Picks and Pans Review: Decades: a Photographic Retrospective
Just as it can be a curse for an actor to become too closely associated with a famous role—once Gilligan, always Gilligan—there are drawbacks for a photographer who has one picture in his portfolio that everybody knows. Consider Clark, a LIFE photographer for three decades. In 1945 he was in Warm Springs, Ga., to cover the transfer of Franklin Roosevelt's casket to the train that would take it to Washington. On the sidelines Clark saw a black Navy bandsman with tears streaming down his face as he played the accordion. Click, and the great visual elegy to FDR was made.
That image, so moving at the time, so frequently reproduced ever since, threatened to sum up not only its poignant moment but also the career of the man who took it. On the evidence of this book, Clark doesn't rise to the first rank of LIFE photographers. But all through his career—which he began in the 1930s as a newspaper photographer in Nashville before moving on to LIFE in 1942—he made pictures that were intimate, funny and memorable. Somewhere along the way, Clark absorbed a useful lesson: that the human face is a field of dreams. At the center of his best pictures is not a situation but a face, like a very young Caroline Kennedy's peering at her father over the edge of a bassinet, or Ava Gardner's, with her sumptuous smile and gimlet eyes forming that Bermuda Triangle where who knows how many men were lost. And it's enough to see Clark's picture of a hugely fatigued John L. Lewis, the longtime head of the United Mine Workers union, with his features dragged earthward by a lifetime of fighting the bosses, to know something about the costs of an endless battle.
There are glimpses in this book of an America that looks very different from the one we know now, a place with a flavor of the 19th century even in the midst of the 20th. (Did every small-town society matron of the 1940s look like Eleanor Roosevelt?) When he took these pictures, Clark may not have intended to preserve a world that has slipped from our grasp—but that's what he did. (Media Management Services, 1-800-523-5948, $39.95)
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