Rearview Mirror

Bob Adelman: The Empathetic Eye

Words: Stuart I. Frolick

Throughout a long and distinguished career spanning six decades, Adelman has witnessed extraordinary events and known many of the people that shaped them. From Black culture in Harlem, to the Civil Rights struggle, to Andy Warhol’s Factory, to the setting and characters of Raymond Carver’s fiction, Adelman has been a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised among us, and an astute observer of the human condition.

A resident of South Florida for the past 14 years, Adelman spoke with us by phone during an especially busy time last spring as he juggled requests for prints with travel to exhibition openings in Atlanta, Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Washington. Adelman is naturally curious about other people and their lives. He laughs easily, often at himself, and he has remarkable recall of the circumstances that led to his finest pictures. “My life’s work,” he says, “in addition to being about race relations, is about the many and diverse social concerns in the great tradition of American documentary photography: poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, inadequate housing, the immigrant experience, prostitution, delinquency, illiteracy, and on and on.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1930 to Eastern European immigrants, Adelman was raised in the Rockaways. His father, a master craftsman who worked on the floors during Harry Truman’s renovation of the White House, was also an enthusiastic and skilled amateur photographer. During the Depression Adelman’s parents became F.D.R. “New Dealers.” Coming of age in the Eisenhower era, Adelman himself wanted to help put a dent in the racial and economic inequality he saw all around him. In his self-described idealistic youth, searching for answers to life’s big questions, he was drawn to the study of philosophy at Columbia University. He found the endless arguments ultimately frustrating, and incapable of providing practical solutions to contemporary problems. Shifting modes, from thinking and speaking to making and doing, Adelman learned photography by shooting, analyzing his prints, studying books and apprenticing with professionals from whom he picked up lighting and printing techniques. When he discovered the work of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and W. Eugene Smith, he felt he’d found his calling.

Adelman’s first forays into Black culture included sneaking into Birdland to see and hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Harry Belafonte perform—and his pictures of jazz musicians were among his first to be published. In the late ’50s and early ’60s he photographed picket lines outside white-owned stores in Harlem, just as sit-ins in the South were beginning to gain national attention. As he became more confident in his ability with a camera, Adelman joined Alexey Brodovitch’s legendary Design Laboratory, which in 1961-62 was held at the studio of Richard Avedon. Brodovitch’s famously confrontational teaching style scared away many would-be students in the first few weeks, and The Maestro was initially critical of Adelman’s work, too.

“Alexey wanted to see the world in ways that he hadn’t seen it before in photographs. He wanted to be startled, amazed and delighted by his students’ work. If he said a picture looked like something from Life magazine, well, that was a term of derision.” Since 10 sessions cost Adelman a week’s pay ($125), he was determined to stay and learn all that he could.

At the time of Adelman’s Freedom Rides, public schools had been desegregated and Eisenhower had sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling—but no president had declared segregation to be wrong. “Being part of the Civil Rights Movement,” Adelman says, was “like being in a war zone—the last battle of the American Civil War. I shot with one eye on the lens, one eye on history, and my heart was with the Movement.”

Adelman offered his services to the leadership of both the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Birmingham image reproduced here was shot from a vantage point behind a tree; Brodovitch ranked it the single best photograph he saw that year.

“I think my pictures were different than those of others,” Adelman says, “because I wasn’t just covering the events. Mine were of, in a sense, the Movement seeing itself. I was filled with the spirit of the day, with all the aspirations and terrors that went along with it.” Adelman was the only one to capture an image of Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream…” speech, he says, “by sneaking halfway up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial without press credentials.” All of the photographs in I Have A Dream, the official book commemorating the March and speech, are Adelman’s.

Living in New York, Adelman found respite from the Movement work by attending gallery openings just as Pop Art’s stars were on the rise. He recalls seeing Andy Warhol’s first show at the uptown Stable Gallery in which the artist transformed the sophisticated space into the back of a grocery store, replete with his now-famous stacks of Brillo boxes. Intrigued by Warhol’s sensibility, Adelman began hanging out at The Factory, which he describes as a very open place.

“I knew Andy as a real person before he became the enigmatic figure,” says Adelman. “I photographed him in a badly fluorescent-lit Gristedes grocery store where Andy kept pointing at products and packaging, cooing about how beautiful they were. At first I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. He really loved those things…

“Walter Benjamin wrote that art in the 20th Century would be made by worker artists using photomechanical means, and Andy, the ‘Avatar of Consumerism,’ was perhaps the first practitioner of this new way of making art. He was also tuned in to the glamour and vulgarity of celebrity well ahead of others. Andy had a good sense of fun, and I think he liked me because my photographs were artful. While he was shooting his films, he’d turn to me and ask, ‘What’s really going on, Bob?’ His non-professional actors were exhibitionists and Andy told me that he was a voyeur, so they were all very happy,” Adelman says with a laugh.

A freelance photographer his entire career, Adelman worked primarily for the weekly and monthly magazines. As they began to fall by the wayside, he became increasingly interested in books. He’s been involved in more than 50 titles, both as the author of his own photographs or as the producer of books of other photographers’ work.

