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Weekly Update – Ed Eckstein’s Excellent Photos


This week’s Weekly has my review of Ed Eckstein’s photography exhibit at 222 Gallery. Below’s the copy with some pictures.

Ecky’s Thump**
A Philadelphian’s protest photos pluck the personal from the political.

Ed Eckstein
Ed Eckstein, May Day Rally, Philadelphia, 1969. We’d say today that this guy has his bling on. Back then there was no such term. I love his pensiveness, the hand gesture, the way the shirt is closed and the acne’d face.

Ed Eckstein’s black-and-white documentary photographs from the ’60s and ’70s feel familiar, as if you’ve seen them in the pages of Life or Time. But the photos, which focus on social protest from both sides of the big issues (antiwar/pro-war, civil rights/KKK), haven’t been shown before, and most have never been published.

No matter how many years have passed since their conception, the 30 images on view at 222 Gallery are a fresh body of work, much of it shot in the Philadelphia area by a native-born photographer who’s people-savvy and has a great eye for the small moment within the larger storm of history.

Ed Eckstein
KKK Rally, Wilmington, DE, 1965

Eckstein says most of the photos were taken on what he calls “self-assignment.” He covered rallies and protests in the U.S., London and East Berlin, and visited a boot camp in South Carolina. (Those images are also included.)

On formal assignment he covered Frank Rizzo’s mayoral campaign. A photo from a Rizzo rally captures a jumble of people in a claustrophobic space with a cardboard cutout of the mayor peeking through the crowd like a ghost. But apart from that image, Eckstein is so focused on the crowd that place-specifics are lost. The rallies become Everyrally in Anytown, U.S.A.

Eckstein is a people photographer, and his crowd scenes are more about the one than the many. With a great eye for drama and composition, he captures individuals, using empathy instead of judgment, and always when the face is at rest. These are ordinary folks. They could be your neighbors—or you—and you want to know more.

Ed Eckstein
Young Marines, Philadelphia, 1971. I love how he’s made the boys look monumental through the low angle of the shot. And the detail of the hems on the pants is just a killer. These are boys whose moms have hemmed the pants up for their little boys and then taken them down again as they got older. We don’t do that anymore in our throw-away culture, I believe. Moms now most likely just buy new pants and don’t spend time (who’s got TIME anymore???) to hem things.

Take the three women talking and smiling in the parking lot at a KKK rally. Apart from the white robes and pointy hoods—which proclaim their allegiance to something fierce, violent and bigoted—the three are pleasant-looking and seemingly mild-mannered.

Antiwar rally, Philadelphia, Oct. 1969.The epitome of the face in the crowd, the lonely crowd, the one in the many. A great shot.
Antiwar rally, Philadelphia, Oct. 1969.The epitome of the face in the crowd, the lonely crowd, the one in the many. A great shot.

Eckstein, a Germantown High grad, got his first camera at 12 and immediately set up a basement darkroom. He was the high school photographer, and at 20 went to Africa on assignment for a Philadelphia church group to document their missionary outpost. He lived for many years in New York where he was part of the Black Star Agency, and he was a stringer for The New York Times after moving back to Philly. His current “self-assignment” is to photograph out-of-commission power plants like the Hunlock Creek plant with his large-format Deardorff camera.

Ed Eckstein
Capitol Policeman, Washington DC, Sept. 1971. I love how this feels geo-non-specific. I thought it was Berlin at first…something about the hat.
Eckstein’s photos are reminders of another era, one less jaded and more idealistic than our own. But the human focus transcends nostalgia and makes them wonderful story photos. A catalog accompanies the show and it’s a great addition.

Ed Eckstein: “Coming of Rage”
Through July 27. 222 Gallery, 222 Vine St. 215.873.0750.

**Ed. note: In case you’re wondering, as I was, where the Weekly editor got the headline “Ecky’s Thump,” something so curious and inexplicable I thought it might be some obscure British-ism — Steven Wells, my editor, is a Brit and very hip that way– here’s the explanation. Ecky’s Thump is (presumably) a reference to Icky Thump the new White Stripes album. How did I figure that out? I just happened to be in my neighborhood Starbucks and there it was, the mysteriously-named album, with a black and white photo on the cover of the Stripes looking very Ecky.