“Go back and re-edit everything.”
Those were the words that renowned New York Times photo editor John Morris said to Glen Ridge’s Darcy Eveleigh prior to his 2017 passing at 100 years old.
Morris was a highly-regarded photo editor at The Times during the ’60s and ’70s when the paper was known as “The Gray Lady” – a nickname it developed in part for its emphasis on printing words over publishing photos.
Being a pivotal character in shaping the face of photojournalism from World War II to the Vietnam War, Morris knew that buried deep in the New York Times archives were hundreds of stunning images from black history in America that had gone unseen to the public eye for long enough.
Eveleigh, a contributing photo editor for the Times, went to the archives and began sifting through tons of crowded bins and musty envelops, unearthing never-before-seen photos of black history during the Civil Rights Movement in America.
“We started to find these extraordinary images of everyday life… less well known sort of things… and those pictures were just as spectacular and the stories behind them not being published were just as fascinating,” Eveleigh said.
Eveleigh was soon joined by Times colleagues Dana Canedy, Damien Cave and Rachel L. Swarns of Montclair, and together they began exploring the untold stories of the hundreds of unpublished black history Times photos in a project that culminated with their new book, “Unseen” that was published in October 2017.
Making John Morris Proud
“We couldn’t find a single staff image of W.E.B DuBois, we couldn’t find Romare Bearden,” Eveleigh said echoing Swarns’ sentiments. “We couldn’t find many people and these people were in New York quite frequently… that says a lot too, we didn’t have enormous coverage of people like DuBois, why is that?”
The four colleagues first brought light to the unpublished photos by chronicling the images in a print and online series called “Unpublished Black History” for The Times. After the series garnered millions of views online and thousands of comments from readers, the Times staffers realized the demand for a print book to document some of the most extraordinary pieces of the unpublished collection.
“A lot of people say “was the Times racist?” Eveleigh said. “The answer is, I don’t know. None of us know, we weren’t there, we weren’t alive for this.”
All the News That’s Fit to Print
With the reputation of being “The Gray Lady” and the slogan of “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” photographs taken by staff photographers and reporters were drastically underused, falling victim to the ideal of print over pictures. In turn, the Civil Rights Movement went significantly underrepresented in the paper.
The first photograph in the book’s introduction is a picture of a Martin Luther King Jr. at roundtable event. Eveleigh describes that the story for the photograph never being published is that MLK was egged just hours after the picture was taken during a speech at a church.
“I’m sure editors are screaming ‘where’s the picture?’ and (the photographer) pulls out the portrait but he doesn’t have the egging… so the paper doesn’t run the portrait because it wasn’t the news of the day,” Eveleigh said.
Some mysteries of why the photos didn’t run cannot be solved. The Times left a stunning photo of Malcolm X’s firebombed home, taken by a staff photographer who had actually walked through the damaged house, unpublished. Instead, the paper ran a wire photo of Malcolm X stepping out of his car in front of his house.
“Looking at the pictures, because the house is burnt down, it was very, very dark… maybe because they were running in news print, the quality of the image wasn’t going to be very good… or maybe they felt it only warranted one picture and that wire picture of Malcolm X told the story for them better than the pictures of the burnt down house,” Eveleigh speculated.
But a choice not to run certain photos cannot always be attributed to a lack of photo space or change in the newsworthiness of a story.
The book depicts several instances like this, finally printing these unpublished photos alongside blurbs and discussions exploring why these photos had gone unseen until now.
While some questions to the choices of The Times editors during their coverage of the Civil Rights Movement still remain unanswered, one thing is for certain – John Morris would be proud.