“Iconic”… This is the only word that comes to mind when we talk about the work of photographer and scientist, Stephen Somerstein.
Some how, some way, StreetPX had the honor of flipping on the mics to discuss Stephens experiences for well over 3 hours and since we did not want to lose a single syllable of context… We made the executive decision to split this into a 2-Part StreetPX Special… with the first half available today and the second planned for next week…
Growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s, he was afforded the unique freedom of walking through the local museums and even handling the artwork (…it was a different time)… As a kid recalls visiting the Museum of Modern Art to wonder around and developing his own opinions on what makes a good piece of artwork. It was these visits that helped expand his photographic interests and inspirations through the work of Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Gene Smith and Edward Weston, among many others.
I was taken with the journalistic photographers…. But what really excited me, was street photography… Capturing events that were happening in that moment… But capturing in a way that had a dynamism to it… A beautiful structure about it…
Stephen Somerstein speaking on visiting the museums as a youth
While he started photography for technical reasons, his abilities continued to broaden as he stomped the streets of New York with a favorite location in Greenich Village, where he was a regularly fixture, honing his photography by creating personal projects in the vein of Henri Cartier Brassen.
Enrolling to the Physics program at City College in NYC in the 1959, Steve quickly became interested in Photo-Journalism. So much so that he admits to spending more time on photographic projects than his own research experiments, but it was this interest that allowed him the opportunity to visit one of the most famous civil rights demonstrations in American History.
As Stephen puts it, he cut his teeth documenting the ’63 March on Washington (photos discussed have never been seen), but he soon readied for an event that would later change his life and bring great attention to his talent for composition and capturing humanistic stories of perseverance and bravery.
Early in the spring of 1965, Stephen Somerstein, a scrappy young college student from New York, boarded a bus with only 13 rolls of film for his handful of cameras and set forth to Alabama, unaware of the monumental event he was about to capture.
It was there when he photographed the legendary march from Selma to Montgomery… A weeklong demonstration that has been carved into the bedrock of the American narrative….
Dr. Martin Luther King, Loretta Scott King, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, James Baldwin, Joan Baez…
These are names that forever changed the trajectory of civil rights in American History…
My original plan was to photographs students from my college and then follow them through.. That instantly evaporated when I realized this is a far bigger story than a few students from my college…
You see Dr. King, and you say, this is an important figure in this history… but their right in front of you and you don’t know how important it’s going to be. I had to keep priming myself, to be conscience of that… and of course, my situation, with my film, was the thing that was also driving me. My problem had been that I kept thinking I was gonna get the film before the march. But what happened, was that, I was at home, and the word came out that we’re all going tonight… To Alabama… I hadn’t , I had been planning
Stephen Somerstein speaking on his experience photographing Dr. Martin Luther King at Montgomery
This imagery, largely went unnoticed for decades. It was only int he last few years, following his retirement from Lockheed Martin, did he begin digging out his old negatives and producing a project that would resonate across the ages. A project that has been featured in the New York Times, the Howard Greenberg Gallery, Fahey Klein Gallery, Reuters, San Francisco Art Exchange, BBC and countless more outlets and museums to date.
It goes without saying… but I will anyway… Stephen shares many a story during this 2-Part Special. So much so that, show notes could never convey the breadth of this discussion.
Every shot that I took.. I was looking, as if there was a frame around it. And I was saying, what is the picture saying, how is the energy of the photograph focused, where are they looking, what is the message. And that has to be done in a fraction of a second.
You have to be sort of scanning your eye over the horizon in front of you. And you say, theres a possible picture and then you move yourself into position and then you have to hit it at just the right moment, when the faces are facing in the right direction, the light is doing this, the background is doing that.
Your taking a multitude of different contribution to the photograph that you have to think about. Should I use deep depth of field, should I use a larger aperture opening and defuse the background. Your doing this, very very quickly.
One of the things that I discipline myself about is… Don’t talk to anyone… Don’t break your stream of consciousness. If you start talking to people, you’ll wonder off the focus.
Stephen Somerstein speaking on discipline
Stephen goes on to speak about his father who was an editor and cutter for 20th Century Fox, the first time he visited the shop of legendary camera guru Marty Forscher, the first time he met war photographer, Gene Smith (and almost bought one of his prints for $30), his bold calls to the Library of Congress, which resulted in acquiring an original print of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” portrait and so much more.
You are just going to have to listen in and find out more. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or iHeartRadio and be notified immediately when it’s live.
This episode brought to you by Glass Key Photo in San Francisco – Get your analog gear, film, repairs and more at 1230 Sutter Street, just off Van Ness Avenue in mid-town San Francisco. Open 7 days a week, 12pm-6pm.
Stephen Somerstein Teaser Gallery
- Fogg Art Museum
- 53rd Street Library
- NY Times Article
- Howard Greenberg Gallery
- Fahey Klein Gallery
- The Village Camera Club
- Michael Thomas Kelly – NY Times Reporter
- Helen Gee and the Limelight Gallery (Sheridan Square NYC)
- Alfred Stieglitz
- Edward Weston
- W. Eugene Smith
- Erich Salomon
- Bill Pierce
- Ansel Adams
- Marty Forscher – Camera Repair Guru in NYC for over 40 years
- Dorothea Lange
- Stanley Dance
- Duke Ellington
- The City of St Jude. Catholic School