound of the doors closing behind me as I entered the prison. There was no way out. I walked one dark hall after the other. There was dark grit on the walls and the wet floors squeaked from all the rain that had fallen and the many broken windows. The prison had a hard smell, one of unwashed flesh from too few showers. It was a place of cold food and a concrete bed. It was a time before cell phones. I was on my own and I was ready to take whatever pictures I could. I spent time in cellblock D where the inmates were camped. Everyone was one edge. Voices came over loud speakers from outside the prison wall. ‘Put down your arms or we’re coming in,’ they said. Not a man flinched.

I remember a big man as tall as a redwood tree who grabbed my arm between two large fingers and said, “Remember this day son, you’ve never done time till now and if we see a morning sun it will be a day you remember for the rest of your life.”

The next day I worked my way to a part of the prison where all of the officials and other members of the press were encamped. It was about an hour before all hell would break loose. A last call had been put into the governor’s office and with no response, the decision to move on the inmates rested on Russell Oswald’s shoulders.

 A TV cameraman tested his lights and Oswald was standing alone in the corner of the room where we all waited. When I saw the light hit his face it was clear to me that here was a man under pressure and man who saw his life’s work turn to ashes, a man alone, hung out to dry. You could see it in his eyes, the lines of his face—a big man made small. It was the third day of a stalemate. He had little choice.  He ordered the guards to retake the prison. Oswald was a great man; his name now lives in infamy.

In the split second in which the camera lights illuminated Oswald’s face, I was able to create a portrait that told his story.


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Thursday, October 15, 2009

You have to become invisible

Eddie Cuevas talks to gang members at a midnight meeting in a schoolyard.


The Street Gang Story


August 25, 1972 was the publication date of one of my most important picture stories. It was entitled The ‘Prez’ of the Reapers. A profile of Eddie Cuvas and his 200 member gang, The Reapers, it ran for over 10 pages.

I pitched my boss, picture editor Ron Bailey, on the idea of doing a picture story on a city street gang since street gangs had come roaring back in New York and other major cities. The fact that gangs were springing up all over the country interested Ron. He approved the idea. My mentor, Gordon Parks, had done a famous story on a Harlem gang leader named Red Jackson in 1948. Gordon’s story had been in black and white. I wanted to work in color and use only natural light. High speed Ektachrome was the fastest color slide film at that time. It had a film speed of 160 but you could push it in the lab and double or even triple the speed. However the more you pushed the film, the more monochromatic it became. Still I felt that color was the way to go; it would better capture the feeling of the times.

My first challenge was to find a gang. I first looked at the gangs in Chinatown. There were 10 -15 large gangs, but on my third day walking Chinatown’s mean streets with a M6 Leica tucked under my arm, I was approached from behind by a group of young kids with metal tire irons and told to leave now or later in a box. I knew then something that every photojournalist has to learn. To do a good picture you have to become invisible and there was no way I could do that in Chinatown. I looked at gangs in Harlem but concluded that my story would be too much like Gordon’s, and that would never do. My next stop was the Bronx.

The Bronx in the early1970’s had the greatest number of gangs and while I didn’t speak Spanish, I looked the part. I didn’t take a camera with me on the first series of trips to the Bronx. I wanted to get a sense of the place and its people without a camera tucked under my arm. I walked the streets of the South Bronx for about a week looking for the right gang to photograph.

The South Bronx at the time was a tough place to work as a photographer. On every corner there was someone with a challenge--who was I, were did I get all the camera equipment, why did I want to take their picture? My lack of Spanish made coming up with answers to all these questions hard at first. That was until I realized that more than half the young men I met spoke a combination of Spanish and English, Spanglish, as we later called it. And with some patience, I began to understand why the gangs were so important for the young guys I met. Many had no fathers and the gang became family-- a group that looked out for one another and were there to support each other if someone needed help or a strong shoulder to lean on.

I had been up all night and was nursing a cup of strong coffee when I met Eddie Cuevas. Eddie was on his was into a local bodega. I had parked my tired frame on the front steps and was sipping coffee. Eddie tripped over my feet as he entered and gave me a look that was meant to kill.

