In the multipurpose room at the Eastham library, a small group of Nauset High School students are organizing a gift-wrapping station to raise money for their prom. Business is slow, and the teenagers pass the time chatting around a folding table covered in rolls of wrapping paper and tape. Framed prints of Rowland Scherman’s black-and-white photographs from the civil rights movement in the 1960s hang on the walls behind them.
Vivienne Talbot, a 16-year-old student from Orleans, expresses disbelief at the age of the photographs. “There’s no way those photos are that old,” she says, pointing at Scherman’s close-up of Martin Luther King during the monumental March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “They’re too clear.” Talbot is right: Scherman’s photographs, taken more than half a century ago, are sharply in focus.
Scherman captured the 1960s on 35-millimeter black-and-white film using handheld Nikon and Leica cameras. Affixed to the cameras were newly developed wide-aperture lenses that allowed more light to hit the film, enabling faster shutter speeds and sharper images of moving subjects. But it wasn’t just the technology that made Scherman’s photographs so vivid.
The photographer has a knack for placing himself right in the center of the action. Which, in this case, happened to be some of most historic and culturally significant moments of the era.
Scherman was 24 when he heard President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. He was inspired by the famous passage ending with “Ask what you can do for your country.”
“Like thousands of other Americans, I responded,” he told documentary filmmaker Chris Szwedo.
The young amateur photographer took a bus to Washington, D.C., showed up at Peace Corps headquarters, and asked for a job. “We don’t need a photographer, kid,” was the response. But Scherman persisted, and he started working as the agency’s first photographer a few days later.
That job marked the beginning of a career that took him around the world, photographing cultural and political events for Life, Time, and National Geographic.
In 1963, Scherman was hired as freelancer by the U.S. Information Agency. His assignment to photograph a civil rights march in Washington led him to capture some of the most iconic moments of one of the largest human rights rallies in U.S. history.
These images, now displayed at the Eastham Public Library on loan from the Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich, were taken on that historic day.
“I couldn’t be stymied from going anywhere,” said Scherman. “I was 26 or 27, and I was very spry and athletic. I worked pretty hard that day.” Unlike most photographers at the March on Washington, Scherman had unlimited access to the events because of his government agency credentials.
Scherman’s lens intimately captured the essence of the ’60s in just one day. “A lot of my heroes were there,” said Scherman, “and I was among them, shooting their pictures.”
In one shot, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph stands contemplatively in front of an out-of-focus Lincoln Memorial. In another, Bob Dylan strums his guitar and plays the harmonica, accompanying Joan Baez.
By the reflecting pool, Burt Lancaster takes a swig of Coca-Cola as Sidney Poitier watches. The shared moment of respite reveals the personal within the public, a quiet connection between two people amid the hundreds of thousands.
On Constitution Avenue, Martin Luther King marches with civil rights and union leaders. King, leading the way, gazes forward with determination. The others follow. Scherman’s wider establishing shots of the march are dense with detail — he rarely leaves empty space.
On the Mall, scores of hands and excited faces pool around rows of placards with calls to action: “We Demand Decent Housing Now!” By the obelisk, a mass of bodies is packed together in anticipation of the speakers.
What stands out about the photos isn’t the framing; it’s the tens of thousands of subjects, both white and black, marching peacefully for social and economic equality.
“I don’t think anyone in America had seen that big a crowd before,” said Scherman. “It was awe-inspiring.”
In 2013, Scherman’s story and imagery were the subject of a 90-minute documentary, Eye on the 60s, directed by Eastham resident Chris Szwedo. It offers a glimpse into the events that shaped Scherman’s life and his approach to photography.
A special screening of the film will take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 6 in the multipurpose room where Scherman’s photographs are on display. The showing will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Szwedo.
In the documentary, Scherman offers a piece of advice to fellow photographers that sums up his attitude: “If you don’t carry your camera with you, a flying saucer is going to fly over you, and you’re not going to be able to capture it.”
‘Eye on the 60s’
The event: Documentary film on the photography of Rowland Scherman, directed by Chris Szwedo
The time: Saturday, Jan. 6, 1 p.m.; exhibit of Scherman’s photographs continues through January.
The place: Eastham Public Library, 190 Samoset Road
The cost: Free