As a boy in the 1950s and early 1960s, Jay Cassidy filled his eyes with photographs.
In his parents’ home in Highland Park, Illinois, he paged through Life magazine, a weekly storehouse of black and white images. In the bookshelves he found the World Book encyclopedia, with pictures attached to every block of words. He turned the pages of The Family of Man, the bestselling catalog of an exhibition of 503 photographs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
His grandfather noticed. From trips overseas, he brought Cassidy cameras—a twin-lens reflex Rolleicord from Germany and a miniature Mamiya 16 mm from Japan. Cassidy began to take pictures, and so began the work of his life: to tell stories with images.
In 1967 he enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he spent most of his time on the photo staff of the Michigan Daily and the all-student staffs of Cinema Guild and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He went on to become a film editor with credits that include Into the Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, A Star Is Born, and what is arguably the most influential documentary of recent years, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which brought the crisis of climate change into mainstream awareness.
In 2013, archivists at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library sought out Daily photographers of the 1960s and ’70s, asking for photos of Ann Arbor in that era. Most sent a dozen or two. Cassidy scanned and sent his entire Daily archive—some 5,000 images.
It is said that in the 21st century we take more pictures than ever but look at them less. Cassidy’s photos, all available online at the Bentley Library’s website, warrant a close look. They offer myriad glimpses into an especially significant time. And they show the self-education of an artist as he sharpened his instinct for the real and the true.
As a teenage photographer in Bethesda, Maryland, where his family had moved, Cassidy (B.A. 1970) developed his taste by studying The Americans (1959), a groundbreaking book of photos by Robert Frank with text by the Beat writer Jack Kerouac. From Paris, where he went on a family trip, he brought home and scoured the catalog of an exhibition of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, an artist who shifted from painting to photography in the belief that “a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” became a watchword among photographers.
Cartier-Bresson and Frank were advancing—and Cassidy was absorbing—a form of expression that had flourished in Europe and the U.S. since the 1930s. It went by the name “documentary,” though the term could be misleading. In everyday usage the word document implied official, objective information on paper. But the makers of documentary expression—whether in photography, journalism, film, or sound—collected facts not just to inform but to evoke emotion. They were pursuing the kind of truth that is not stated in words but felt in the heart, often in the cause of social and political change.
If documentary staked a particular claim on the truth, Cassidy found truth-tellers of a different sort in novels and films. He was deeply affected by All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s novel of political idealism turned into cronyism and corruption; by the landmark film Lawrence of Arabia, with its indictment of imperialism; and especially by Stanley Kubrick’s dark farce about nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove.
Cassidy was sharpening an emerging instinct. He called it “a bullshit detector.”
“It’s when people know they’re being lied to,” he said. “They may not know the truth, but they know when they’re being lied to.”
In this he found allies at the Michigan Daily.
On September 2, 1967, the Daily published a call for new photographers. “Bring your portfolio,” the ad said.
Cassidy had left his photos at home, all but a single print: a picture of some children that he had taken in Paris with the Rolleicord. He showed it to the Daily’s photo editor, Andrew Sacks.
Sacks, who would have a long career as a photojournalist and filmmaker, was the latest in a strong tradition of Daily shooters. Fifty years later, he said he didn’t remember Cassidy’s photo of the children, but “I can imagine that it was a Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘moment,’” he says. “And I may have thought, ‘Here’s this guy bringing in one picture—it’s sort of gutsy. He’s saying that’s representative of his talent.’ I think my intuition was: ‘Yeah, he probably has what it takes.’”
For decades, the Daily had taken itself as seriously as any college newspaper in the country. “The idea was that they were the New York Times of Ann Arbor,” Cassidy says. “They were covering the world for a local audience. Nobody’s saying no. So you just go and do it.”
In the late 1960s, with a controversial war overseas and civil unrest exploding at home, the Daily sent staffers wherever a few tanks of gas could take them.
“At the Daily, you were sort of subscribing to the ‘Truth Squad,’” Cassidy says. “That was part of the attraction. If you were being lied to, you had an obligation to sort it out. I was jumping on a particular ethic—that you have to look at the world with a certain cold sort of honesty about what’s going on and report that, wherever the chips fell.”