Cuevas was about five ten and thin as a rail. While he might have seemed small at first, once he spoke a larger than life image filled your mind. He was a leader, it was clear without being told. Fast Eddie, they called him on the street: President of the Reapers and the king of Tremont Avenue.  I told him what I wanted to do and he said that I needed to come back. He had to check me out. I returned several days later and because of my stories about Attica, the Black Panthers, and Muhammad Ali, I seemed to pass muster.

Eddie impressed me for his cunning and understanding of people. We quickly became close. He loved art and had painted all the gang colors on members’ jackets. He loved the comics and had followed my father’s comic strip, Quincy. We lived together for six weeks. We formed a bond and Fast Eddie took me everywhere he went. He allowed me to go war with him when the Reapers fought the Black Spades, a rival street gang, and I took pictures as we went on a gun-buying trip when the Reapers purchased a 50-caliber machine gun.

Unintended consequences: After the story came out the police followed Eddie’s every move. Once he had a national spotlight on him they seemed to feel it was their job to bring him down. Within weeks Eddie was charged with attempted murder. I somehow felt responsible and helped Eddie get a lawyer. There was no real case against him and the charges were thrown out of court. What I saw was a young man with talent and potential who needed a break. I was able to help him get a job painting sets at the Metropolitan Opera and he left his gang life behind.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It was worth the broken lens

Covering the funeral of John Kennedy

When Senator Edward M. Kennedy was laid to rest alongside his slain brothers, John and Robert, at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday evening, we all witnessed the end of an era. Kennedy had served for 47 years in the Senate. Some say he was the last of the great liberals. For me his passing took me back 46 years. Edward Kennedy was just finishing his first year as a Senator when his brother John was assassinated.

Look magazine photographer Arthur Rothstein asked me to assist him when he covered the funeral of John Kennedy. Monday, November 25, 1963 was a sad day in America. However, while most of the nation mourned the passing of a great president, it was a moment that would change my life. On the way to Washington Arthur, told me that I could take pictures and said that he had arranged for me to have press tags so that I could move around. ‘Take as many pictures as you can of people grieving’ he told me. I was still a kid and the great gravity of the day was not completely clear to me; all I knew was that this was my chance if I could only make some good pictures.  

I found it hard to move around at first. There were hundreds of photographers and reporters working the event. Many had gotten there early an picked out what they thought would be a good spot to cover the event. Never having worked an event like this, I kept moving around shooting over the shoulders or under the legs of other photographers. More than once I was told to move because I was blocking someone’s shot. I didn’t care-- I just wanted to take pictures. I knew that the service was taking place at St. Matthews Cathedral. St Matthews is about four blocks from the White House so I worked my way to a spot just across the street.  With Arthur’s words fixed in my mind, I shot pictures of grief--crying faces, people holding hands. But somehow I knew that the honor guard who would take the coffin to the Arlington National Cemetery was the key to something good. I figured that if I kept an eye on them I might be able to get a good picture of the family.

The private service at St. Matthews lasted over an hour. A reviewing stand had been set up across the street from the church. Seeing an empty spot on the top row, I climbed up the outside of the scaffold like structure just as the coffin was being taken from the church. Luck was on my side that day. It was a perfect spot.  Before I left for Washington with Arthur my father had helped me buy a preset 200mm lens. Thinking I might need it to take close-ups. I had been having trouble focusing the lens stopped down so I left it wide open. My pictures would all be over exposed but at least they would be sharp.  I lifted my new 200mm to my eye just as Jackie Kennedy leaned over to John-John and whispered something in his ear. John-John looked at his father’s coffin and made a crisp salute as the coffin departed. I had my picture. A moment later I was pulled from the stand by a member of the Secret Service. I fell about 10 feet to the ground and landed on my new lens, cracking the front element.

            While there were thousands of pictures made that day, I feel that my picture was one of the best. It took me awhile to make a good print from the over-exposed negative and as a result my image was not among the first wave of pictures to run. But when it did it became one of the most widely used. The over-exposure gave me a great deal of detail in the dark areas of the picture. Jackie’s face was a portrait of stoic grief rendered in a haunting way that captured her sorrow.

