March on Washington photographer speaks to Denison students

SHANTI BASU

Assistant Photo Editor

Eyes of famous civil rights leaders meet yours the moment you step into the Rowland Scherman exhibit. Spanning cultures, decades, and disciplines, the striking portraits adorning the walls of the Denison Art Museum tell a visual story of some of the 1960’s most momentous events. From a fresh-faced candid of Bob Dylan, to a symbolic shot of A. Philip Randolph illuminated by the Lincoln memorial, these photos bear witness to the era’s events. In a particularly fascinating image, 12 year old Edith Lee Payne stares out from behind a poster she held at the March on Washington. This past week, she joined an interdisciplinary panel comprised of alumni, guests and faculty alike in the Denison Art Museum.

The discussion touched on topics surrounding the time periods encompassed by Scherman’s work. Moderated by John Jackson of the black studies department, the conversation began with an overview of the nation’s continuous struggle to attain civil rights, particularly for the African American community. An alumni in the field of law, Michael Jones was able to draw modern connections, speaking to the adversity these populations still face today. Payne provided her personal recollections of being in attendance at such a focal event, as captured by Scherman’s iconic photograph, as well as her experiences growing up during a time of such change. Additionally, Professors Fareeda Griffith and Em Rooney described how the collection had contributed to current curriculum in their respected fields of anthropology & sociology and photography.

When he finally stepped into the circle, Rowland Scherman was refreshingly candid. He spoke of seizing the moment, making the most of the circumstances in which he found himself, and relying on persistence and preparedness to turn his aspirations into actuality. With an unexpected introduction to photography at Oberlin College, Scherman’s grit and determination eventually landed him a self-made gig as a photographer for the Peace Corps. From then on, he photographed history. He heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the March on Washington, captured rising stars at the 1963 Newport Music Festival and the members of the Bobby Kennedy campaign. Although his photos are now readily recognized as iconic, at the time, he did not recognize the consequential nature of his career. Scherman summarized, “I didn’t know I was doing and seeing these things for the first time. I was just taking snaps.”

Scherman used an anecdote to describe when to bring a camera. “Two words,” he revealed, while mixing a concoction of hot water, honey and lemon. “Flying saucer.” This whimsical yet logical approach somehow perfectly sums up the spontaneous ingenuity of a man credited with producing some of the generation’s most timeless shots.