SIXTY YEARS AGO, Bayard Rustin stood on the grounds of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., hoping after a short two months of intense organizing that crowds of demonstrators would come to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “I was terrified people wouldn’t show,” Rustin told the Washington Post years later.

The plan was for participants to march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial where they would gather to hear from the nation’s civil rights leaders. Rustin was expecting more than 100,000 people. Many artists, across disciplines, were among those who showed up, including photographer Frank Stewart.

The March on Washington and its call to the White House and Congress for jobs, freedom, and a comprehensive civil rights bill ultimately drew about 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963. It was a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement and the largest demonstration for rights and justice the nation had seen up to that point.

It was an august occasion with performances by Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan and soaring remarks from leaders of the Big Six civil rights organizations, including John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Roy Wilkins from the NAACP, and Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Religious organizations and unions were also among the sponsors and many celebrities were key supporters. The civil rights milestone was largely envisioned by A. Phillip Randolph and organized by Rustin.

Recognizing the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, Culture Type is exploring Stewart’s experience on that historic day and how the monumental gathering factored in his artistic pursuits:

 

‘It was my first demonstration—almost overwhelming. I knew it was important, so I took my mother’s camera to shoot it’

STEWART WENT TO THE MARCH with his mother, Dorothy “Dotty” Jean Lewis Stewart (1929–2010). He was 14. The previous summer in 1962, Stewart had attended painting and drawing classes on Saturdays at the Art Institute of Chicago. A budding young painter, after the march he became a photographer.

“Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present,” the artist’s first major museum retrospective, is currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 3. The museum is less than two miles from the National Mall where the March on Washington crowd assembled at the Lincoln Memorial.

More than 100 images are presented in the exhibition, along with a selection of cameras Stewart has used over the years, several books and exhibition brochures featuring his work, and a timeline of his life and career. Nine polaroids Stewart took at the march using his mother’s Brownie Kodak camera are the earliest photographs displayed in the show.

The wall label that accompanies the images, includes Stewart’s recollection of that day: “I was a kid. It was my first demonstration—almost overwhelming. I knew it was important, so I took my mother’s camera to shoot it. It was interesting to me that it seemed like as many White people as Black people were there.” The caption also notes that the photographs were developed using “Kodak drugstore processing.”

STEWART WAS BORN IN NASHVILLE, TENN., in 1949. He grew up between Memphis, Chicago, and New York, where he has been based throughout his dynamic career. By the time Stewart, who is 74 now, attended the March on Washington, he had already experienced the jazz scene that would become central to his practice. From the age of 7 or 8, he was hanging out in Manhattan clubs with his stepfather, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr.

In addition to jazz greats, for six decades Stewart has trained his lens on all manner of African American culture across art, food, and music and the Black experience throughout the diaspora. He’s made portraits of pivotal Black artists, including Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, David C. Driskell, and David Hammons. Traveling the globe with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Stewart documented the band and captured international scenes from Cuba to Ghana, England, Italy, and China. Special projects have focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, California wildfires, and abstracted compositions of hotel windows.

Stewart has developed a sophisticated, intellectual way of seeing and documenting the world. Initially concerned primarily with subject matter, he has said he became more focused on framing after working with Bearden and observing how he composed his collages. (Stewart spent 13 years as Bearden’s assistant, driver, and photographer.)

He is highly attuned to light, line, and form and often uses reflective surfaces to compose space, layer images, and open up perspectives. His black-and-white and color images are experimental and spontaneous, yet grounded in years of trial and error and technical memory.

‘It was the first time I had seen that big of an interracial crowd— White and Black people together’

IN THE EXHIBITION CATALOG that accompanies “Frank Stewart’s Nexus,” directors Dorothy Kosinski (The Phillips Collection) and Benjamin T. Simons (Telfair Museums) wrote in the foreword that the photographer had an astute eye from the beginning. “Already then, Stewart showed intuitive compositional sophistication and determination,” Kosinski and Simons wrote about his March on Washington photos.

The chronology in the catalog echoes their observations of Stewart’s talent. The entry for 1963 states that the those first photographs “reveal visual interests that remain important today, including African American culture, the inner personalities of his subjects, spatially complex compositions, and shooting from unusual vantage points.”

Ruth Fine, co-curator of the exhibition, conducted an interview with Stewart that is published in the catalog. She asked him how he came to photograph the march:

Ruth Fine: How did you decide what to shoot at the 1963 March on Washington, when you took Dotty’s camera from her? What got you to do that?

Frank Stewart: Even then, I thought that was a heavy, important moment that should be documented. That I should document it. I wasn’t near the stage, but off to the left, and the crowd was euphoric. The atmosphere was filled with possibility, and that became interesting to me. So, I started photographing what was going on, the crowd of euphoric people, the good feeling in the humanity that was around me: people carrying signs, a lot of singing…. It was the first time I had seen that big of an interracial crowd—White and Black people together—and I thought that was interesting. The euphoria was like when Barack Obama became president, you thought everything was going to change. Back in 1963, before the march, there was no way that you could imagine there’d be no segregation in America.

FRANK STEWART, “The Clean Up (or American Gothic),” 1988, printed 2021 (pigment print, 32 x 42 inches). | Collection of a Friend of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

IN THE DECADES THAT FOLLOWED the March on Washington, Stewart returned to the nation’s capital as a professional photographer. Working with Johnny Simmons, Carlton Moss, and Driskell on a film related to the landmark “Two Centuries of Black American Art” (1976) exhibition that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Stewart photographed DC artists in their studios, Alma Thomas and Lois Mailou Jones, among them.

He returned again in 1988 to document the city’s grand monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, tracing some of the same ground, where he experienced the March on Washington and what he called in the video below, his “first foray into taking pictures.” One of those photographs “The Clean Up (or American Gothic)” (1988) is on view in “Frank Stewart’s Nexus.” A dance of light and shadow, depth and proportion, it’s a compelling image heavy with meaning and history.

The caption for the photo reads: “I was taking a bus back (to New York) from shooting the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, when I decided to stop in DC in the middle of the night. This was shot around 5:30 am, with shafts of light creating dramatic shadows. Seeing the Black man cleaning up after the crowds of the previous day, adjacent to the powerful statue of Abraham Lincoln, generated a lot of metaphoric meaning.” CT

“Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present” is on view at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 3. Co-curated by Ruth Fine and Fred Moten, the retrospective travels next to Artis-Naples The Baker Museum in Naples, Fla. (Oct. 14, 2023-Jan. 7, 2024) and Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga. (Feb. 9-May 12, 2024)

READ MORE Culture Type conducted an extensive interview with Frank Stewart as plans for his first major museum retrospective were underway

FIND MORE The Associated Press published its original report on the March on Washington from 1963

FIND MORE Bayard Rustin planned the March on Washington from a Harlem townhouse. Many of the young volunteers and paid staff who helped him organize the mass demonstration shared their recollections with the New York Times


Walking through “Frank Stewart’s Nexus,” his exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Frank Stewart talks briefly about his experience at the 1963 March on Washington and the influences of photographers Billy Abernathy and Johnny Simmons. | Video by The Phillips Collection

Source: Valentine, Victoria L. “Sixty Years Ago, the March on Washington Inspired Change and Drew Many Artists, Including a Future Photographer Named Frank Stewart.” Culture Type. August 30, 2023. https://www.culturetype.com/2023/08/30/sixty-years-ago-the-march-on-washington-inspired-change-and-drew-countless-artists-including-a-future-photographer-named-frank-stewart/

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