Luck – and the fearlessness of youth – were on my side that day. It was worth the broken lens.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Closer

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier

A hot, rough wind blew in from the sea, bending the Miami Beach palm trees and rattling the half-open windows of the Fifth Street Gym. I was in a place suspended in time, a monument built on sweat and rum bottles filled with water for the swigging. Muhammad Ali was standing in the ring, leaning on the ropes, catching his breath and looking out at 80 or 90 people who had paid $1 each to see him train.


It was my second day on a journey that ultimately would lead to the center of Madison Square Garden. Ali would face Joe Frazier in a slugfest that had been billed as the ‘Fight of the Century.’


Ali, the ultimate showman, seemed removed from the frenzy of the gym that day. He had boxed eight rounds, but they were not impressive. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, always said Ali was the worst gym fighter he ever saw, and that day was no exception. Then, as if struck by lightning, the athlete danced to the center of the ring and his hands moved so fast they became almost invisible; his stunned sparing partner stood helpless against the ropes. The bell sounded and the round was over.


Sonny Liston once said fighting Ali was like running through a fire wearing a gasoline raincoat. Like all great artists, Ali’s many moods directed his fight plan; it seemed to come from somewhere deep inside – a place that only he could see. He would lose his first fight against Frazier, but he would win the next two. After the series, neither man would ever be the same.

When I work on a picture story or when I write a story, the first thing I try to confront is how the story will start and how the story will end. In a picture story we call it the opener and the closer. The opening picture has to be one that will stop the reader and make them want to read the story. The closing picture is one that ties the story together. It’s the last thing that people see and the picture often that’s most remembered. In my story for Life magazine I cover the training camps of both fighters as they prepared for the big fight. The pictures I made at the training camps were strong but I need an image that would tie it all together. The story would run before the fight so photographing the winner was not an option. My time was running out I had two days left to finish my story.

As luck would have it on my last day at Frazier’s Philadelphia camp Ali who lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at that time, came to visit the Frazier camp. In typical Ali fashion he taunted Joe from outside a window. Frazier spotted him and walked to the window making a fist. I had my closer.


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Thursday, August 6, 2009



Attica Prison 1972


Attica always had the potential for tragedy. Its 30-foot walls held some of the toughest convicts in New York State. Most of the 2,254 inmates, like a majority of the U.S. prison population, were black or Hispanic, street-hardened products of city ghettos. The revolt, slowly fueled by harsh treatment inmates received inside Attica’s cold walls, could have come at any time, but the match that ignited it was the California killing of Black Panther leader George Jackson in what authorities claimed was an attempted prison escape.


When the violence erupted after breakfast and before work detail on a Thursday morning, inmates used shovels, bats and sheer numbers to take 38 hostages and possession of a large part of the prison.  In the dramatic days of face-to-face negotiating that followed, prison officials consented to nearly all inmates’ demands, but on Saturday a guard who had been injured in the first outbreak died. After that, neither Russell Oswald, New York’s Commissioner of Corrections, nor his boss, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, would yield to the prisoners’ demand for total amnesty. 


It rained the Monday morning of the state assault. It had been four sleepless days since my arrival at the prison, and I had worked my way inside Cell Block D. I was standing next to inmates and hostages alike. Twenty hours had passed and I was down to my last 15 rolls of film. Suddenly, the sound of helicopters shook the ground and a voice rang out over the prison PA telling the inmates to put down their weapons and set the hostages free. The prisoners didn’t respond.


Moments later a fine mist of CS gas rained down from the circling helicopters, filling the prison courtyard and making it difficult to see more that five or six feet in any direction. Then the shooting started. The horror in the eyes of inmates and hostages when state police snipers opened fire is still with me, locked in a psychic file that even I cannot delete. In all, 41 men were killed – nine of them hostages.


The image that I feel captures the sprit of Attica best is the image I made of the officer’s helmet. That one image sums up all the things that I saw and felt, the loss of life, the inmate’s frustrations, the inaction of the state. In taking pictures it is often important to find a way to make your images symbols that tell a larger story. The thing to keep in mind is that visual symbols are always simple, devoid of distracting elements. They are pictures that can be read from a distance. Think stop sign. Now go shoot some. You might not make truly symbolic images at first but the exercise of simplifying your pictures will make them stronger.


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