This photographer’s work was informed by dreams and social justice

Nineteen years ago, I was months into an internship at U.S. News & World Report. It was a heady time: The 9/11 attacks happened and then we went to war in Afghanistan. The world seemed upside down.

At the time, I was covering Capitol Hill and the White House. On 9/11, I was stranded in Florida after flying there with the president on Air Force One to cover what was supposed to be a routine visit. It was a kind of reward from my editors for previous months of work. But, of course, it ended up being anything but normal or routine.

In the ensuing days, I made it back to D.C. on chartered buses. I remember vividly passing by the Pentagon, still smoldering from the attacks. I photographed the aftermath of the attacks there and then bought an Amtrak ticket to New York, where I did the same after pulling into the city and seeing the ruins of the twin towers.

My time at U.S. News was fruitful. My photos were regularly splayed out across the magazine’s pages. One even ended up on the cover. But I was plagued by a sense of not being as effective as I wanted. I felt like my photos lacked any real depth or nuance. I admired photographs that went beyond illustration — work that made you ask questions.

We’re saturated with imagery these days. However, few of those images are either lasting or thought-provoking. There are very very few photographers who are able to make lasting, memorable photos. I’ve returned over and over again to the photographers who regularly make these kinds of photographs; chief among them is the photographer Jeff Jacobson.

Jacobson was a magician when it came to political photography. But his wizardry didn’t stop there; it touched everything he did. He made the kind of photos I was trying to make while at U.S. News. For me, his books “My Fellow Americans” and “Melting Point” stand as benchmarks in photography.

Jacobson, who died this year, left an indelible mark on so many of us. Although I never met him, I was “friends” with him on Facebook and followed along as he posted about his life, including the terrible news that he was battling cancer.

Before moving to D.C., I lived in New York, where I met many photographers who had taken Jacobson’s classes at the International Center of Photography. I never heard anything other than praise from those students, often accompanied by a smile as they recalled the inspiration he gave them.

Jacobson’s life was extraordinary. Born in Des Moines, he started out as a lawyer working for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s before eventually turning to photography. His friend Alan Weisman, author of 2007’s best-selling “The World Without Us,” told me in a phone conversation that something clicked for Jacobson with photography that led him to pursue it instead of the law. He recalled how Jacobson burst into tears the first time he saw one of his images materialize in the darkroom. Even after Jacobson abandoned a career in law, his work would always be informed by a deep interest in social justice.

Jacobson’s son, Henry, told me that his father had taken a workshop with the Magnum photographer Charles Harbutt in 1974 or 1975 and it sparked his switch from the law to photography. After that, Jacobson threw himself into his newfound craft. In fact, he would hit the 1976 campaign trail, where his photography became recognized, leading to assignment work that would fuel his life’s work.

According to his son, while on assignment, Jacobson was always looking for work that resonated with him and went far beyond the assignment work — the images that would end up making up the body of work he is now remembered for.

Most of Jacobson’s work was made with Kodachrome 64 transparency film, which is notoriously unforgiving. There were no digital cameras back then and no Photoshop. Producing work like Jacobson’s required a high level of technological skill.

But Jacobson’s work was also driven by a more interpretive imperative. His son says Jacobson’s work was largely informed by his dreams. Henry remembered his father recording his dreams, sometimes on paper and many times with a mini recorder that he always kept with him.

Remembrances of Jacobson have poured in from all across the photographic community. He was rightly thought of as a towering figure in the photography world. Two of those remembrances have really stood out for me. The first of them is from Eugene Richards, one of the premiere documentary photographers of our time. He remembers Jacobson as follows:

“I found Jeff’s work in the beginning — going into critical political meetings, blasting people on the street with the open flash — very exciting with his great, purposeful accidents. I felt he was trying to crack the tradition coming up from Gene Smith that I was part of. But when I look at his work now, I see that the world is really more beautiful than I think it is.”

And the second one comes from the photographer Maggie Steber:

“You know how cats look up in the air, and it looks like they see something and there’s nothing there? It’s almost like they see ghosts. And you have no idea. You look and look. What are they seeing? What are they looking at? That’s how Jeff was. He was like a cat who could see things nobody else could see, in the air or on the street. And he would make a picture of it, and it would have profound meaning.”

I’m hard-pressed to think that there is anything better than the admiration of one’s peers. And in Jacobson’s case, there is a surfeit of it. When one is done and gone from this life, the memories and the inspiration they inspired are what counts. Everything else is ephemeral.

Henry Jacobson is in the process of editing a new book of his father’s work. And he continues to publish his father’s work on Instagram. You can follow along @jeffjacobsonpix.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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