Dylan, RFK, Joplin - he shot them all in the '60s, then vanished from
the scene. Now Rowland Scherman's photos can be seen anew.
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008
ORLEANS - In those days, you could get close. Very close. That's how
Rowland Scherman worked. With his hand-held Leica, he shot
Mississippi John Hurt strumming a guitar on a rickety bed, Robert F.
Kennedy strategizing with campaign advisers, and Bob Dylan at the
1963 Newport Folk Festival.
"I was so close, I could have said, 'Bob, could you hold this
camera?' " Scherman jokes. "Nowadays, they would take you and throw you out."
Nobody threw Scherman out. For roughly a decade, the photographer had
an uncanny knack for making sure he was in the right place at the
right time, whether shooting for Life magazine, National Geographic,
or Time. And just as quickly as he arrived, he disappeared, drifting
across the ocean and out of that glossy world for good.
The photographs remained, stuffed away in memories and cardboard
boxes. Now the pictures, many of them newly discovered, are on
display in a makeshift space, a storefront that's for sale on Route
6A here on the Cape. Earlier this month, Scherman sat in that room
with his new supporters and business partners - local printmaker Bob
Korn and frame-shop owners Dave and Meri Hartford - reflecting on
success and lost opportunities.
At 70, Scherman remains a masterful storyteller, with a theatrical
scarf thrown over his shoulders. He shrugs when he mentions a job
offer in 1969 to join Playboy full time. He turned it down because he
didn't think he liked Chicago.
"I've been offered great chances over the years and I've kicked them
in the teeth,"' Scherman says. "My shrink in 1966 said it's fear of
success. I sort of rejected that. I don't know what that means."
The beautiful people
Today, top magazine photographers have assistants who haul around
trunks of equipment, elaborate sets on which to create poses, and
hours to set up each shot. Their agents work on new opportunities
(music video? coffee-table book?) as the next lucrative assignment rolls in.
The '60s were different. Back then, all you needed was a camera, a
roll of film, and good timing.
Scherman did have some family connections, too. Growing up in New
York, his father, William, worked in promotions for Time Inc. Every
Monday, he would bring home proofs of the issue of Life that would be
released to the public later in the week. The Scherman kids eagerly
pored over the photos.
Some were taken by Uncle Dave. A Life photographer, Dave Scherman
traveled the world and took nine cover shots during World War II.
Young Rowland started snapping photos himself in the late '40s,
around his 10th birthday. His first camera, a Christmas present, was
an Argoflex 75.
"This neighborhood kid, he had a darkroom," Scherman recalls. "Seeing
the pictures come out, it was like magic."
In the summer of 1957, Uncle Dave suggested to his nephew a summer
gig in Life's darkroom. That job, between his sophomore and junior
years at Oberlin, would mark the start of a long relationship with
There was a brief foray into pop music - he took the stage name
"Billy Donahue" and recorded a handful of songs - but by the early
'60s, Scherman had given himself over to photography. One early gig
was as the first photographer for the Peace Corps in 1961, working
for Bill Moyers. Then he started freelancing, especially for Life.
Scherman cut a striking figure, trim and bearded, his ever-present
pipe stuffed with Dunhill Nightcap tobacco.
"To be perfectly frank, Life photographers, the more established
ones, didn't know a thing about music," says Richard Stolley, the
former Life editor who founded People magazine in 1973. "Even for
political coverage of Johnson and Kennedy and all the rest, it was
wise for a magazine to send a young, hip photographer who would say,
in effect, that we don't trust Alfred Eisenstaedt to take pictures
for us. We're showing that we're invested in these young
photographers. That's exactly what Rowley did. And he looked so hip.
Long hair and in some ways he kind of acted like Dylan, shuffling
around and mumbling."
By 1964 Scherman was married and a Life regular, shooting Judy
Collins, Arthur Ashe, Barbara Walters, Jimmy Hoffa, and I.F. Stone,
among others. He took photos of Janis Joplin at Woodstock while
working for Playboy, Andy Warhol for an underground newspaper, and
the Beatles in their first US concert as a freelancer.
In 1967, he took what would become his most famous photo.
He and his wife, Joan, went to see Dylan play at the Washington
Coliseum. Scherman took a Nikon with two rolls of film and, during
the show, decided to head backstage. The security guards tried to
keep him away, but he shouted at them. "I'm from Life," he said, and
brushed past them, close to Dylan.
He got the shot quickly - the singer's thick, afro-like hair
silhouetted in a halo of blue light. Columbia's art director loved
the picture, and it ended up on the cover of "Bob Dylan's Greatest
Hits." Scherman earned $300 and a Grammy.
"It was great," Scherman says now of that time. "Beautiful wife.
Terrific apartment in New York. I used to own the city. We used to
drive around in a convertible. We had a giant Afghan dog. We were the
Gone to the country
By the early '70s, Scherman's life took another turn. He and Joan had
divorced in 1968 and Scherman, a left-leaning Democrat, found himself
disheartened by the assassinations of the Kennedys and the rise of
Richard Nixon. He rambled off to England in 1972 and met a girl, and
together they moved to Wales two years later.
