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Remembering Dan Budnik Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

24 August 2020

After a battle with metabolic encephalopathy and dementia, Dan Budnik passed away last Friday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 87.

Budnik made a name for himself in the 1950s photographing for Life, Look, Vogue and other leading publications. He captured key moments in the civil rights movement, the Hudson River restoration and the lives of Native Americans in the Southwest fighting strip mining, among others.

His specialty was taking a neglected position as his vantage point rather than competing with the hoards of photojournalists camped at the more obvious spots.

That led to unusual images like his shots of Martin Luther King Jr. being mobbed by admirers after his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

"I knew everyone else would be photographing him from the front and the sides. But I'm about six steps above him, knowing he had to exit in reverse and go up the steps to where I was," Budnik once told the story.

His specialty was taking a neglected position as his vantage point rather than competing with the hoards of photojournalists camped at the more obvious spots.

That got him a shot of a Caucasian man launching himself over the people in front of him to grab King's hand in a "brotherhood clasp."

But that wasn't the only spectacular image Budnik captured in his career. He made a habit of it.

Born in Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island, his father was a butcher and his mother a bookkeeper. When he was 17, he moved to Los Angeles to live with a sister and graduate from high school. After graduation, he studied painting under Charles Alston at the Art Students League of New York.

In 1952, Alston showed him Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment. It changed his life. "Talk about epiphanies," Budnik said.

But his new-found enthusiasm would have to wait. He was drafted into the Army, serving until 1955 when the 22-year-old used his mustering-out pay to buy a Leica IIIf at a pawnshop.

His first subjects were painters he knew in the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, who he photographed at work on their canvases. He continued this series into the 1960s and, when he found himself living in Arizona, captured Georgia O'Keefe at the end of her career.

In 1957, he worked in the office at Magnum Photos, snatching tips from its photographers. His first assignment was photographing atrocities in Cuba in 1958.

His civil rights work began in 1965 when he pitched the idea of shooting the segregationist side of the civil rights movement to Life magazine. While the images weren't published in the magazine, they later became a book.

In 1969, inspired by his friend Pete Seeger, he shot photos of the Hudson River for Look. At the same time, he cultivated an interest in Native Americans in Arizona, where he eventually moved, helping the Navajo and Hopi battle strip mining interests in the area.

The American Society of Media Photographers awarded Budnik its 1998 Honor Roll Award. His work is in the collections of the King Center in Atlanta and the Museum of Modern Art. You can also see some of his work on his Web site.

Twice divorced, he is survived by a son from his first marriage, a grandson and a nephew, Kim Newton, who teaches at the University of Arizona's School of Journalism.

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