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Remembering Matt Herron Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

12 August 2020

Last Friday afternoon, famed civil rights photographer and activist Matt Herron was at the controls of an LAK-17B FES Mini Glider, taking off from Lampson Field near Lakeport, Calif., en route to Mendocino County.

At about 5:40 p.m., the Lake County Sheriff's Office received a report from the Williams Soaring Center, 60 miles east of Lakeport, saying the aircraft was overdue. The Soaring Center used GPS to track Herron's glider to an area off Matthews Road in Lakeport where deputies found the crashed glider and Herron, who died at the scene.

He was 89.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., during the Depression, he was given a camera as a gift when he was seven. He was so enamored with it that his mother built a darkroom for him in the basement.

But he had put away photography by the time he graduated from Princeton in 1953 to attend the University of Michigan where he pursued a master's degree leading to a diplomatic career. But he never completed his studies.

Instead, he registered as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, moving to Ramallah to teach in a Quaker school. There he revived his interest in photography.

'I had three Nikons -- two on my chest and one at my side. I was a different person when the cameras were on.'

He also met Jeannine Hull there, another teacher. They married and returned to Rochester where he got a job as a corporate photographer for Kodak. At the same time he studied privately with Minor White, who was teaching at the Rochester Institute of Photography.

In 1963, the family moved from Philadelphia to Mississippi where he documented the 54-mile voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery and won the World Press Photo Contest in 1965 for his picture of a Mississippi highway patrolman attacking a five-year-old child.

"It was frightening," Herron said of the voting rights march. "I would strap on cameras like armor. I had three Nikons -- two on my chest and one at my side. I was a different person when the cameras were on."

His book Mississippi Eyes tells the story of the summer of 1964 when "five young photographers attempted to document the process of social change as the segregated South both resisted and reluctantly yielded to forces brought to bear on it by civil rights organizations and the black citizens they served."

The five formed the Southern Documentary Project organized by Herron who drew on his friendship with Dorothea Lange to establish the first photo-documentary team since the famed Farm Security Administration photo project of the 1930s and 1940s.

In the fall of 1964 the Herrons moved to New Orleans to avoid enrolling their children in Mississippi schools. But they moved back to Mississippi in the summer of 1965, where Jeannine was co-founder and program director of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, the first Headstart program in the country.

In the 1970s Herron did more writing than photography as the big glossies went out of circulation. He wrote for the Smithsonian and worked with Greenpeace.

During the 1980s he became active in the American Society of Media Photographers where served as president from 1993 to 1995 and then as international director and as chairman of Media Photographers Copyright Agency, ASMP's online marketing system for electronic images. He frequently lectured on copyright, electronic image marketing systems and business practices in photography.

In 2012 he curated a 158-print photography exhibition, This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement, featuring nine photographers who joined the civil rights movement and shot it from the inside.

He was the director of Take Stock, a stock photography agency representing photographers active in the field of civil rights and the struggle of farm workers.

His photographs are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the High Museum of Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the George Eastman House.

At the time of his death, he was a resident of San Rafael, Calif. Herron is survived by Jeannine, two children Matthew Allison Herron and Melissa Herron Titone, and five grandchildren.

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