His work was herding sheep, but he took photos of the landscapes
around him. Nearing 40, Scherman was down to 160 pounds and in the
best shape of his life. But he couldn't stay forever. In 1977, after
his relationship ended, he headed back to New York. The city he had
loved so much in the '60s felt dirty and dangerous. The industry had
"I always thought I could drop out anytime and drop back in anytime.
You can't," he says. "You can't go in cold to an art director and
say, 'Here I am, I'm Rowland Scherman. I used to be great, but I
haven't published anything since 1969.' "
A friend in Birmingham, Ala., suggested he come down and shoot for an
ad agency. So Scherman headed south. He freelanced for a time and got
a gig with a department store. In Birmingham, he would meet his
second wife, Joyce Hudson. She was 21 and working at the Barbizon
Modeling School; he was in his mid-40s.
"Our first date we went to the State Fair, and he was so childlike,"
Hudson says. "He really loved playing the little games where you
threw the balls and tried to win the prize, and he would hardly ever
win. And so he would start jumping up and down like he was throwing a
temper tantrum so they would give him more balls. And he finally won
a teddy bear."
In Alabama, Scherman opened a bar, both out of his love for English
pubs and his feeling that, in a recession, the business would do
well. He ran Joe Bar for four years. He also did freelance work and
took on two ambitious photo projects. "Highway 11," partially funded
by a state grant, features photos taken along the Alabama highway;
the work eventually was shown at the Huntsville Museum of Art. And in
the early '90s, after his five-year marriage to Hudson dissolved,
Scherman rambled around the country taking pictures of Elvis Presley
fans and Presley-related trinkets and other oddities. Those photos
became 1992's "Elvis Is Everywhere," a book published by Clarkson Potter press.
Looking back, Betsy Smith, Scherman's older sister, realizes he could
have benefited by staying more focused on his career goals. "But he
took the opportunities as they arose, and there were millions of
them," she says.
Finding friends, photos
It was yet another breakup that sparked Scherman's move to the Cape.
He left Alabama in 2000 and headed north, fondly remembering the
family vacations taken there as a boy.
"As I drove up, I saw gallery, gallery, and gallery," Scherman says.
"I thought, 'This ought to be a great place to sell my work.' " But
he found it harder than expected. He took photos of landscapes and
portraits and sold them as best he could. He also assisted a pair of
aging artists, driving and cooking for them. Scherman didn't need
much to get by. Qualifying for subsidized housing, he moved into a
one-bedroom place in Orleans. The rent: $250.
People around town knew this version of Rowland Scherman - still
striking, a big talker with a quick wit. Few knew Rowland Scherman,
'60s photojournalist, until three years ago. In the parking lot of a
local restaurant, the Land Ho, Scherman walked up to Korn, a
printmaker known on the Cape for developing images that are in the
collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern
Art, and the Smithsonian.
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Scherman told Korn he was a photographer.
"I didn't think much of that," Korn remembers. "Around here,
everybody's a photographer."
A few days later, though, Scherman came into the shop with the
original transparency of the famous Dylan album cover.
"How did you get this image?" Korn asked.
"It's mine," Scherman told him.
Encouraged by Korn, the photographer returned with slides of Eric
Clapton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Janis Joplin. Korn consulted with
the Hartfords, who already knew Scherman.
The trio decided on an intervention. They told Scherman that they
needed to see more of his work, and that he needed to make a serious
attempt to reclaim his place in photographic history.
That's when the boxes arrived. Scherman had kept some of them in a
storage locker in Alabama, and other materials were acquired from
Life and the Smithsonian. The boxes contained no prints, and the few
contact sheets there were stuffed into manila folders, barely
labeled. In many cases, there were only negatives.
"We have boxes and boxes with thousands of rolls of film in little
envelopes," says Korn. "Then the files. It'll say 'political' and
then there might be a notation - 'A political fat guy' or 'A mean,
political, fat guy.' And there'll be LBJ or the JFK inauguration."
One night, Scherman even called Meri Hartford, all excited.
"I just found George Wallace and Tammy Wynette," he said.
In a sense, the photographer is rediscovering his own history. In the
gallery, he shuffles through a series of contact sheets showing
Robert Kennedy during his historic presidential campaign.
"Look at this. It's as good a photo essay as I've ever seen,"
Scherman says. "I was [expletive] good in 1968."
As he scans the images, Scherman admits he would like people to know
his work. He would love for Woody Allen to see his pictures from a
'60s nightclub show: The comic, just turned 30, is all over the
stage, mugging for the crowd, rolling his eyes, and waving his arms.
That just might happen. As part of their new business partnership,
Korn has been making Scherman prints and taking his work to museum curators.
The images caught the attention of Frank Goodyear III, assistant
curator of photography for the Smithsonian's National Portrait
Gallery. He said he could imagine the museum acquiring some of the pictures.
"When you think of people like Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, Margaret
Bourke-White, all of whom had lengthy and successful careers and
whose pictures now sell for tens of thousands of dollars," Goodyear
said, "and then you have somebody like Rowland Scherman, who has
completely vanished off the face of photojournalism, you kind of
wonder, 'Why these guys and not somebody like Rowland?' "
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.