MLK Day: For Photo alum Van Evers—son of civil rights leader Medgar Evers—giving a photograph is as rewarding as taking one

by January 17th, 2014

civil-rights-sisters

Dr. Betty Shabazz (educator and widow of Malcolm X), Coretta Scott King (activist and widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and Van Evers’ mother, Myrlie Evers-Williams.

Though he rarely grants interviews, this week Van Evers agreed to talk with Dotted Line about his education and career, and also about his family legacy—an important part of our nation’s history as well as his own.

Los Angeles is not merely the backdrop for an Art Center education. It’s a living laboratory for artistic experimentation and, as the capital of an Industry so pervasive it needs no other name, a source of gainful employment.

Photography alumnus James Van Dyke Evers (who goes by “Van”) has an especially coveted gig in entertainment as the official photographer for the L.A.-based Tavis Smiley show on PBS. Over the past six years he has photographed hundreds of A-list guests on the nightly talk show, a who’s who of contemporary culture and politics, from Prince to Anthony Hopkins, from James Taylor to President Barack Obama.

“My job is to capture that special energy between two people,” says Van, who may be unique in the fast-paced world of TV talk shows for making sure every guest leaves with a framed print commemorating their appearance on the show. It entails working with lightning speed and decisiveness, and often literally running to catch guests as they step into their waiting limos.

“Most shows deliver digital images to the publicist later, and we do that too,” he says. “But handing the guest a physical print, to hold in their hands—it means so much to that guest, and it puts a smile on their face.”

That grateful smile is what made Van choose a career in photography.

Van picked up his first camera as a nine-year-old at summer camp and made his first prints in an old shed. “Light leaked everywhere, it was a real mess, but when I saw that print come up in the developing tray, that was it.”

Art Center’s top-tier facilities and dedicated faculty helped Van hone his craft, teaching him professional skills and life lessons that continue to serve him. Looking back he singles out instructors like Charlie Potts and Peter Suszynski and fellow students like Everard Williams and Jeff Sedlick (who both now serve on the faculty), and Neal Brown and Sean Thonson. And he gladly shares his own “must do”s for aspiring photographers: “Be on time. Listen to the client’s needs. And prep, prep, prep! Have a backup plan. Because things can and will go wrong. If you don’t get the shot right away, it’s over. You don’t get a second chance.”

Van graduated from Art Center in 1986 and the cohort he studied with has stayed in touch over the years. “Our class was incredible, and everyone was so talented,” he says. “Sure, we all had that ‘core’ inside,” referring to the passion it takes to pursue a career in photography, “but Art Center helped us shape and direct it. All the late nights and deadlines! You had to get the project done on time and make it look right, no excuses.”

His lasting appreciation for Art Center’s intensity is unequivocal: “It gave me nightmares,” he laughs, “but it put me where I’m at.”

Strolling through the L.A. Auto Show last fall, he happened upon Art Center’s booth and immediately recognized its caliber. “Their presentation was beautiful, had that high professional quality. No one else does it as well. And it puts you ahead of the competition.”

As a studio photographer Van has produced editorial and print ads for national magazines, and his roster of production and editorial clients includes big names in entertainment like Sony Music, Warner Bros., Capitol Records and BET. More recently he became a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, as he begins shifting gears—“I have a fire to do other things”—and moving toward a future in cinematography.

Carrying forward a family legacy

While his choice to attend Art Center played an important role in Van’s life, so did events tragically beyond his control. When Van was just three years old, his 38-year-old father, outspoken activist and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, was gunned down in the driveway outside the family’s Jackson, Miss., home while Van and his mother, brother and sister were inside, watching a speech by John F. Kennedy on television. Evers’ assassination on June 12, 1963, was followed by that of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

Years later, Van would make a powerful portrait of the three widows left behind—his mother, Myrlie Evers-Williams, along with Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King. His good friend, photographic processes instructor Tom Gugler, made a museum-quality print of the image that Van gave President Obama as a gift and delivered in person to the White House .

Van sees Obama as part of a lineage that includes “my dad, Medgar Evers, Dr. King and Miss Rosa Parks, and many others who came before him.” And Van proudly introduced his sons to the President in January 2013 when his mother delivered the invocation for the President’s second inauguration.

After her husband’s assassination, Van’s mother moved with their three children from Mississippi to Southern California for their safety.

“When the situation happened, we moved to Claremont,” Van recalls. But the adjustment was not easy. “There were few black families,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand racism. It happens on a different scale. They don’t come running violently after you. But you’re always breaking through the grid. I tell my own sons, ‘Work hard. Don’t just say this is unfair.’”

Van has generally stayed under the radar in relation to his famous father. Some people have known and worked with Van for years without knowing about his connection to the civil rights leader. “I don’t use my name as a tool,” he says. “I just show you my book [photography portfolio], and that’s how I expect to be judged. By my work.”

That changed last summer, when events around the country marked the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death and Van made a number of high-profile public appearances with his mother, including at a ceremony with President Bill Clinton at the grave site in Arlington National Cemetery (movingly documented by The Washington Post photographer Marvin Thomas).

For Van, a life in photography, and a photography that affirms life, form an ongoing tribute to his father, who served in France and Germany as a U.S. Army draftee during World War II, went on to graduate from college, and traveled extensively in his organizing work for the NAACP.

“My dad always had a camera with him. Wherever he went, he always shot.”

Listen to Van Evers’ interview with NPR.

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