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As a freelance photographer who often worked for Time and LIFE magazines, Ted Polumbaum photographed Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Julia Child and Muhammad Ali, among other celebrities.
But Polumbaum’s favorite people to photograph were factory workers, farm laborers or low-level government employees in countries he visited for his work.
“When he did his own projects, he focused on ordinary people,” said Judy Polumbaum, a retired University of Iowa journalism professor who wrote about her father in the new book “All Available Light: The Life and Legacy of Photographer Ted Polumbaum.”
Judy Polumbaum, who now lives near Las Vegas, will participate July 14 in an online reading of “All Available Light” along with two other non-fiction authors who will read from their books that involve family histories.
To register for the Zoom reading, go to the Prairie Lights website.
Ted Polumbaum’s early career as a news reporter was halted in 1953 when he was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Commission.
Polumbaum, a Yale University graduate and Army veteran, was writing the late-night newscast for United Press in Boston and the committee wanted to question him about his political beliefs.
“Taking the Fifth Amendment, proven to be a much better legal shield than the First, he spurned any questions beyond basic biography, rebuffed efforts to get him to implicate others, and accused the congressmen of shredding the Bill of Rights,” Judy Polumbaum wrote in the book.
United Press fired Polumbaum and he found himself blacklisted as a journalist. So he resumed his childhood hobby of photography.
As a freelance photographer, Polumbaum was hired by magazines and newspapers to cover political appearances, sports competitions and celebrity events. He also prioritized photographing anti-war and Civil Rights protests.
Harry Belafonte, a singer and activist Polumbaum had been assigned to photograph at a concert in 1958, invited Polumbaum to his Manhattan apartment to meet King.
“As Dr. King spoke solemnly about the challenges in the South, Ted was as close to the civil rights icon as he would ever be, not to mention surrounded by other luminaries of the movement and Black culture,” Judy Polumbaum wrote. “No images would emerge from that encounter. My father had left his cameras in the trunk of the car, feeling they might be inappropriate. I doubt he ever questioned that instinct. My mother always regretted it.”
In 1964, Ted Polumbaum spent two months away from home photographing Freedom Summer, a voter-registration drive in Mississippi. Volunteers faced intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and some Mississippi law enforcement. Polumbaum’s photo of Black and white volunteers linking arms in front of a bus singing “We Shall Overcome” is one of the most reproduced of his career, Judy Polumbaum said.
Ted and Nyna Polumbaum pulled their daughters, Miki, 11, and Judy, 7, out of school in 1961 to go on a round-the-world trip funded with a $9,000 family inheritance. The trip included stops in Hawaii, Japan, Israel, Italy, Greece and, finally, India. The travel was difficult with poor communications and Judy Polumbaum remembers the heat, noise, smell — and wonder — of the trip.
Between paid assignments, Ted Polumbaum would take photos of ordinary people. One of those photos is Judy Polumbaum’s favorite. It’s of a bazaar in New Delhi, where a teenage girl dressed in gauzy clothes with bells on her ankles dances in the street.
“It’s just a whole panoply of faces, transfixed faces watching this dancing girl,” Judy Polumbaum said. “To your right as you’re looking at the picture, there’s a shabby begging girl in tattered clothes. She’s looking at this dancer with envy and admiration. That relationship makes it. They are both street kids, same status in life, but one has fancy clothes on and the other has rags on.”
Another set of photos shows Armando Ailio, a Chilean man of Mapuche heritage. Ted Polumbaum first photographed Ailio in 1971, soon after Salvador Allende became president and there was a movement to redistribute land. Polumbaum photographed a young Ailio with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and holding a shovel. When the Polumbaums returned to Chile in 1991, they found Ailio, looking much older after serving six years in prison and having his land seized by a new government.
All of Ted Polumbaum’s 200,000 photos are part of the Newseum’s permanent collection and many can be viewed online. Some of them also are in a 2016 photo book “Juxtapositions: Images from the Newseum Ted Polumbaum Collection.“
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