Charles Moore (1931-2010) and the Background Noise of a Generation

Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera

Charles Moore is the legendary Montgomery photojournalist whose coverage of the Civil Rights era produced some of the most famous shots in the world (the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, the Selma Bridge, and Martin Luther King’s arrest in Montgomery, among many others.) His photographs are credited with helping to quicken the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The noted historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said that Moore’s photographs transformed the national mood and made the legislation not just necessary, but possible. This is his story.

Each semester, as I show some of the work of Bruce Davidson to my students, I find myself wondering why I can only name a few photographers who deeply covered the Civil Rights Movement: Davidson, the recently deceased Charles Moore, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks… There are a few others.

The events of the movement — big and small, violent and not — are the material of photojournalism dreams. As we develop as photographers we imagine honing in on where the world is changing, going there and documenting history in the making. As a culture we look back with awe at what was accomplished by brave activists, marchers and average citizens.

But why does it seem so few photographers of the time honed in on that movement as a historic change in American history? Like today, there were tens of thousands of photojournalists in the U.S.

Perhaps it was the background news noise of a generation. We feel the brief flash of an earthquake, but not the constant continental drift. I’m sure many more photographers than those above were dispatched to a march, a riot, an arrest, and covered them as one-off news events without ever sinking into that time of great change as a story itself.

So what is happening today, around us, as background news noise, that will be an astounding piece of history to the next generation? And when will we start working on it?


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