Sunday, October 16, 2011

Extraordinary Photographer Bob Fitch's Image Inspired New MLK Jr Monument in D.C.

Pajaro man's photo inspired Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington

Pajaro man's photo inspired Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington

Monterey County Herald


Pajaro photographer Bob Fitch, whose work inspired the MLK Memorial in Washington, at his home on Friday. Photo: REG REGALADO/Herald Correspondent

In 1966, photographer Bob Fitch was summoned to Atlanta for what would become a historic photo shoot with Martin Luther King Jr. Fitch, a 6-foot-tall, self-professed "blue-eyed gringo," captured King with his arms crossed, staring to his right.

An illustration of Mahatma Gandhi hangs nearby and serves as an almost mirror-reflection of two peacemakers measured up eye-to-eye.

King's reflective gaze, captured by Fitch's lens, is the basis for the MLK Memorial that was unveiled in August in Washington, D.C.

Fitch, a 73-year-old Bay Area native who resides in Pajaro, recalled the day he shot the iconic image.

"They called me up one afternoon and said, 'Dr. King's writing a new book. He's got 10 minutes this afternoon. Will you take some photos?'" Fitch said.

"I went down to the office. I positioned the print of Gandhi on the wall, and took this photo," Fitch said. "It's got a warmth and openness. Dr. King was a very affable, approachable person."

The MLK Memorial in Washington was modeled on Bob Fitch's photo. Photo: CHARLES DHARAPAK/Associated Press

Fitch's work with King and the civil rights movement began in the mid-1960s. He worked as a photographer for King at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Fitch's assignment became crucial, as racial tensions prevented black journalists from reporting in the South. Fitch traveled through Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

Fitch was attracted to the social issues of the time after graduating from a Protestant seminary school. He said he would often arrange for speakers from the South to speak
at Bay Area churches.

"After school, I decided it's time for me to see this," he said.

Fitch has spent most of his career working for nonprofits, as well as doing some manual labor while continuing to hone his photography skills.

He said he came to know King well. Fitch's wife was a secretary to Coretta Scott King. Toward the end of his assignment with the conference, Fitch traveled with King to various events.

"A lot of people envision him as a dreamer — they latch on to that word, everyone likes to dream — but they really are a little more cautious about the fact that he was an organizer and a doer," Fitch said. "He really wanted to make things happen."

The process to build a King monument took shape in 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation proposing the establishment of a memorial.

Some of Bob Fitch's work is featured on popular campaign posters.
Photo: REG REGALADO/Herald Correspondent

In 2000, San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group's entry was selected as the winning design.

Clayborn Carson, history professor at Stanford University and editor of King's official papers, was part of the team that submitted the winning design.

He said the team selected Fitch's photo for several reasons.

"We wanted the memorial to reflect King's words. ... The idea of him as a thinker, as an intellectual, someone who created words that are on the memorial," said Carson.

The designers drawing plans for the memorial needed something to work with, and Fitch's photo fit their needs.

"We wanted something that was focused on his face and upper body," Carson said. "That photo seemed to fit the bill."

Fitch's original image was modified during production of the memorial. The photo's negative was reversed, with King facing left.

Fitch said the memorial strayed from his personal vision for the project.

"It's kind of harsh. I don't mind it being (a strong image)," said Fitch. "It doesn't portray the warmth and availability to people that gave him his charisma."

The photographer said he has never received acknowledgement from the memorial's organization committee or the King family, which oversaw the project.

"I would have appreciated at least a courtesy call," Fitch said.

But he said he's not bitter.

"I'm honored my work is achieving his goal to help continue to tell the story of the miracle victory of the civil rights movement," Fitch said.

Fitch spends most of his time at home in Pajaro. He is active with the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz.

He recently spent time as a photographer for Assemblyman Luis Alejo's successful campaign.

He previously volunteered at Dorothy's Kitchen in Salinas. A Fitch photo of Dorothy Day, the organizer for whom the kitchen is named, hangs prominently on the kitchen's wall.

Jill Allen, development director for Franciscan Workers, which runs Dorothy's Kitchen, said Fitch's work deserves further accolades.

"I hope he gets all the recognition that he deserves. There's a lot of people who don't know who Bob Fitch is, and they don't know the extent, the volume of photo journalism he's done over the years," Allen said. "He's preserving our history."

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