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Joseph Luow and the Act of Looking Away

Forty years ago last week, television producer Joseph Luow was staying two rooms down from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. When the shot struck MLK, Luow grabbed his cameras and started photographing.

Everyone knows Luow’s iconic photograph of Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson pointing in the direction of the shots. But I’d never seen these two before, which are less direct, and are far more unsettling to me - not by what they’re saying, but by how they simply and factually record a scene, and in doing so, create all kinds of questions of their own.

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© Joe Luow

I’ve been thinking about other “reaction” photographs that tell a wider story about what’s front and center. I can’t recall if I’ve seen stills from Dealy Plaza, or if there were any from Salgado’s portfolio of Reagan that looked away from the scene. In looking away, the awful is implied, imagined, and often, so much more powerful, a la this, from Gus Powell, on 9/11.

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© Gus Powell

It’s a photographic trope to “look away” to see the faces of onlookers, and others have written about it elsewhere — but I haven’t seen a study or grouping or exhibition of photographs taken with the photographer’s back turned to a dramatic news story. Pictures like Luow’s police coming over the wall, or Powell’s even, are a kind of anti-news. They tell the story without showing The Story. They’re as sharp as they are open-ended, and they just might be my favorite kind of picture. (I’ve been working on an onlooking project of my own, but more on that later.)

On April 4th in ‘68, Luow stayed focused. He took frames that show him approaching King’s body, but the majority (I’ve seen) are taken from the relative distance of his room’s window. The two above are the only two that turn away and show something other than the murder scene.

Thinking about all this was definitely sparked by McCallum Tarry’s current show here in Atlanta, called “Another Country”, which is the best show I’ve seen anywhere (London, NYC, SF, LA, ATL) in years. If I were a collector, I’d buy the lot.


© McCallum Tarry, Kiang Gallery

For “Another Country”, McCallum Tarry have repurposed press photos of the civil rights movement (including a portion of 105 mugshots from the Montgomery Bus boycott) turning what’s known and familiar into something entirely new and energized, by merging iconic photographs with photorealistic painting & printing on transparent silk. (Localephemera took a long look, as did the AJC.)

In relation to the Luow photos, in McCallum Tarry’s show, there’s a large scale work that uses a photo I’ve never seen before - the perspective of James Early Ray’s location at the time of the shooting, from the 2nd floor bathroom of the rooming house across the street.

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