An iconic life revealed: A review of ‘Juxtapositions’

Juxtapositions photo slide show and talk

Prairie Lights Bookstore — Tuesday, June 21 at 7 p.m.

'Juxtapositions' officially releases Aug. 1, but Prairie Lights will have copies early.
‘Juxtapositions’ officially releases Aug. 1, but Prairie Lights will have copies early.

There is a pair of eye-catching photos near the center of a new book celebrating the work of renowned photographer Ted Polumbaum. On the left is a stark black & white photo of a visibly distressed African-American child standing amid the wreckage of a 1964 church bombing in Mississippi. On the right is a vibrant image of a young white boy standing before a building whose façade bears the words: ‘WHITE POWER NSWPP’. The second photo was taken in Boston, Mass. a decade after the church bombing, illustrating the depth and strength of institutional racism via the building’s brick and mortar structure and heavily secured doors and windows. The contrast between the two images, standing on opposite sides of the civil rights movement, could not be more evident. It is quite fitting, then, that the book’s editor, former University of Iowa Professor and the photographer’s daughter, Judy Polumbaum, has titled the book Juxtapositions: Images from the Newseum Ted Polumbaum Photo Collection.

The Newseum’s collection of Ted’s photographs consists of more than 20,000 images from his career. Judy sifted through her father’s photographs and assembled more than 80 pages of images for Juxtapositions. Pictures from John, Bobby and Ted Kennedy’s early political campaigns, including a beautiful image of Jacqueline Kennedy on the eve of J.F.K.’s 1960 Democratic nomination, portray a rarely seen side of that American dynasty. Another series of images in Juxtapositions includes rarely seen images of daily life in China, India and Southeast Asia. The book’s most striking photos convey the beauty, horror and progressive change that propelled the politics and culture of the United States during the 1960s.

Bombed church, Mississippi, 1964 -- image courtesy of Ted Polumbaum/Newseum
Bombed church, Mississippi, 1964 — image courtesy of Ted Polumbaum/Newseum

In addition to the photographs, Judy included some biographical information about her iconoclastic father in the book’s Afterword. While the photographs are compositionally, historically and culturally vital documents, they are also deeply representative of Ted himself — a kind, vivacious, socially conscious citizen of the world. He put his values to work at newspapers in Massachusetts and New York as well as many of the major magazines of the 20th century including Time and Life. Unfortunately, Ted became a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s Cold War hysteria, and was accused of being a Communist and subsequently blacklisted.

Judy’s Afterword also includes recollections of traveling the globe with her family, and an amusing discussion of her attempt to obtain her father’s FBI file — a document she found to be loaded with inaccuracies. She confesses that her mother sometimes accuses her of romanticizing her father who, she admits, could be grumpy at times. However, Juxtapositions makes it easy to see why Judy idealized her dad — he had an eye for beauty, a need for justice and the ability to capture so much about what it means to be human in a single image.

Juxtapositions: Images from the Newseum Ted Polumbaum Photo Collection is available from Gao House Press. It officially releases on Aug. 1, but Prairie Lights Bookstore will have copies available at tonight’s slideshow and talk presented by Judy Polumbaum.