“The projects I got involved with were largely self-generated,” he says. “When the spirit says, ‘move,’ I move.” One of his early titles, Gentleman of Leisure, documents a year in the life of a pimp. “I’ve photographed every dark subject,” he says. “I got interested in prostitution because the human body is, in a sense, the ultimate commodity. I wondered what it meant to really sell yourself in a commercial society. The client is called a ‘trick’ because even though he’s having sex or making love, he isn’t getting any of her love; he’s being tricked.”

Through the years Adelman also developed friendships with painters Larry Rivers and James Rosenquist, and he became an especially close friend of Roy Lichtenstein. “One day in 1983 Leo Castelli called me and said that Roy was painting a mural 100 feet long and 17 feet high, right onto the wall at Castelli’s142 Greene Street gallery. Leo wanted the process documented and thought I’d be the best one to do it. I admired Roy’s paintings, and as we got to know each other, he enjoyed having someone to talk to while he worked. We had a similar sense of humor and of the craziness of things. Roy was also always socially conscious.”

The project proved to be technically challenging. Adelman shot the finished work in 4×5 format, in four separate images, each covering 25 feet of the mural, then assembled them into one and mounted it. Castelli ordered a set of ten finished pieces to promote commercial commissions of Lichtenstein’s work in architectural settings, and Adelman’s collaboration with the artist resulted in three books, one of which, Roy Lichtenstein’s ABC, was reissued by Thames & Hudson last year in conjunction with a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Tate.

“As much as I loved painting, I’d never done anything about writing,” says Adelman. “I’d been pals with Ann Beattie, and I said to her, ‘I’d love to photograph the people and places in your stories.’ She said, ‘If you did, I’d never speak to you again.’”

Raymond Carver, on the other hand, loved the idea. Adelman met Carver on assignment from Life, and after spending time with the writer in Port Angeles, Washington, he broached the subject of a book. “I’d read all of Ray’s stories and poems. I was interested in his writing about working class people—the kind of people that were marginalized during the Reagan years: recovering alcoholics, dysfunctional people, blue collar folks just trying to hang on. Ray considered me sympatico, he saw kindness in my pictures. He loved what I was doing and he was very open about the people and places he wrote about.

“When Ray was nine or ten years old, he would ask his teacher to drop him off after school at a house that was not his. He didn’t want her to see where he really lived. Ray sent me to that address, and 30 years later the outhouse was still standing. He was a very sweet guy, a gentle soul, generous and open. I photographed his students, friends; his mother, daughter, and first wife; the blind man who was a central character in his story Cathedral, and of course, Tess Gallagher.” The result was the book Carver Country, a new, redesigned edition of which was republished this year by Quantuck Lane, a division of Norton.

These highlights barely scratch the surface of Adelman’s life and times. He has a wealth of wonderful anecdotes and stories about time spent with friends and the subjects of his photographs and books. He tells of the period in which Alexey Brodovitch became ill. His former students took over the Design Laboratory and sent the tuition money to their ailing teacher. Adelman himself led a session on portraiture in which his guest presenters were Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus.

“In speaking of each other’s work,” says Adelman, “Avedon said that all of Penn’s pictures were so precisely composed that even his portraits looked like still lifes. Penn responded by saying that Avedon’s pictures looked adventitious….In the Q&A that followed, Avedon was asked by a student why his portraits were so unflattering to their subjects. Penn said, ‘Avedon spends his day making beautiful women look more beautiful, so at night, he gets his camera out and expresses his true feelings.’ Dick said, ‘I won’t be psychoanalyzed in public.’” Arbus, for her part, ruefully, enviously said of both, “I wish I had their access and their technique…”

Adelman’s portrait of Samuel Beckett was made with the help of Grove Press founder Barney Rosset, who was both publisher and friend of the Irish writer. “I told Barney that I’d like to photograph Beckett, one of my heroes, who was approaching his 80th birthday. After Beckett, who didn’t like being photographed, had canceled 10 appointments, we finally got on a plane to Paris. We met him in the café at the hotel where he was sitting with another man having coffee. Every time I took a picture he’d grind his teeth, clearly irritated.

“But though he looked intense and serious, Beckett had a wry, detached, bemused sense of life. I took a posed picture of him and Barney, and I apologized to him, saying, ‘I know you don’t enjoy this, but as a young man, I was depressed, and reading your work helped me. I’m grateful to you for that.’ Beckett patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘But, Bob, you’re over all that…’”

Fact File
All images copyright Bob Adelman. Please visit to see more of his work, as well as, and Adelman’s books include Carver Country (Arcade Publishing, 1994), Down Home (McGraw-Hill, 1972), Gentleman of Leisure: A Year in the Life of a Pimp (Powerhouse Books, 1972), Ladies of the Night (Trident Press, 1973), King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Studio, 2000) and Out of Left Field: Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates (Two Continents Pub. Group, 1976).

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People's Wall, World's Fair, New York, 1964