April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University
STEPHEN SOMERSTEIN was a 24-year-old physics student in City College’s night school when he traveled to Alabama to photograph the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March. As a Managing/Picture Editor of “Main Events,” the student newspaper, he felt he had to document “what was going to be a historic event.” He tagged along with the marchers and gained unfettered access to everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin.
“I had five cameras slung around my neck, I was from New York, so there wasn’t the slightest bit of difficulty getting access,” says Somerstein. “When I saw a photographic opportunity, I immediately seized on it. They knew this was a remarkable event and they wanted reporters to cover it.”
Over the five-day, 54-mile march, Somerstein shot about 400 photographs. He sold a few to The New York Times Magazine, Public Television and photography collectors, but didn’t showcase any until 2010, when he participated in a civil rights exhibit at the San Francisco Art Exchange. After City College, Somerstein chose a career in physics over photojournalism, building space satellites at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and at Lockheed Martin Co.
Somerstein retired from science in 2008, and the first thing he did was revisit the Selma photographs. “I wanted to have exhibitions of my work and I realized that I had numerous iconic as well as historic photographs,” says Somerstein, who is talking to galleries about his work. He also photographed New York’s Greenwich Village cultural scene and the Vietnam antiwar movement in Berkeley, Calif. “I felt that my photographs melded strong artistic and journalistic elements to tell a very interesting story.”