Jones Mills man donates photo collection to Pitt
Freelance photographer Charles R. “Chuck” Martin stepped onto the Sixth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh's North Side on the morning of Sunday, April 7, 1968, and walked toward the city's Downtown.
Two Nikon cameras swung gently from Martin's neck as he made his way across the span above the Allegheny River.
Three days before, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., setting off fiery riots in more than 100 American cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, in reaction to the murder of the civil rights leader.
Martin — who at the time was a freelance photographer for the United Way — said he felt drawn to the city's downtown area by a sense that what awaited him there could be something worth capturing in images.
“I knew it was going to be a historic moment,” said Martin, 85, of Jones Mills, in regard to the National Day of Mourning declared that day in memory of King. “I didn't know if there was going to be violence or not. The police had the city cordoned off. You could not drive into the city.”
But there was Martin, on foot, winding his way between the cement-and-steel skyscrapers before turning the corner onto Centre Avenue and making his way up the hill toward the Civic Arena.
“Thousands of people were gathered there. They wanted to do something ... to voice their protest about what happened to Dr. King,” Martin said. “They met up with a wall of Pittsburgh policemen.”
It was at that moment that Martin said he knew the time had come to put his cameras to use.
The city's public safety director, David Craig, soonafter emerged to make an announcement from a bullhorn.
“He (Craig) told the crowd that, Martin Luther King would have wanted him to have a peaceful march in his honor,” Martin said.
Craig then ordered the police to step aside and the march — which was led in part by late attorney and civil rights activist Byrd R. Brown, leader of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP — was permitted to proceed to the Federal building downtown, Martin said.
“It ended up being a peaceful protest. I have a great photograph of the marching crowd. It goes on for blocks.”
That image, along with more than 280 others captured on eight rolls of film, represents one of what Martin said he considers to be the crown jewels of his collection.
It is a cache of images which has reached into the hundreds of thousands over the course of his roughly six-decade career in photography.
Martin — who shot many promotional photos for various Pittsburgh-based organizations — recently donated his collection to the Archives Service Center, part of the University Library System at University of Pittsburgh.
“At this late point in my life, I was thinking it was time to do something with my photo legacy,” Martin said.
At the most recent count, that legacy is composed of 200,000 photo negatives ranging in size from 35 to 120 millimeters to 5-by-7-inch prints, said Miriam Meislik, media curator at the archives.
“We're very excited to have this collection ... it's fantastic. Chuck really does have a way of capturing the moment. He knows exactly when to take the picture,” Meislik said.
Martin's talent with a camera helped make his work the subject of a recent airing of the WQED-TV program “Horizons” hosted by Chris Moore.
Regarding Martin's photos documenting the protest which followed King's assassination, Moore said he believes society owes him a debt of gratitude.
“We all owe him thanks for that. The thing that I could not believe is that story had not been told until now,” Moore said. “Nobody ever picked up the story until Chuck called me. I'm just glad Chuck's still alive to see it be brought to light, and I was just happy to be able to tell it, and I hope it lives on for a long time.”
Meislik said the center will continue cataloging Martin's photos with the goal of compiling them for a to-be-determined exhibit.
“We're formulating a plan for that right now,” Meislik said. “Let's just say there are a lot of photographs in this collection which we want to make accessible to those who would conduct research with them.”
In addition to Martin's protest photos, other images he donated include his work with the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children and Boy Scouts of America, along with many scenic shots of Pittsburgh and intimate images of former First Lady Barbara Bush, fashion mogul Bill Blass, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris and the late Sen. John Heinz.
“It's an impressive body of work,” Meislik said.
And a legacy Martin said is in good hands.
“They have a wonderful facility,” Martin said. “Perfect temperature, perfect humidity control ... scanning and computer equipment like you wouldn't believe.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.