Tell It Like It Is… Circles
photo by Mariah Leal Paes
We are all exhausted, but we are finished printing. Burn photo editor Diego Orlando, creative director Anton Kusters, and I have just finished being on press in Treviso, Italy for the re-printing of my 1967 first book Tell It Like It Is . I do not ever remember an all out effort like this one. We eye balled every printing detail to a fanatical point.
Many of you know the story of this book, yet most likely many of you do not. In 1967 I was 23, in grad school, and married. My first son Bryan was just seven months old. I had no money, was unknown as a photographer, and no mentors. I was from a middle class all white neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Va. and yet I felt compelled to use my camera for social good. In the last weeks of the summer of ’67, before returning to the Univ. of Missouri J-school , I decided to photograph a disadvantaged black neighborhood. The Liggins family opened their door to me, and they became my singular focus as a microcosm of the whole. I wanted to make a difference. To make people aware. Perhaps naive, yet nevertheless sincere.
James Liggins and his wife Callie had seven children aged 2-15 years old and lived in a five story tenement apartment building. Callie often made a bed for me on the sofa, I had a darkroom set up nearby to process and print, and I lived the story. For approximately one month I spent all my time with the Liggins.
My friend Charles R. Hofheimer and my college roommate Masaaki Okada were collaborators. Charles had been working with organisations aiding the disadvantaged and was the producer of the book. Masaaki did the layout. I went back to school. We sold the book for $2. and the money went to the Norfolk, Va. Ministerial Association to buy food and clothing for the neighborhood. Our intent was to raise enough money and create an awareness to create public action to save the neighborhood. Four months after we published, in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and life in America changed forever. That same year civil rights activist and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was also assassinated. A dark year in the United States of America.
I finished grad school, got a job as a newspaper photographer in Topeka, Kansas and later freelanced and by the time I was 28 had my second son Erin and had managed to start shooting for NatGeo. Tell It Like It Is was forgotten for the next 45 years. Life for me had just moved on to other things. I lost contact with the Liggins family completely. As a matter of fact, after all this time both Charles and I had even forgotten their names.
About 10 years ago I was doing a presentation of my work at the New York Public Library. Bruce Davidson was in the audience. He saw a few pictures I was showing from Tell It Like It Is. He asked me when I shot the pictures. I told him 1967. He then said that my little booklet and document had preceded his iconic East 100th Street by 4 years. This surprised me. I had no sense of the context of my essay, however on that day I realised perhaps I had done something of historic value. In 1967 I had zero contacts with the New York art or editorial world and no sense of what to do with my work at all.
In any case, from that day with Davidson, I felt compelled to republish Tell It Like It Is. That day has come.
We have done two things these two weeks in Italy. First to print a consumer new version of the book. Finest quality. Designed and produced by Anton and Diego. Gratitude always my friends. We have also manufactured an exact replica of the original $2. book, reprinted the 35 contact sheets, and I will return to my darkroom at home now to make one print from Tell It Like It Is for a special boxed edition of 100 for serious collectors.
This all follows a search for the Liggins family which I felt I must do before publishing. I had no idea where they were, and as I mentioned, I did not even know their name. My filmmaker son Erin and I hit the streets last October with a copy of the original book ( only 5 copies of it are in my bank vault). No luck in finding anyone who knew who the people were in my little booklet. I was saved by a story in The Virginian-Pilot who did a really nice piece on my search. Lois Liggins saw the Teresa Annas story in the newspaper and emailed me “I am from the Liggins family”. Lois was seven in 1967 and she was the cover of the book. She is also the cover of the new version and helped me to arrange a joyous reunion with the surviving six members of the Liggins family. We have stayed in constant touch since. We were friends then and are again now. A positive and happy story amongst so much racist negativity on the news channels. Erin filmed this search and reunion. Lois is now 56 and a lead mental health supervisor in the same neighborhood of Berkeley.
The LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph this June will feature Tell It Like It Is as an exhibition curated by New York Times Magazine Director of Photography Kathy Ryan and Curator/Editor Scott Thode. I plan to have Lois and perhaps other members of the family join us of course. What could be more rewarding as a documentary photographer?
Pages off the press need to dry. Binding will be done soonest. I will spend most of April in the darkroom. My home now in the Outer Banks is only about 75 miles from where the Liggins family is now. They plan to come sit on my front porch. My intentions for the original book are the same intentions I have now.
-david alan harvey-
Photo by 11 year old Derica White, grand daughter of Lois Liggins (center) – October 2014 at our first reunion after 47 years