Bob Adelman, 85, photographer who covered civil rights, M.L.K.

Bob Adelman with marchers in Lowndes County. Selma to Montgomery March. 24th March, 1965.
In a probably never-before-published photo, Bob Adelman with marchers in Lowndes County on March 24, 1965, during the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Photo by Dan Budnik

BY MARY REINHOLZ | Noted photojournalist Bob Adelman, a freelancer deeply involved in the early civil rights movement who shot an iconic photo of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and went on to document a wide swath of American society, died March 19 at his home in Miami Beach. He was 85 and had relocated to South Florida from Manhattan nearly 20 years ago.

In addition to covering the civil rights movement, Adelman’s subjects ranged from the world of high-concept art to the underground scene of hustlers and sex clubs in Downtown New York.

Early news reports touched off suspicions of foul play when police cordoned off his house as a crime scene after a friend found him alone with a head wound and unresponsive. But Darren J. Caprara, director of operations at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Department, told The Villager that Adelman suffered a heart attack “and then injured his head when he fell.” He attributed his death to hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease.

The twice-divorced roving lensman, a Brooklyn-born son of Eastern European immigrants who grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, during the Great Depression and graduated from Stuyvesant High School, was also a prolific book producer. He published at least 75 books on diverse subjects, including the bawdy “Tijuana Bibles,” and also put together books with the Life magazine imprint. His photographs have been collected in major museums, among them the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art.

Adelman, who studied law at Harvard University and held a master’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University, was buried March 23 at Mt. Ararat Cemetery in Lindenhurst, Long Island. Survivors include his daughter Samantha Joy Reay, by his first wife, Trudy Vine; a sister, Delores Feldman; and three grandchildren. Several colleagues and cronies said Adelman was working up until the time he died.

“He was here in New York, staying at the Waldorf, just a few weeks ago and talking about his print of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Greene Street Mural,’ ” a 96-foot-long masterwork that Adelman had a photographed at Leo Castelli’s Soho gallery in 1984, said James Cavello, a founder and owner of the Westwood art gallery at 568 Broadway at Prince St., who attended Adelman’s graveside funeral.

“He photographed all the great artists, the giants of the art world” — including Andy Warhol and the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett — noted Cavello, who curated a 2008 exhibition of Adelman’s civil rights photos at Westwood. “He was in the belly of the beast, in the middle of what was going on. Whether it was civil rights or gay rights, Bob was there. He was amazing. How many individuals do you know who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King? He was a white Jewish photographer and he also photographed Malcolm X.”

The Dreamer dreams: King ends his speech with the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”   Washington,  D.C.  1963
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluding his “I Have A Dream” speech — “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” — in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Bob Adelman

Asked what it was like to work with Adelman, Cavello laughed and said, “Like most photographers, he was difficult. But he was a true artist with great integrity.”

Cavello plans to host a memorial for Adelman after Westwood Gallery moves to 262 Bowery in June. Adelman’s 72-inch print of Lichtenstein’s “Greene Street Mural” will be on display, said the gallery’s co-owner, Margarite Almeida.

There are reports of a memorial being planned for Adelman at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which appointed him as a consulting photographer and lecturer in August 2014. He began a series of four lectures there, one on his book “Andy Warhol’s First Fifteen Minutes” during the Library’s National Book Festival.

Stephen Watt, Adelman’s manager at his Miami Beach archives, said his late boss was on schedule to do his “last” talk for the library on Bastille Day, July 14. Watt described Adelman as “one of a kind, much larger than life,” noting his published books included one on Soviet military power and another on the Bill of Rights, with Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York for 23 years.

adelman, demonstrator
A water-hosed demonstrator in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Photo by Bob Adelman, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

By many accounts, Adelman was a driven and complicated man who didn’t drink or smoke but who struggled for years with his weight. He had a mischievous sense of humor and photographed his “shrinking” size in nude photos he took for Esquire magazine. He once said in an interview: “When I photographed, I was intent on telling the truth as best I saw it and then to help in doing something about it.”

