Sunday, May 28, 2023

Q&A with Chris Campion



Chris Campion is the author and editor of the new book The War Is Here: Newark 1967, which features photographs by photojournalist Bud Lee (1941-2015) of the protests in Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1967. 


Q: How did you become involved in writing and editing this book?


A: A few years ago, I was working on another collection of Bud Lee’s photographs, covering his career working for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Life, and other publications in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the publisher suggested starting with the Newark images instead.


Bud Lee’s photography is not widely known. The photos he took for Life magazine of events in Newark in the summer of 1967 offered a more tightly-focused body of work, as well as the possibility of constructing a narrative and a context around the images, which sat with my background as an author and journalist.


Looking at Bud Lee’s photos of Newark in 1967—which depict gun violence, police killings, and a militarised response to civilian protests—the parallels with things that are still happening in America today were clear and unequivocal. 


Q: How would you describe Bud Lee's images, and what do you think they captured about Newark in 1967?


A: Painterly, reflective, still. Even though he was there as a photojournalist, the photos in The War Is Here are not the kind of news pictures you would expect to see of an event like this. The reason being is that Bud Lee was primarily a fine artist, with schooling at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Columbia University in New York, who fell into photography.


Photo by Bud Lee

So when Lee came to Newark in July 1967, on his first major assignment for Life, he had an aesthetic atypical of a documentary photographer and managed to capture scenes of people and places that have qualities we associate more with the painted image.


The portraits, especially, that he took of the people of Newark show Bud Lee as an artist of great empathy and sensitivity. These are images of a city turned into an urban war zone, and a population attempting to maintain and survive in those extraordinary circumstances.


Q: What do you see as the legacy today of the events depicted in the book?


A: The events of July 1967 scarred the city of Newark for decades, but also brought about a tremendous sea change in the city's administration. In 1970, Newark elected the first black mayor, in Kenneth Gibson, for what was then, as now, a black majority city. This has continued through the administrations of Sharpe James, Cory Booker, and the current mayor, Ras J. Baraka. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from The War Is Here?


A: I would like for people to look at the images in the book and realise they are more than historical record. That they speak also to the issues and news stories of today, and trace a current that runs through American history from then to now.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently completing a very different project, a long-in-the-works biography of John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and making a documentary film about the history and pop culture mythology surrounding Joshua Tree and the high desert, which is has been my home for close to a decade.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The War is Here is bookended by an introduction written by Mayor Ras J. Baraka, the current mayor of Newark, whose family was intimately connected with the events of July 1967, and a powerful afterword by Ellene Furr, about how she was affected by the shooting death by police of her then-husband of two years, Billy Furr, images of which were captured on film by Bud Lee. Those photos ran in Life magazine in 1967 and still resonate today.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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