Monday 1 March 2010

Laurence Aberhart at Selma

Some photographs reach straight into one's heart. Laurence Aberhart’s black and white contact print of Flag and Bridge, Selma, Alabama 15 September 1988 is such a song.
Although made by a New Zealand artist, this is photograph brims with the history of modern America. One cannot look at this bridge and its reflection beneath the billowing flag and not be stunned by the image's symbolism. This bridge marks an awareness of African American civil rights from an international viewpoint.

On 7 March 1965, a day that would later became notorious as Bloody Sunday, armed state and local police officers attacked the 600 marchers trying to cross the bridge at Selma. They were there on a protest mission, to walk to Montgomery, the state capitol of Alabama.
This march was initiated by James Bevel and it registers a moment of change within the history American civil rights. Alabama had an appalling history of the non-provision of voting rights to its black citizens. Only 2% of the African American population were registered as voters even though they numbered over 50% of the state’s population.

The Library of Congress’s account of the day notes that the marchers were “demonstrating for African American voting rights and to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration. On the outskirts of Selma, after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers, in plain sight of photographers and journalists, were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.”

Caption: Unknown photographer
The third civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama 21 March 1965

Front row from left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun; Reverend Ralph Abernathy; Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr.; Ralph Bunche (Undersecretary of the United Nations); Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
Photograph courtesy:

Using clubs and tear gas the police prevented the marchers from crossing the bridge. They returned on 9 March led by the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr and were again repelled. After five days walking, starting on 21 March 1965, 3200 people finally succeeded in getting to Montgomery, 87 kilometres away. By the time they arrived in the capital the march had increased to 25,000 people. The distinguished Hasidic scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel later wrote of his close involvement with these protests, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."On 26 February 2010, I telephoned Laurence Aberhart and asked if he would write an account of the circumstances of his making this important photograph at Selma. His reply is fascinating and I publish it in full here, knowing that it is an important account about the making of one of his key image.

New Zealand photography does not need to be 'of' New Zealand to be part of our culture's history. Laurence wrote:
"When I travel I often make a deliberate and conscious attempt to be in the location where a past great photographer once worked. Paris, in the locales that Atget once photographed. New Orleans and Louisiana haunted by Clarence John Laughlin. Vicksburg, Natchez, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama, where Walker Evans found his great Farm Security Administration material.

In 1988, I was lucky enough to be granted a Fulbright travel award to photograph in the southern states of the USA. There, I was often guided to the same places that Walker Evans photographed, often simply because he had worked there. So, in Alabama it was automatic to go to Selma. I was looking there for the buildings that Evans photographed, to witness the changes that time makes .

I was stuck by the symmetry of the bridge and it's reflection in the river. Remembering my other photographs of bridges [Alexandra, Otago] I thought that it would make a good subject. Looking around and knowing that Americans are so flag conscious and that I was in a 'significant' place - because of its import to the American civil rights movement - I noticed the flag on the porch of a nearby riverbank house.

I thought I could be clever and try and incorporate the two in one image. This required me to ask the owner of the house, luckily at home, if I could set my camera and tripod up on his porch to take the photograph. Permission was granted and the owner stood around watching. At some point I pulled my head out from under the dark cloth to hear the owner say to me something like

'Oh course you know that that's a famous bridge.'
[Me] 'Famous?'
'Well some would say Infamous. You know, where all that crap started from.'

It dawned on me that this was the Edmond Pettus Bridge that Martin Luther King and the civil rights march fought over in 1965. Dr King organised a civil rights march to gather in Selma to march to Alabama's capitol, Montgomery, to try and bring about voting rights for black people in the state.

The local police gathered on the far side of the bridge on the edge of the town and the route to Montgomery and on the day of the planned march, fought on the bridge with the protesters and turned them back. A few days later the protesters gathered in greater numbers, fought a pitched battle with the police again on the bridge and this time they were victorious and marched on to Alabama.

The attention that the march and the battle on the bridge gained caused more and more protesters to join the march so that they were so strong in number by the time they reached Montgomery. The decision was made to carry on the Washington DC, where, by the time they reached, the group was so large that they turned Alabama's refusal to permit black enfranchisement around. In fact, the resistance to civil rights for black Americans to vote was turned around. The battle on for the William Pettus Bridge was the turning point for America's civil rights struggle.

Back on the porch, taking the photograph, apart from wondering what the redneck Southerner was thinking as to what I was up to, my great concern was for my safety - there was, the whole time I was taking the photograph an increasingly irritated and in volume, increasingly higher pitched buzzing coming from a tiny iridescent blue humming bird, hovering just a few feet away from me, on station, guarding his nest in a hole in the riverbank very close by. I came away unscathed from both.

Laurence Aberhart
Flag and Bridge, Selma, Alabama, 15 September 1988 1989
gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1989

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