I had always wanted to meet Julian Bond. He had been a hero of mine since growing up in the sixties. He was a strong, articulate voice for fairness and voting rights, and just plain common sense when it came to the notion of governing. When I photographed him not too long ago, he seemed the picture of health. Now, suddenly, he’s gone. He will be missed.
Photographers are in the memory business and our daily chore is to create visuals that reverberate, commemorate, or somehow creep into the ongoing consciousness of somebody, somewhere. If we’re successful, every once in a while we make a picture, or set of pictures, that becomes the stuff of memory, maybe even for more than a few. Those are good days, when pictures like that are shot. Most days though, we are making pictures that turn a key, fill a hole, service a need, make somebody look nice, or sell a product.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Those kinds of pictures certainly are part of making a living, and many of those disappear as fast as they were shot. We don’t hang our emotional hat on everything we shoot. But some do linger. Some stick with you.
Magnum photographer Danny Lyon shot a set of pictures that stuck with me for many years. In 1971 he published a book called Conversations with the Dead, about the Texas State Penitentiary system. It was a simple, brutally effective compilation of images and interviews. He was also, somewhat loosely, a “staff photographer” for SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, often referred to as “snick.” Julian Bond was very active with the committee.
As Mr. Bond is quoted, referencing SNCC, “A final SNCC legacy is the destruction of the psychological shackles which had kept black southerners in physical and mental peonage; SNCC helped break those chains forever. It demonstrated that ordinary women and men, young and old, could perform extraordinary tasks.”
Julian and Danny became friends.
Many years later, in 2014, they were onstage together at a National Geographic Seminar, reminiscing publicly about that time and the images that were made. Danny was the more raucous participant. Mr. Bond was his usual erudite, quietly spoken self. I made a point of going to the seminar that year to get Danny’s autograph on my dog eared, ancient copy of his prison book. I walked out of there impressed all over again with Julian Bond’s elegant intelligence. I became determined to photograph him.
I had the perfect vehicle. I had already started shooting a project for LIFE books on the Vietnam War, photographing those who fought in it, and those who protested our involvement. Julian Bond loomed large during this tumultuous time. Via friend and NGS editor Elizabeth Krist, I sent Mr. Bond an email. He immediately replied in the affirmative. He would agree to be part of the LIFE project. We set a date.
It was a typical assignment in certain ways, in that it was all too brief. He had a window, about 2 hours, and during that time we photographed both at his home, and at the Vietnam Wall Memorial. We talked a bit, and he showed me historical artifacts in his office. I mentioned that I was an admirer, and back when he was nominated for vice-president in 1968, I thought he should have been nominated for president. He smiled warmly and said, “So did I, Joe.” He commented dryly on the initial stirrings of the current presidential fracas, now of course in full roar. It was smart, observant, and funny. I could have listened to him a long time. Sadly, now, that voice has been stilled.
The life and times you lead as a photographer are of course punctuated with visuals–your own, and many others. Important pictures have long echoes in the heart and mind. The tumult of the 60’s left me with many pictures in my head, and memories of people, such as Julian Bond. When I began my path as a photographer, early influences, such as a powerful book like Conversations, made me realize the power of a photograph to shock, inform and perforce, to linger in the mind and heart.
I’m glad for that. Without those lingering influences and memories, I might never have gone to listen to Julian and Danny ramble through their times together. That day prompted me to thinking, and those thoughts became some pictures.
I only spent a short time with Julian Bond, and made a small number of pictures. But they will stay with me.