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25 March 2016
In college he studied philosophy to find his way in the world. That way was with a camera, documenting the civil rights movement. He thought of photography as "applied aesthetics," he once said. "That's a bad philosophy joke."
The civil rights movement of half a century ago still isn't over. This morning, as we reflect on Adelman's life in its front lines, the editorial board of the nation's pre-eminent newspaper writes of The Racism at the Heart of Flint's Crisis.
But it will have to find another photographer. Bob Adelman passed away last weekend at the age of 85.
It will be hard pressed to find someone with his commitment. He was part of the movement before he started photographing it. So he had access not just to the big events but the more intimate moments as well.
He was part of the movement before
he started photographing it.
It's not all he did. He also photographed New York City artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, getting a Guggenheim with the help of John Szarkowski. And he covered housing and education issues, working for the Office of Economic Opportunity in Arizona and North Dakota and a reading program published by the New York Times called The Sidewalk Series.
But his great hero was Lewis Hine, "a wonderful photographer, very idealistic," he told Leo Benedictus in a 2008 interview. Hine's photographs of child laborers early in the last century led to protective child labor laws in the U.S.
Adelman's interest in African American life was sparked at a young age by sneaking into clubs to see Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker perform in the late 1940s.
When he later heard about the student sit-in movement, he offered to help because he knew a movement had started that could effect change.
"I know that Garry Winogrand famously said that photographs don't change things. I think that's a very silly thing to say because they do," he told James Estrin in a 2014 interview.
His photographs were used as evidence in court cases, to help raise money for the movement and even in the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr. to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots.
In a 2008 interview with NPR, he quoted the author Ralph Ellison that the black experience is part of every American's experience.
With the "applied aesthetics" of his photographs, he made that experience a much more intimate one.