During Life’s high-flying years, in the 1940s and 1950s, when its readership was still skyrocketing and each week’s cover story dominated America’s dinner-table conversations, the magazine’s rock-star photographers jetted around the world on lavish, weeks-long assignments. Fittingly, they had unforgettable names—the notably hyphenated Margaret Bourke-White, the private-eye sounding J.R. Eyerman, the playfully shortened Eisie—that matched their larger-than-life personalities. And then there was Ed Clark, a humble, hard-working, Tennessee-born photographer with a name as memorable as that of a Route 66 gas station attendant.
However unsung, Clark was a can’t-miss master who over a durable 22-year career at “the great American magazine” contributed to an astonishing 500 stories.Which is why paging through “Ed Clark: On Assignment,” the deeply satisfying, two-volume career retrospective from Steidl is like peering into the very heart of Life. (The first volume, all 340 pages, is dedicated to Clark’s incredible career. The second volume reproduces another 300-plus pages from his scrapbooks: They’re full of colorful ticket stubs, telegrams from the home office, worn hotel receipts, and newspaper clippings that offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at a star photographer’s finest days.)
Peter Kunhardt, Jr., who co-edited the book, remembers walking into the home of Clark’s widow in 2007. “It was covered floor to ceiling with Ed’s pictures,” he says. “Every closet had Ilford boxes full of prints.” Kunhardt, the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, became the steward of Clark’s archive shortly after, and in 2014 began talking to Keith Davis, then the Senior Curator of Photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. As Davis puts it, “Clark’s career is a window into the larger subject of Life magazine—what it meant, what the pictures in it meant, who the readership was, what its impact on American society was.”
Here, Davis takes a close look at six important photos from the Ed Clark: On Assignment.
Out To Dry
How do you make an image of a woman doing the daily chores into a memorable picture? This is Clark’s magic at work: “This is kind of modernist in its vision,” says Davis, “and relates clearly to the FSA style of work in that Clark’s crouching down and looking up, making the figure slightly heroic. There’s also all the wonderful geometry and complexity of the clothes on the line.” Framed by the darker garments and with her skirt blowing just like the drying clothes, Clark timed his shot perfectly. But for Davis, the photo speaks to something more important: “As a photographer, Clark had very little interest in asserting an identifiable, autographic style. He wanted to make pictures that were perfect for the overall mission of the magazine, and for the overall taste of its readership. That’s an astonishing skill, akin to being the greatest character actor of all time,” he says. “It’s a completely different skill than that of a Eugene Smith, who had a trademark style which, along with his strong sense of personal mission, ultimately got in the way of him producing work for Life magazine.” It was that core trait, in fact, that pulled Davis to this project: “Clark is arguably the most representative of all the Life magazine photographers, and I saw this book as an opportunity to get to the heart of what I saw Life photography as being about.”
It is perhaps the essence of Davis’ argument—that as the most Life-like of all Life photographers, Clark’s contributions have been obscured—that his single most famous photograph was initially credited to another staffer. This photo, known as “Going Home,” was taken as the casket bearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s body was passing through Warm Springs, Georgia. Clark was standing with more than 100 other photographers, looking at what everyone presumed was the main event, and then, says Davis, “For a few key seconds, Clark turns his back and photographs what was behind him, and that was the line of spectators, including Graham Jackson, playing ‘Going Home’ on the accordion and crying.” In that moment, Davis says, Clark “found an image that is symbolically so much more powerful than any picture of a casket in that it conveys the devotion of so many Americans, including so many African Americans, to FDR.” And that, he says, “is what great photographers do: They don’t just record visual facts; they elevate facts.” There’s no question, Davis says, “This is one of the great photo-journalistic masterpieces of mid-century America.”
A Painter in Paris
What do Americans think of when they think of Paris? This picture comes pretty close. In 1946, Clark traveled to France’s capital to photograph the city as it began the slow process of recovering from WWII. The photographs he made—on his own, without a specific assignment—gaze through dim, atmospheric light at some of the iconic locations most familiar to tourists: the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees, as well as this one taken in Montmartre, in which a cigarette effortlessly hangs from the young painter’s lips. The pictures in this series, says Davis, are “more artistic, more pictorial” than Clark’s usual Life work. “To me, the whole backdrop looks like a painting itself. It kind of flattens out and goes a little white, as if the entire scene is a painting, which I think is visually pretty interesting.” Beyond that, the sense of art capturing art is the kind of meta-moment that readers didn’t see often in Life.
This photo—along with the rest of the shoot—never ran in Life magazine; instead, the images sat unseen and undisturbed in the Life archive for nearly 60 years. In 1950, when the picture was taken, Clark was living in LA and Marilyn Monroe was still just another unknown would-be actress. While it’s not clear how this shoot came about, the early date, says Davis, “suggests that no one in the magazine’s New York office would have said, ‘Go get pictures of this young movie star,’ because her name just wasn’t well-known enough at that time.” What’s notable about this picture is what the young Marilyn brings to it: namely, a canny sense of branding. There she is studying a script (as if announcing to producers, “I’m not just beautiful, I’m prepared!”) and, more telling, wearing a monogrammed shirt.
Mathew Brady’s Camera
In 1957, Clark undertook a high-concept series of photographs using a camera that had belonged to Mathew Brady, the Civil War-era photography pioneer. Clark shot the Washington Monument (as Brady had), a train station in Virginia (shown here) and President Eisenhower (with an exposure of six or seven seconds). But, says Davis, “Brady’s camera is the least of it. He’s using Brady’s process, the wet-collodion process, which is not easy.” The process was used until the 1880s, which means that no living person could give Clark instructions. “He had to read the manuals, research the chemistry, do a lot of trial and error to figure it out,” Davis says. “This not only marks the beginning of mass interest into the history of photography,” he says, “but it’s an unbelievably early precursor to the more recent antique process revival aesthetic.” Nobody else, Davis says, was doing anything remotely like this at the time.
Yes, it’s a baby picture, but it’s also a political picture. In 1958, when this photo was made, Caroline Kennedy was a few months old and her father was a senator with his eyes on the White House. He was also Catholic (considered controversial at the time) and, at 41, extremely young (his presidential predecessor, Eisenhower, was 71 when he left office). Although Jackie opposed letting a photographer into the baby’s room, JFK prevailed. “Kennedy is being pretty savvy here,” says Davis. “He understands that the resulting picture is about him as a parent, as a father, as being young and vital, as much as it is about him as a public figure. And he also knows that anything that runs in Life magazine is going to be seen by millions of people.” Of course, this only happened because Clark, in Davis’ words, was trusted, “and a soft-spoken, kind, empathetic person. Only a photographer like that would have been allowed into a situation like this.” And the image itself? Warm, incredibly intimate, and that spark of recognition in the baby’s eyes speaks to our own: In JFK, we, too, are seeing something remarkably special.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of Life magazine; on Instagram, he’s @billshapiro.
Ed Clark, On assignment
Edited by Keith F. Davis and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.
Published by Steidl
$185 (US price)
Book available here.