The Speech that was never given at the induction to the Photographer’s Hall of Fame

The following was what I was supposed to read, but never did…..

“The journey that brought me here today began sixty years ago, across the river in East St Louis. It was the summer of 1962, and I was waiting for a bus to take me down the river to Cairo, Illinois.  Over my life I have had to make a lot of decisions, but the decision I made that summer, to take my Nikon F and try to find the young Civil rights movement was one of the better ones.  

I was welcomed that night at Cairo by two SNCC workers, a woman that was white and a man, that was Black, and in the morning  I met John Lewis . Two of the SNCC workers were veterans of the Freedom Rides. Within a week I was arrested in Albany Georgia and put into jail with  Dr King. 

 By the next summer I had moved to Atlanta. By then I was living with a white boy from Alabama, whose great uncles had fought for the Confederacy and John Lewis, whose great grandfather had been enslaved there. After two years in the Movement I returned to Chicago and joined the Chicago Outlaws. I wanted to photograph motorcycles.

Something else was happening to me in Chicago. I had gotten to know Hugh Edwards, the assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The Museum was one of only three museums in the United States that collected and exhibited photographs. Hugh was from Paducah, and walked with two heavy wooden crutches. His great uncle had been shot and almost left for dead at Shiloh, a man Hugh knew and talked to me about. He also experienced the lynching on a Black person in Paducah when as a joke fellow students put a piece of the poor man’s skull inside Hugh’s desk. Hugh would promote me, give me two exhibits and show me the great work he had in the collection of the Art Institute.  

  Late in 1967 I persuaded the Director of the vast Texas Prison system to let me inside with my Nikons. I moved to Texas and spent fourteen months photographing men in working in the fields. By then photography had consumed me in a way I had never expected. I know this because I sent some of my prison prints, along with a letter , back to my mentor in Chicago, Hugh Edwards. It was 1968, and I had received the first copy of The Bikeriders, which I was now mailing on to him in Chicago.  I had just turned twenty-six

 Dear Hugh —   I have dedicated the book to you, and I sincerely hope you do not mind. I will always associate you with this book because it came out of the time when I began making pictures and you were so much a part of that for me. When you saw some of the pictures that begin the set you suggested they be published. That was five years ago. The photography you introduced me to has enveloped me and my life in a way I could never have imagined. It has become my life and with it I have grown into all my joy and pain. You not only encouraged my photography but seemed to awaken in me a vision from which I will never recover. 

No one achieves what I have without a lot of help.  Magnum helped me, my wife Nancy has helped me with everything I do. Alan Rinzler published me when no one would. I also consumed books on photography. One of them was Helen Levitt’s and James Agee’s A Way of Seeing. Another was Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which I picked up in 1964. I thought Agee, who died when I was a teenager, was speaking directly to me. But no one helped me as much as Hugh Edwards. A self-educated man from the South he was without a rival, the greatest curator of photography of the late twentieth century.    If anyone belongs in the Photography Hall of Fame, Hugh Edwards  does.

Thank you for listening and thank you for being here” SPEECH ENDS HERE

That anyway was what I had written down and what in a St Louis auditorium was being being projected onto a screen for me to read in the heavily rehearsed event.I have never liked reading speeches and as soon as I saw the name John Lewis I began an extemporaneous talk of how I would know John for sixty years until, he was stricken with a fatal pancreatic cancer, which led to describing saying good by to John, and but having to wait until President Obama got off the phone as he said goodbye to John and Nancy Pelosi left John’s house in Atlanta where she had come to say goodbye. And by then I had used up my allotted four minutes and someone in the audience started motioning me to speed up, or leave the stage or both, which was very disconcerting to see, and led me into a string of purposely hurtful comments of about being controlled and censored and how you shouldn’t have to rehearse four minute speeches. So, above uncensored and unhurried is the speech that was never given.

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