The elderly visitor left a short, concise comment in the guest book of the art gallery.
"Their greatest shame!"
She meant it as a compliment.
This small, sleepy arts town founded by a United Empire Loyalist – where, the owner of the gallery says, "If you walked down the street you'd be hard-pressed to find a minority" – is staging a most remarkable photography exhibition this spring that has not only much to say about the past but also a great deal to say about the present.
Selma, 1965 marks the 50th anniversary of the day an ambitious 22-year-old booked time off from his job as a darkroom technician with The Canadian Press, packed up his Konica FP 50 camera and jumped in his creaky Triumph, driving 25 hours straight to reach Montgomery, Ala.
Lynn Ball arrived early, with the Selma-to-Montgomery march of late March, 1965, about to begin. The young Canadian had become fascinated with American politics after working four consecutive shifts in the darkroom following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the fall of 1963. He knew that this civil-rights march, already blocked twice by unsympathetic police, would go ahead, this time with the protection of troops sent in by President Lyndon Johnson.
The young photographer found himself in the middle of a boiling racial cauldron. He was not made welcome – by the whites.
"I wasn't scared," remembers Mr. Ball. "I was too young and stupid."
Striking a deal with the wire services where he would be paid $5 for every photograph used, Mr. Ball set out to provide something different than what other photographers were shooting. He photographed a nasty, threatening march by white Montgomery men. He shot the Women's March, where white women paraded in Montgomery carrying signs saying "Keep America White" and, aimed directly at him, "Out of Our City, Agitators."
"You would not believe what came out of their mouths," Mr. Ball recalls.
He tried to file the photographs, but they were immediately stamped with a "kill order." Censoring was done right on site.
"No one moved those photos," Mr. Ball says. "The world never saw any of that. The white demonstrations never happened."
Fifty years later, proof that they did indeed happen are on display at Merrickville's little Canal Gallery. "People aren't happy when they see these pictures," says gallery owner Ted Hitsman. "It's upsetting." His guest book is littered with shocked reaction.
Mr. Ball moved on to Selma for the start of the five-day march, and there had to get accreditation stamped by the notorious sheriff of Dallas County, James G. "Jim" Clark Jr. The sheriff was loudly opposed to integration, dressed in military gear and carried a cattle prod, as well as his police-issue pistol and club. The young freelancer was able to convince the officials he should have the card.
Somewhat surprisingly, sales have been brisk at the gallery for Mr. Ball's shots of the march led by Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Ralph Bunche. One particularly striking photograph has civil-rights leader Willie Ricks and a state trooper staring each other down – a picture reminiscent of the soldier-warrior standoff at Oka, Que.
The exhibition is not only a powerful reminder of how tense race relations were in the 1960s, it is a strong argument for the enduring power of great news photography.
Staff photographers are an endangered species these days. Nearly two years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its 28-person photo staff (though later took back four, rehired as "multimedia" journalists). The Globe and Mail cut five staff photographer positions in favour of using professional freelancers. Earlier this month, the three Irving-owned New Brunswick dailies chopped their photographers. And at the end of January, Sports Illustrated – a publication basically founded on dramatic and quality photography – laid off all its staff photographers.
It's always "economic circumstances," as Sports Illustrated pleaded, but a fair question is: At what price to readers? Reporters using iPhones are not the equal of professional photographers who know what to look for and how to get it.
"It's really sad," says Mr. Ball. "The readers are being discounted and I fear it's just another nail in the coffin. It shuts off half of the story, as far as I'm concerned."
Lynn Ball and his brother Doug have been two of the finest photographers in Canada over the past several decades. Both grew up in a house with a darkroom, and both were drilled in hard work and quality by their father, John, a former sergeant-major in the Air Force.
Lynn, working as a freelancer and with the Ottawa Citizen, and Doug, mostly with The Canadian Press, shot royal weddings and tours, Northern Dancer's races, political campaigns and sports championships. "I shot the Toronto Maple Leafs' last Stanley Cup," Lynn says. "The last one they'll ever win."
Doug was holding his camera when, during the 1974 federal election, the Progressive Conservatives' charter landed at North Bay, Ont., to refuel. To kill time, someone brought a football out. Leader Robert Stanfield threw passes and caught passes, but it was the shot of him fumbling the ball that many analysts have claimed cost Mr. Stanfield the election.
Powerful photographs can have great influence. When astronaut and politician Marc Garneau was asked to write a foreward to Life on a Press Pass, the book the Ball brothers published, he considered exactly that point: What does a good photograph bring? What does a poor image or lack of a photograph lose?
"Like most people who pick up a newspaper," Mr. Garneau wrote, "my eye is first drawn to the picture, then to the headline and then to the text. Most of the time, the photography is mundane and totally forgettable. Occasionally, it grabs my attention like a vise and is never forgotten. In some cases, it is the story and nothing else need be said."
Mr. Garneau admires good news photographers for "their ability to sense the moment, the opportunity, the importance of something which is actually still in the future when they decide to act."
Lynn Ball seized that moment in Montgomery, never for a moment thinking it would be 50 years into the future before some of those unsettling photographs would be seen by the public.
He set out for home thinking he just might now have a career in photojournalism and wasn't really paying attention when, as he rolled into Kentucky, the speed limit suddenly dropped and the lights of a state trooper flashed in his mirror.
The trooper coldly filled out a ticket but then glanced at Mr. Ball's press pass – duly approved by "James G. Clark, Jr., Sheriff." His manner changed completely as he began telling Mr. Ball about a time when the two "good ol' boys" had worked together and what a great guy "Jim" was.
Mr. Ball did not think it a good time to argue the point. Unfortunately, the trooper said, he'd already filled out the ticket and notice would now be sent to the photographer's home in Canada.
"But don't worry about it," he said with a wink. "It's invalid the moment you cross the state line."