- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

Some of the most famous American photographs of the last century belong to Ryerson University in Toronto. They portray President John F. Kennedy in his rocking chair, Martin Luther King delivering his ¿I have a dream¿ speech and Elvis Presley in his Army uniform.

The images were taken by the photographers of the New York-based Black Star agency and first shown in popular publications such as Life, Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post.

In 2005, an anonymous Canadian donor, who had purchased Black Star’s archives, gave nearly 300,000 of the historical photos to Ryerson along with $7 million to build a gallery and a research center to house them.

The transfer of this iconic American photography collection to a foreign university, even one just north of the border, is a stinging loss for this country’s cultural institutions, made all the more poignant by an exhibition of Black Star photos at the Embassy of Canada.

Displayed within the embassy’s art gallery are 330 images reflecting the best of the agency’s work from 1939 through 1989. The photos are divided into three themes - the civil rights movement, war and conflict, and personalities - and mostly presented as slide shows on separate screens within the small space.

The photographers who took these black-and-white scenes helped define the evolving field of American photojournalism over the past half century, particularly in the area of race relations. Charles Moore was asked by Black Star to return to his home state of Alabama in 1962 and record anti-segregation protests. Soon joining him were colleagues Flip Schulke, who died earlier this month; Dennis Brack; Steve Shapiro; and others who charted the progress of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Their powerful photos remind us of the violence that erupted when James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was escorted to class and when later demonstrations against segregation were held in Birmingham, Ala. Captured with unflinching candor is the force of the fireman’s hose and policeman’s club on the nonviolent marchers.

Later photos document the crowds assembled to hear King deliver his stirring speeches during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. It is clear even from this small selection of prints that Black Star compiled a comprehensive visual history of the movement, a photographic memorial deserving an exhibit on its own.

Another effective section of the embassy show presents images from World War II. Among the represented photographers is the Hungarian-born Brassai, who made a career in France shooting Parisian night life. His image of gas-masked figures re-enacting life in a trench, which appears to be dug in a city park, adds a welcome touch of humor.

Some of the exhibited photos of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi youth brigades were brought to this country by Ernest Mayer, who ran a photo agency in Berlin before moving to New York. In 1935, Mayer founded Black Star with Kurt Safranski and Kurt Kornfeld, who also had fled Hitler’s Germany. The following year, the New York agency became a key supplier of pictures to the new Life magazine.

One of its regular contributors was W. Eugene Smith, a war photographer who was involved in the bloody fighting on islands in the South Pacific. After shooting the military campaigns represented in the exhibit, including scenes of an explosion and a burial at sea, Mr. Smith was seriously wounded by Japanese fire while working in Okinawa.

Adding a lighter note to the pictures of war and conflict are Black Star’s memorable portraits of artists and celebrities. They range from rocker Janis Joplin in a furry cap to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in a hard hat. The best photos go against type, as in the pictures of tough-talking gun-rights advocate Charlton Heston sharing a tender moment with his young son, and comedian Lucille Ball looking sultry in a black strapless number.

Several of the same photographers show up in different sections of the exhibit, revealing the range of their talents. Mr. Shapiro, for example, snapped the glamorous pictures of Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch and Harry Belafonte as well as the disturbing image of the wrecked car driven by three young civil rights volunteers found murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

Black Star still operates in New York, and its historical black-and-white collection, which eventually will be accessible on the Internet, is being overseen by Ryerson’s School of Image Arts. The new gallery for the collection, expected to open in 2010, is being designed by Toronto-based Diamond and Schmitt Architects, the firm responsible for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall on F Street Northwest.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: ¿50 Years of American Photojournalism: 1939-1989¿

WHERE: Embassy of Canada Art Gallery

WHEN: through Aug. 29; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/682-1760

WEB SITE: www.canadianembassy.org

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