Thank you very much. For me this is indeed a various special honor. Grinnell College has been an important part of my life since I arrived on campus in the fall of 1964. Since college, I’ve always lived in Grinnell. While much has changed in the world, and in my life during the past 47 years, the wonderful education that I experienced here both in and out of the classroom continues to be quintessentially formative. I would like to share one of the events that transformed my early love of photography into a mission to help preserve the world’s historic photographs. Indeed all photographs.
On March 7, 1965 in the spring of my freshman year at Grinnell, John Lewis and Hosea Williams of Martin Luther King’s southern Christian leadership conference, led a large group of voting rights protestors in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma, where they were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers. John Lewis was the first to be hit and fell to the ground from a blow to his head, his skull fractured and covered with blood. That day came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The next week, President Johnson addressed congress and the nation in a televised speech in support of the Voting Rights Act, saying, “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” And Johnson said, “And we shall overcome.”
The staff of the Grinnell College newspaper, the Scarlet and Black, had also watched television coverage of Bloody Sunday. We felt the importance of what was unfolding and two days later, Robert Hodierne, Hal Fuson, John Phillips and I climbed into my VW bug and drove straight to Selma. Hodierne and Fuson were writers, Phillips and I were photographers. We phoned dispatches in to our editor, John Wolf, who had to remain in Grinnell to handle the publication of our Selma coverage in a special edition of the S&B. That edition was not only important at the time, like every photograph made and every story recorded, it bears witness to what happened and provides historic insight.
Author David Remnick Wrote in “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” that Martin Luther King wept as he watched President Johnson’s address. Forty-four years later, on the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the united states, Remnick interviewed congressman John Lewis who said, and I quote, “Barack Obama is what comes from the end of that bridge in Selma.” Grinnell College graduates, you were freshman and sophomores during Barack Obama’s successful campaign to the White House, and many of you helped make it happened by carrying on that march that was interrupted, but by no means ended, on that bridge in Selma. You made history when you helped elect Barack Obama.
I encourage you to visit the John Chrystal Center gallery where a selection of John Phillips’s civil rights photographs in Selma are now on display. Visit the Burling Library and take a look at the banned 1966 Grinnell College yearbook that was finally published in 1986, and I extend my deep-felt appreciation to President George Drake for making that happen. Photographs from the book will be exhibited in the Faulconer Gallery next year. And a digitally re-mastered edition of the yearbook will be released in PDF/A, iPad and Kindle formats. It will be free.
The driving force behind photography is and has always been to capture and preserve a moment in time. Being in Selma and working and editing on the College – the 1966 College yearbook, made the social and historic significance of photography very clear to me. When I started really thinking about permanence, there were many, many unanswered questions in our field. I was curious about what made pictures deteriorate. Why did some last longer than the others? And the industry, including Kodak, Agfa, and Fuji had a policy of keeping color-permanence data a closely held secret. They didn’t want people to worry about fading. And I began thinking about the importance of photographs and what might be done to improve things. What were the causes of deterioration? Could the manufacturers be gently coerced into producing better products? Could I appeal to their better competitive senses? And that launched our work, and such work always requires a team effort. I could not have accomplished as much without the assistance of many individuals, most significantly my wife, co-author and best friend Carol Brower Wilhelm, with whom I worked for 33 years, and the gifted and dedicated staff at Wilhelm Imaging Research, including Barbara Cech Stahl, Kevan Wellborn, Kabla Armah, who was born in Ghana and was a 2004 graduate of Grinnell in Computer Science.
Education and outreach have always been central to our mission. Our website is the most visited source of print permanence and preservation information in the world. More than a quarter-million copies of our book on the permanence and care of color photographs have been downloaded. Over the past 35 years, we’ve assembled the largest documented analog and digital color print materials reference collection. The almost 500-year history of printed, hard copy newspapers is rapidly coming to a close. An ongoing project for all of us is to study, is a study of sub-zero cold storage for the long-term preservation of newspapers in their original form, the form in which they were created, the Creation Form. Our cold storage research includes thousands of issues of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Des Moines Register, and the Grinnell Herald Register. A highlight of the collection are preserved pristine copies of the New York Times dated September 11, 2001. The issue went to press before the attack on the World Trade Center took place. And September 12, with front page, color photographs of the huge fireball that occurred when the second plane hit. Comparing the two issues captures a world that had suddenly changed forever. To the best of our knowledge the two copies we have in Grinnell are the only existing copies of these issues that still look the same as the day they were published.
Going back to my high school days in Arlington, Virginia, being a student at Grinnell College and the years that have followed, I’ve had the great privilege of being able to do what I love best: photography, laboratory research, writing and publishing. I’m very, very grateful to Grinnell College for providing the broad-based education that made my life’s work possible. For me, Grinnell was and continues to be, a very fertile place. John Wolf and all of us who went to Selma for the S&B in 1965 have pursued long and successful careers as writers, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers. We have all remained friends. In January of this year John Phillips died in his sleep as a result of complications from cancer. He was at his lake home north of Toronto, scanning negatives for the digitally re-mastered 1966 yearbook. Thank you.