By Sierra Petro
American Moments: Photographs by John Shearer, opened this week at the Neuberger. To kickoff the exhibition a conversation took place between the photographer and activist Hugh Price, who gave out his memoir “This African-American Life” to the audience. The two discussed American history of the 60’s and 70’s and how Shearer used photography to bear witness.
Shearer said he felt very lucky to get into photography at such a turbulent time in history. His first big assignment was when he was 17 and resulted in an iconic photo of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. When asked by Price what makes a photo iconic, Shearer said, “It sums up the moment and includes all the key players. The photo I shot showed Kennedy’s young son sharing his grief.”
Shearer described what it was like to photograph the funeral, and how his photos came to look so haunting.
"I was shooting with it wide open all the time, and I realized it would be an issue. The photos would be over-exposed," he said. "Light is what makes a photo and these turned out to capture people’s haunting faces.”
Prince said that there was a lot of ambivalence among civil rights leaders about whether President Kennedy was with them because he missed some opportunities to improve voting rights for African Americans.
“Every African American of that time I know will say Lyndon B. Johnson was the greatest president for black people until Obama," he said.
A section of the exhibition chronicles the march from Athens to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, which was filled with both mourners and angry whites. Shearer said that it was there that he broke his collar bone. Some other times that Shearer didn’t let his fear get in the way of his work resulted in arrest.
Shearer was the only photographer allowed inside Attica Prison during the riots of 1971. His photos that documented the assaults on inmates were later used in court by both the inmates and officers.
“I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to manipulate my stories by interfering due to my emotions,” said Shearer. “Photography like all art is selective. I select the image by pressing the button to take the picture. Objectivity is part of the process.”
“You must be aware enough of your gear to forget about it and focus on the interaction with the people. It’s the key to good photography.”
The show is on the second floor of the museum and is free for all Purchase students.