What’s All The Fuss About?
The daughter of a famed, but eternally modest, photojournalist is pairing her father’s best works in a new photobook
Only after being fired from his news writing job during the McCarthy era, did Ted Polumbaum return to his childhood hobby of taking pictures.
Polumbaum went on to a venerated career in photojournalism, covering such events as the American civil rights movement, the 1965 rematch of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, anti-Vietnam War protests, and John F. Kennedy’s political rise. His archive amounts to more than 200,000 images, but a new book edited by his daughter Judy brings us the best.
Emily von Hoffmann: This project celebrates the extensive career of your father, photojournalist Ted Polumbaum. Can you tell us a little about your relationship, and what you understood of his work while you were growing up?
Judy Polumbaum: As a freelancer, Dad had an unpredictable schedule — gone for spells, but also at home while other fathers were working conventional day jobs, so I did see a lot of him. And of three kids, I was the one most immersed in his line of work; I often say I grew up in the wet darkroom — and therefore probably can attribute brain glitches to having breathed all those chemical fumes!
My first duties in the darkroom were pressing the enlarger timer button and gently rocking the developer tray as images emerged on the magic paper. The hardest task was winding undeveloped film from cartridge to spool in pitch dark, which eventually I learned.
My dad gave me my first camera, a Brownie box, when I was quite young, and by the time I got to high school, he’d passed on a Nikon F. He gave me little instruction for actually shooting — other than the oft-repeated admonition attributed to Robert Capa that to get good pictures you need to get close!
I continued to do photography as a rookie newspaper reporter, and occasionally do weddings as gifts to friends (nowadays, usually parents of bride or groom), but the peak of my photo career has long passed. I always thought it was cool that my dad wasn’t an engineer.
EvH: How did his personal or spiritual orientation — as a journeyman, rather than an artist — affect his relationships and life outside of work?
JP: A hallmark of my dad’s character was his humility. To the extent photography was his livelihood, he was businesslike and always got the job done. Otherwise, he let his passions and convictions direct his eye — and everything else he did — toward what he believed mattered in the world. His humor was never unkind, and sometimes awful — he was an inveterate punster.
Dad got along with all sorts of people of all ages. He loved to argue with his best friends. He was a mentor and an inspiration to younger photographers, as well as to young people exploring progressive political ideas. My siblings and I could not help but suspect that the kids who purported to be our friends actually came around to hang out with the old man.
EvH: Juxtapositions pairs carefully selected images from an archive of over 200,000. Tell us more.
JP: It was a difficult undertaking; I had to leave out so many possible pairs I fancied and even more individual pictures that I adore.
I am proud of pairing Julia Child with pots hanging in the window of a rural Chinese household shop. Most of Ted Polumbaum’s best pictures feature people, but this latter image [rural Chinese household shop] is a rare still life that I quite like.
EvH: Are there any pairs that you think he’d be particularly proud of, or that he would feel are especially clever or surprising?
JP: I think he’d be amused by the entire project, and saying something like “What’s all the fuss about?” He was not a great self-promoter.
EvH: He had a very unusual life, begun as a young Republican Yalie who was drafted into World War II. Only after a stint in journalism, truncated by his dismissal at the height of the red scare, did he become a freelance photographer. Much of this presumably happened before your lifetime, but can you tell us anything else about his early life that stands out in your memory?
JP: Indeed, I was in the womb when Ted Polumbaum was subpoenaed to appear before the inquisitorial U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for the innocuous transgression of having been a member of a progressive student group at Yale. And yes, for those who may have seen it in the film Trumbo, those subpoenas really did appear on a sheet of pink paper!
JP: Dad’s case is just one illustration of how the U.S. government chased shadows through the decades of the Cold War. I detail his ordeal in the book’s Afterword, drawing on the transcript of his testimony before HUAC, which in retrospect makes for an exhilarating read, and his FBI file, which is ludicrous.
EvH: How did he remain whole, and retain his characteristic generosity in portraiture? Which would you say of those influences shaped his photography, or his perspective on the world, the most?
The key to his resilience was his fundamental decency and integrity. But my mom’s ferocious sense of right and wrong was no small matter either. Luck surely was another factor. The HUAC inquisitions wrecked many a life and family, and Dad was fortunate to emerge intact and with a new career he loved and at which he excelled. Decency and integrity forever shaped his photography.
EvH: He worked on quite a vast range of subjects — are you aware of any assignments or projects that Ted Polumbaum found especially meaningful, or particular themes that seemed most important to him?
JP: Social justice and human dignity are enduring themes of his work. He did not go through gyrations to express these commitments; they were merely what he looked for and found in the world. While many of his assignments were simply jobs to fulfill, others led to bigger things — most notably, after photographing the inauguration of Chilean President Salvador Allende, the first elected socialist head of state in the Western hemisphere, for a 1970 New York Times Magazine cover story, he returned numerous times with my mother to document unfolding social change for a book project.
When the 1973 military coup put an end to the hopes and dreams of that administration, my parents shelved the book while taking in Chilean refugees and donating pictures to support the worldwide opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship.
Only after Pinochet lost a plebiscite and democratic elections were restored did my folks return to Chile to complete the book — the movingly beautiful and long out-of-print Today is Not Like Yesterday: A Chilean Journey.
JP: Another body of work of great importance to my dad came from his extended stay in Mississippi documenting the civil rights movement during 1964 Freedom Summer. Along with photographing for Time, with his characteristic generosity, he also donated pictures to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Dad always called that summer the scariest experience of his life — the dangers seeming far more immediate and obvious than being under Japanese bombs as a young army private serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
EvH: Finally, your relationship with him and his work is different from any other viewer’s — which are the images from his archives that speak most strongly to you?
JP: Again, there are so many great ones it’s hard to pluck out individual images. But the book does include what is one of my favorite single photos, of a troupe of street performers in Delhi, India (which is paired with a photo of a Mexican father and son in the same trade).
The India picture is packed with faces and exceedingly rich, but you have to look hard to see what’s most extraordinary about it — a beggar girl clad in rags looking enviously at a dancing girl draped with finery and decked with bells, both oblivious to the larger truth that beggar and dancer alike share a similarly lowly status.