“I see light shining out of people, angelic light or God’s light. Call it what you will, but I can see God’s light, shining out of people. Not just auras, but something. I trip the shutter when that moment happens.” – Rowland Scherman
Above: In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had no plans of delivering his “I Have a Dream,” speech on August 28, 1963. He volunteered to speak last, an unwanted slot by the rest of the participants, who felt the press may consider leaving the event early. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” urged iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Shifting from what was originally planned, King began to command the crowd, expertly rising and falling in his cadence, creating an ever-increasing anticipation in the culmination of his speech.
He captured the attention of a nation, harnessing the rousing power of a speech that was never scheduled to occur, as he followed the calling of fate. “Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” he stated as only he could, in his unmistakable melodic manner, meeting the historical demand of the hour, with a transformational power that continues to reverberate.
On his first freelance assignment Rowland Scherman was there to witness – and capture –the moment.
Although they were just doing their job, as it turns out Scherman was part of an elite group – photojournalists of the baby-boom generation who chronicled significant events of the decade and captured a generation of change with their cameras. Scherman’s legacy is his body of work, images canonized in American history, infinitely imprinted within our psyche. You may not know the name Rowland Scherman, but you more than likely know his work.
“Right from the beginning I went on a long winning streak. Everything I shot, from every assignment, got into the magazine somewhere. If I covered a march, something dramatic would happen right in front of me and I’d be rewarded with a color spread. When LBJ’s daughter got married, I was in the press pool and page after page of the gala affair sported my images. In those days, LIFE’s [magaine] page rate was 450 bucks, and as soon as the issue appeared, I went out and bought a Karmann Ghia convertible with the check,” says Scherman. “There is a saying in photography: ‘F8, be there.’ F8 is the middle of the dial on the camera, and you have to be there. I just happened to be places.”
Scherman’s career as a photographer allowed him access to some of the most iconic people, places and moments in modern history.
He was there when rock legend Dylan became Dylan. Later in his career, ironically Scherman would win a Grammy award for “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” album cover. “He was dating my girlfriend Joan Baez,” Scherman says, jokingly.
He was there, elbows perched on the stage, when the Beatles debuted in America. “They made people believe life could go on,” says Scherman.
He was a witness to the Special Olympics in its infancy, photographing the event for Eunice Shriver. He was there, in studio, with Crosby Stills and Nash while they were creating their first album. He was at Woodstock. He traveled on assignment for LIFE magazine with a young Arthur Ashe.
“He would have been Senator Ashe by now. Talk about success, having a stadium named after you. He was just a beautiful man. I met him when he was on his way up, and I became friends with his wife, too,” Scherman says.
And of course, recalls Scherman, there was one of his most indelible assignments, traveling the campaign trail with Bobby Kennedy.
“Bobby Kennedy wanted ‘This Land is Your Land’ to be the national anthem. He was such a great guy. He would’ve made the best president,” Scherman says in a moment of contemplation.
The Kennedy assignment was appropriate; after all, it was President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural “Ask Not” speech that moved a youthful Scherman to offer his self-taught photography skills to the Peace Corps, launching his implausible career. He was also there, camera in hand, for the March on Washington for jobs and freedom, which he identifies as one of the most important events of his lifetime. He was in the midst of approximately 250,000 peaceful protesters – the largest number to date recorded – who converged near the Lincoln Memorial.
“I was there when about 500 people were there. I climbed the Lincoln Memorial and got my shots. There were other big-time photographers there and they stayed up there,” says Scherman.
As evidenced in his photography, an agile-26-year-old Scherman would climb just about any structure for the perfect shot.
“I just covered it the way I thought an event like this should be covered, so that anyone who wasn’t there could see the breadth of it, could see the closeups of it, to get a handle on the majesty and importance of it. I just photographed it all, in my way, and it turned out as well as it did,” says Scherman in the documentary “Eye on the ‘60s” directed by Chris Szwedo., “I was lucky, but I also worked pretty hard.”
While on assignment for the now-defunct United States Information Agency, Scherman, a supporter of the movement, was allowed unprecedented access to the event.
“I’d get in front of the crowd and shoot. I got up on the podium and shot Martin. It was beautiful. People thought it was going to be violent but it wasn’t. It was people getting together. The only other time I felt that was during the inauguration of President Obama,” Scherman says.
As he reflects on his 1963 journey to Washington, D.C., some 60 years ago, Scherman, now 86, comments on one of his most iconic photographs.
He shot over 20 rolls of film that day, all of which can be found in the National Archives. But there is one photo in particular that seems to embody the spirit of the March on Washington, a photo truly worth a thousand words, where the embodiment of the past and the future seem to converge in the countenance of 12-year-old Edith Lee Payne.
“There was this little girl listening so seriously to everything Martin was saying,” Scherman recalls, “and she was beautiful – and she is still at it in Detroit [civil rights activism].”
Payne and Scherman officially met for the first time at the 50th anniversary of the march. “Her pictures were everywhere,” Scherman says referencing the golden anniversary event. “We are good friends. We email each other all the time. l used to think that my best photo was of the Dylan album, the one I won the Grammy for, but I really think it was of Edith Lee Payne.”
Photographs hold infinite power. How else can we capture life in the eyes that elicit ranges of emotion with palpable vulnerability, where the relevance of a moment is fully understood, without the need for added context, as if a portion of the subject’s soul has been embedded within the negatives?
Scherman didn’t just “happen to be places”; he happened to be at the exact right place at the exact right time, camera in hand. With his gregarious personality, Scherman’s light is evident, which may be why he recognizes the light in others with ease. Isn’t that the ultimate aim of a great photographer? To capture the light, otherwise unseen? Through his “F8, be there” photographic lens, Rowland Scherman allowed us a gateway to the world, and because he sees light, so do we.
Interested in more? Timeless: Photography of Rowland Scherman is available for purchase through his website.