Flashes of Memory

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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Elvis lies on a bed. Janis Joplin chews on her fingernail. Raquel Welch dances with her little white poodle. Marilyn Monroe glances over her shoulder at a fabulous Hollywood party. And Benito Mussolini sits at his desk, tending to the paperwork of fascism.

They were just moments in time, gone and forgotten, except that photographers from the Black Star Agency were there to catch them on film, and now they're on display in an exhibit of 330 photographs at the Canadian Embassy.

Founded in New York in 1935, Black Star was one of the great photography agencies of the golden age of photojournalism, supplying many of the classic black-and-white images seen by millions of people in Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines now long gone. Some anonymous philanthropist bought Black Star's collection of 291,049 photos and donated them to Canada's Ryerson University, which lent this tasty sampling to the embassy, where they will be displayed until Aug. 29.

Only a couple of dozen of the photos are hanging on the walls. The rest are in three constantly running slide shows. One is about war, one is on the civil rights movement, and the third is just a random collection of cool pictures of famous people.

The war photos come from just two of the 20th century's countless conflicts -- World War II and Vietnam. The best of them were shot by the great W. Eugene Smith, and they include his iconic images of a burial at sea and a haggard, sweaty, unshaven Marine sucking on a canteen during one of those hellacious South Pacific island battles of World War II. You can't help wondering: Did that poor guy make it home alive?

The civil rights photos include Charles Moore's famous shots of firemen blasting young demonstrators with high-pressure hoses in Birmingham in 1963 and Flip Schulke's heartbreaking photo of Coretta Scott King fixing her little daughter's hair outside the church before her husband's funeral. There's also the famous photo of a Mississippi sheriff who had assisted in the murder of three civil rights workers, sitting in a courtroom grinning idiotically and stuffing his fat face with Red Man chewing tobacco -- a perfect portrait of the banality of evil.

Of course, the celebrity photos are a lot more fun. There's Liz Taylor in a leopard-skin coat and hat. And Allen Ginsberg, holding a picket sign that says "Pot Is Fun." And Marc Chagall, a little wisp of gray hair rising from his head like fog off a lake. And Orson Welles, still young and slim and handsome, bounding out of a taxicab in front of a movie theater showing "Citizen Kane." And George McGovern standing with Fidel Castro, both of them eating ice cream cones, Castro slurping his with gluttonous zeal. And Muhammad Ali admiring his beauty in the mirror on the wall of a grimy boxing gym.

And then there's the young Sophia Loren with her beautiful dark eyes and her beautiful dark tan set off by a bright white dress that is cut deliciously low. Incredible as it seems, she belongs to the same species as that Mississippi sheriff.

As these photos remind us, it's a strange and fascinating species -- each and every one of its members 98.6 percent genetically identical to the chimpanzee, which explains a lot.

50 Years of American Photojournalism: 1939-1989 is at the Canadian Embassy Art Gallery, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The show is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Aug. 29. Free. For more information, call 202-448-6391.


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