Famed novelist Ann Beattie, who was a friend and collaborator with Adelman since 1981 when she lived in Chelsea, said in an e-mail that the quirky photographer was “not an easy person, but he was nevertheless his own person, and he was amazingly hard working, up until the day he died, and he always aspired to a more equitable balance of power. His convictions about social justice were formed early, and in a way, everything he did touched on and elaborated his beliefs.”

Beattie wrote a revised introduction to Adelman’s 1990  book “Carver Country,” since updated, which featured the gritty writings of Raymond Carver, which Adelman illustrated with his own photographs of Carver’s blue-collar terrain. She said Adelman’s shots “depicted not just the man [Carver] but the interrelationship of the landscape he inhabited and its influence on him.”

Adelman, Beattie said, in a response to a question, was a socialist and also a lonely guy, known for making outrageously provocative comments that “justifiably” offended some women.

But not Karen Marks, director at the Howard Greenberg Gallery at 41 E. 57th St., which showcased Adelman’s work at several exhibitions, including one titled “Injustice: Civil Rights Photographs.”

“I took it in stride,” she said of his off-color comments. “Bob was a big guy, a big presence and a big personality.”

adelman, warhol
Andy Warhol outside the Factory on 47th St. in New York City in 1965. Photo by Bob Adelman, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Adelman first became known on the national stage when he was chronicling the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He had taken photography classes at The New School from Russian photographer and designer Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and was a protégé of Jacques Lowe, official photographer for President John F. Kennedy.

Adelman became a volunteer photographer for both the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC), photographing sit-ins and marches in hot spots like Selma, Alabama.

One of his best-known pictures shows four civil rights activists holding hands in Birmingham as police sprayed them with water cannons to clear the streets. In a 2008 interview with NPR, Adelman said the hoses were so powerful they could “skin the bark off a tree.” He observed that a “single individual could not stand up [to the cannon]. But as a group they could. And it became emblematic. That picture was actually part of the recruiting for The March on Washington,” he said.

In those days, he was often at the side of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and had access to other prominent civil rights activists, like the writer James Baldwin. His photos appeared in Look, Life and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Many were collected in his 2007 book “Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to the Civil Rights Struggle.” He received numerous awards honoring his work, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Nobel Prize winning author Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1986
Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright, in Paris in 1986. Photo by Bob Adelman

Adelman was also intrigued by the sexual revolution and the seamy underside of the American Dream. This reporter first met him after he had published a 1972 best seller called “Gentleman of Leisure: A Year in the Life of a Pimp” with writer Susan Hall. He photographed a pimp named Silky, and his adoring “family” of prostitutes. Hall provided the text. The two teamed up on six books together after first collaborating on a series about prostitution for New York magazine, said Hall’s son, David Hall Leavitt, a tax attorney.

Leavitt, 39, said Adelman functioned as a father to him “for all of my life. I loved him,” he said. “He was incredibly generous and loving and good to me in many ways.”

Leavitt said that he spent weekends with Adelman as a child at the photographer’s lower Fifth Ave. studio at 18th St., where he worked and lived, and would join Adelman on Sundays when the lensman would play chess with his close friend Roy Lichtenstein. Adelman later moved to the Flower District near Lichtenstein’s loft and left Manhattan for Miami Beach after Lichtenstein died in 1997.

During a telephone conversation, Leavitt recalled how Adelman developed films overnight “and he taught me how to print. He had a lot of energy and unparalleled intellect,” he said.

John Loengard, a former photo editor at Life who worked with  Adelman during the ’80s and also taught with him at The New School and the International Center for Photography, observed: “I never heard him say anything that was not intelligent.”

Loengard noted that Adelman also had a special instinct about people and a “wonderful way of being able to go get them to re-enact events that we would put in the magazine.” One of the most memorable of those, Loengard said, was when Adelman photographed a state trooper from Texas who angrily recalled being “handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot [by Jack Ruby in Dallas].”

Asked how Adelman was able to get close to such extraordinary characters, Loengard replied: “Most of us are too humble to ask, but Bob never hesitated to make contact. He was very sweet and had sides to him that I didn’t know about.”