James Karales, whose dramatic photograph of civil rights marchers making the pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., became an iconic image of a movement and an era, has died. He was 71.
Karales died April 1 of cancer in Westchester County, N.Y., according to the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, which represents his work.
Although his image, which first appeared in Look magazine, became well known, Karales was little known to the public, as is the case with many photographers who produce iconic images.
A self-effacing man, he never pursued fame in the manner of other photographers. No books exist of his work.
But Peter Fetterman, owner of the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, who has shown Karales’ work, recalled the photographer Friday as “the real thing. A gentleman of great passion, the essence of a concerned photographer.”
The march from Selma to Montgomery to press Gov. George C. Wallace for voting rights for blacks in Dallas County, which includes Selma, was a key point in the civil rights movement. After the initial march was beaten back by charging Alabama state troopers and a second attempt was blocked by a federal judge, the march was finally sanctioned by the court. The five-day march drew 25,000 people, and an equal-rights petition was eventually presented to the governor.
Federal voting rights legislation was introduced in Washington a short time later.
“The moral pageantry of the movement is portrayed in the image,” Marshall Frady, the critically acclaimed biographer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and George Wallace, said in an interview Friday.
“That image absolutely stuns the breath and the heart. It takes those kinds of arrested stills to work in a way that the much-celebrated interplay between television and the [civil rights] movement just doesn’t do.”
Frady said that civil rights leaders of the period had the highest appreciation for that kind of iconic imagery being made by photographers like Karales and Charles Moore, who photographed many of the violent street confrontations between police and protesters in Southern cities.
“It gave them a greater overall appreciation for what they were doing,” Frady said.
"[Karales’ photograph] is like a mural, and the Selma march requires that kind of sweep to it. It perfectly matches the moment and the movement.”
Historian Taylor Branch selected the Karales image for the cover of the first book of his authoritative series on the civil rights movement, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.”
“It may very well be the seminal image to come out of the civil rights marches in the South,” Branch said. “It is an amazing combination of movement and shadow. It looks like they are marching out of the Red Sea.”
Born in Canton, Ohio, Karales studied photography at Ohio University and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. After graduation, he moved to New York hoping to find work as a photographer. He showed his portfolio at the prestigious Magnum agency but failed to land work there or at any of the other avenues he investigated in the city.
He was discouraged and ready to return to Ohio when Magnum’s editorial director, John Morris, called him. According to a history of the agency written by Russell Miller, Morris asked if he wanted a two-week assignment making prints for the noted photographer W. Eugene Smith. The pay was $50 a week.
At the time, Smith was photographing his Pittsburgh essay, which became one of the hallmark projects of his career. According to Miller, Karales’ two-week assignment ended up taking more than two years and he made more than 7,000 prints for Smith, also known as a master printer with exacting standards.
After leaving Smith, and perhaps inspired by the Pittsburgh work, Karales returned to Ohio and began work on a photo essay documenting life in the community of Rendville. At the time, Rendville was one of the few integrated working communities in the country.
A stop on the underground railroad during the days of slavery, Rendville had attracted many blacks because it offered rare employment opportunities in its mining industries.
Back in New York, Karales showed his Rendville photographs to Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art and sold two for the museum’s permanent collection.
A showing of his Rendville photos brought Karales to the attention of a photo editor at Look magazine, who hired him in 1960.
Look, a large-format magazine published biweekly, was the main competitor to the weekly Life magazine. With its six-week lead time, Look favored photo essays as a way to compete with Life’s breaking news photos.
While at Look in 1962, Karales followed King across the South and completed an impressive series on the civil rights leader’s activities.
His photograph of the Selma march in 1965 came during an assignment for Look called “The Turning Point of a Church.” It ended up winning an award from the National Press Photographers Assn.
That same year, Karales went to Vietnam to cover U.S. Special Forces. For three years he photographed alternately the war in Vietnam and social unrest in the United States.
“To be a photojournalist in the ‘60s,” Karales told the New York Times some years ago, “was heaven, utopia.”
After Look folded in 1972, Karales worked as a freelance photographer for the Saturday Review, Life and Money.
His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center for Photography and the Hallmark Collection.
In exhibitions, Karales’ work, primarily in black and white, was known for its strong social context and his excellent printing. But above all, Karales was known for his masterful eye.
“Art like Karales’ ... has to come from some inner instinct,” Frady said. “Those kinds of photos don’t happen by accident.”
Karales is survived by his wife, Monica; four sons; three grandchildren; and a brother.