Photojournalist Flip Schulke (1930–2008), known for his underwater photography, covered a wide range of subjects but his best-known, historically-important work was of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights era.
© Bill Alkofer
Photographer Flip Schulke
Schulke's life and career is instructive for young photographers because of his will to survive and succeed. Born Graeme Phelps Schulke, he became "Flip" on the high school gymnastics team. He had a difficult life at home after the family business went under and his once-middle-class father became abusive. At age 15 he stole money from his father's wallet and left. He shined shoes and made photographs working his way through high school and college. In 1952 he was named College Photographer of the Year and went to a workshop at the influential University of Missouri. There he heard about the Black Star agency and soon was on his first assignment for them.
Schulke never covered a war, was never on the front lines in a foreign country but he was on the front lines of the American civil right movement in the 1960s. His work was riveting and widely published. The photographs appeared in Life, Ebony and Jet. Being out in front with a camera could be as dangerous as any war assignment. He was called names, threatened with physical harm and death. Often. As he described the situation in his book Witness to Our Times: "In Alabama we were followed by trucks with rifles in the back windows. We were always very frightened, always. If you were really in trouble, you would stay in the black sections. We would change cars and license plates all the time. I always rented Cadillacs because they had big engines that could outrun the pickup trucks of the white mobs.”
© Flip Schulke
White high-school students walked out of class and cursed black students on the first day that public schools were integrated in Montgomery, Alabama, 1963.
He had started covering the movement in the 1950s when most new organizations weren't paying a lot of attention. In 1987 Schulke told me that he had worked for Ebony
in small rural towns. The reason why a black picture magazine would hire a white man, he explained, was that when a black photographer got out of a car carrying professional camera equipment, "he would be arrested on the spot on suspicion of stealing cameras." Schulke also noted that it was safe in the black areas but nowhere else. There were snipers and it was, he said, "unbelievably dangerous because everybody hated you except the blacks." (Eyes of Time
). Both he and fellow photojournalist Charles Moore were at many of the important events of the movement. His close association with Martin Luther King, Jr. allowed him access to leaders and events. His photographs of this moment in history will stand the test of time.
Schulke's archive of more than 500,000 images was donated to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin in 1999. According to the Center, approximately 10,000 of them document Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. (See the Center's, "In Memoriam: Graeme Phelps 'Flip' Schulke, 1930–2008" at: http://www.cah.utexas.edu/news/press_release.php?press=press_schulke.)
Thanks to dedicated photojournalists like Flip Schulke we can better appreciate the danger and the struggle of our own times which is just what he wanted.