Especially in the crucible year of 1968, he exercised that ethic with powerful effect.
For the short span of his campaign for president in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy reached into the cities for the support of working people, white and especially Black. When he came to Detroit, Life magazine sent one photographer. The Daily sent two, Sacks and Cassidy.
The news was Kennedy, so they took close-up photos of him. But they also wanted to capture the human context of his crowds, especially when Kennedy went where no national politician had gone before, into majority-Black neighborhoods still scarred by violent clashes between police and Detroiters in the summer of 1967. On 12th Street, among half-burned buildings in the heart of the riot zone, the photographers witnessed an electric connection between Kennedy and people who had come to see him.
“You’d point your camera one way and there’s Kennedy speaking,” Cassidy says. “Then you’d point in another direction and you’d look at the reactions of people, and that told you how much he was getting through to them. Amazing.”
Three weeks later, in Los Angeles, Kennedy was killed by an assassin on the night of his victory in the California primary.
George Wallace, the segregationist ex-governor of Alabama, ran for president in 1968 as an independent. He would win the electoral votes of five southern states, nearly enough to send the decision to the U.S. House of Representatives. But he turned out crowds of fans across the North and West as well. One day in October he swept across Michigan from Flint to Kalamazoo.
As with Kennedy’s appearances, Cassidy trained his attention on the context as much as the candidate. On the grounds of the State Capitol in Lansing, he caught images of scattered anti-Wallace demonstrators and shouting matches between whites and Blacks.
Mostly he focused on the faces of Wallace’s white supporters, including an older man casually selling Confederate-flag pennants at the edge of the crowd.
“It’s that never-spoken racism,” Cassidy says, “[the idea] that all your fears are connected to a racial fear and a racial suspicion. The buzzwords he used—he could say it without saying it. That was Wallace.”
In August 1968, student activists flocked to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. Their target was the Vietnam policy of the Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, the party’s presumptive nominee. Chicago’s iron-fisted mayor, Richard Daley, unleashed the city’s police to crack down on protesters. Televised clashes shocked a world audience.
The Daily set up an eight-person bureau in a hotel room. Cassidy went into war-correspondent mode, ranging wide and moving fast as protesters and cops surged through the streets.
Some photos depended largely on chance, as when he caught a police officer in a moment of overpowering a single protester.
“If you were in a particular place at a particular time and something happened, it was probably because of luck. Or you would be swept away by the crowd and you wouldn’t even see it.”
But he might also make his own luck, spotting an opportunity and navigating to a vantage point. A “defining-moment” photo might depend as much on the photographer’s savvy comportment as on his sense of aesthetics. So it was when Cassidy maneuvered into position for a shot of protesters and military police in a stare-down in front of Democratic headquarters at the Hilton Hotel.
“You learned the right decorum for the particular situation you were going to cover,” he says. “There were some photographers who would fall on their face because they didn’t know how to behave. You had to develop a degree of sensitivity toward the subject and toward the situation in order to get good photography.”
After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, King’s Poor People’s Campaign followed through on plans for a march on Washington, D.C. The marchers called their encampment on the National Mall “Resurrection City.”
Of the photos Cassidy took there, one in particular stands out: a magical image of a solitary boy in motion, both feet off the ground.
Asked what makes a good documentary photograph, Cassidy says: “There’s a storytelling obligation, but then there’s an emotional level—that’s an obligation, too. It makes you feel a particular way. That’s not a bad thing. You think of the great photojournalism—sometimes the storytelling aspect falls away with time as the event becomes less and less relevant. But the way you feel about the subject and the way it was taken—that tends to be the thing that lasts and transcends.”
Sources include William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973); Katie Vloet, “The Long View,” Collections, the Bentley Historical Library magazine (2014); Alan Glenn, “Eyewitness to History,” Michigan Today (3/12/2014); Guillaume Blanc, “A History of Documentary Photography, Part 2,” Blind Magazine, blind-magazine.com.
Cassidy is proud to be the first in their family to go to college.
Scholarship support made it possible for Cassidy to attend LSA. It also lets them explore everything else the university has to offer outside the classroom, like doing academic research and creating editorial cartoons for The Michigan Daily.
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