The one-room, three-part display is filled with intimate, subjective, and even esoteric angles that add up to a sense of immersion; dozens of lenses taking sensory impressions to telegraph to future generations what it was to have marched, and what it was to have looked around to see hundreds of thousands of your countrymen, bonded for the day in American ideals, marching alongside you.
The show features 24 wall images, two display cases of eight photographs each and a slide presentation that loops through nearly 60 images. It is the work of eight professional photographers (and one cartoonist), some of whom came to the march to work (for the UPI news agency and Look magazine), and others who came to take part and brought their cameras along.
In many commemorations, the 1963 march plays out against the vastness of its frame — against its protest signs and calls for full citizenship, against its stirring oratory, and against the deep racial divisions of the day. In this exhibition, the day plays across the faces and gestures of the people who were there. It shows up in how they dressed, the ways they clasped hands, huddled and hugged. It shows up in how they closed their eyes, or opened their mouths and belted out freedom songs.
“It’s about the photography for us,” said the exhibition’s co-curator, Verna Curtis. The photographers “were there, feeling it,” and “it makes for a different way of looking” at the march.
In the case of Leonard Freed, “it brings close-ups of individuals,” Curtis said, pointing out photos of black and white marchers joining hands in front of the Lincoln Memorial, small groups of men, young people, and a white priest with a young black man who is wearing a T-shirt with the words “Freedom Now” on the back. Freed photographed one couple, eyes closed, who seem to be humming. In another shot, they sing full force, and the image feels so alive you can almost hear the trill in their upper registers.
The exhibition is laid out as if you were walking through the day. It begins with an early-morning shot by Flip Schulke of marchers with signs heading toward their gathering spot, with the Capitol dome in the background. There’s a Bob Adelman photo of actor Ossie Davis holding a program outlining the schedule of events. People are moving from the Ellipse to the Washington Monument and then to the Lincoln Memorial, and a feeling of movement and multitude is conveyed as you walk through the exhibition room.
Even though some of the photographers were commissioned, the wall photos are mostly images that were not used by media outlets. They are images the photographers chose to print independently of an editor’s eye, culled from the hundreds they shot. One exception was a crowd photo taken over shoulder of Lincoln’s statue at the Lincoln Memorial by UPI photographer Jim Atherton. His editor had asked for something unusual, and Atherton affixed his camera to the end of a bamboo pole, which he extended while standing on a ladder behind the statue.