James Karales

James Karales



James Karales was born in Canton, Ohio on July 15 1930 to a Greek immigrant family. He studied photography at the Ohio State University, where he had initially been admitted to study Electrical Engineering with a basketball scholarship. The greatest part of his job lies in the field of documentary photography and photojournalism. His black-and-white, anthropocentric photographs depict, among other things, socio-political events that marked American history in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s.

He created his first photographic exhibitions in 1953 in Ohio, focusing on the day-to-day lives of the Greek-American community in Canton, as well as the lives of African-Americans in the Rendville area. After graduating in 1955, he moved to New York, where he worked for two years as a deputy to W. Eugene Smith, who at the time worked in Magnum agency for the Pittsburg city photographic exhibition. Karales lived with the Smith family, without reward, mainly occupied processing and displaying photographs in the darkroom. Smith’s increased demands significantly developed Karales’ skills, who at the same time focused on his photojournalism. In his own works of that period are included photographs of relatives of those aboard the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956,  expecting anxiously news for survivors, portraits of fashion magazine publisher Diana Vreeland, W. Eugene Smith and his daughter Juanita and California landscapes. In 1957 he completed in Ohio the photographic exhibition concerning Rendville, a mining area, one of the few racially unified societies in the United States in the late 1950s, which until the Civil War was a pivotal stop to the Underground Railroad, a covert escape network of African American slaves to Canada. The Rendville photographs, which depicted, among other things, the harmonious coexistence of whites and blacks beyond racial stereotypes and prejudices, composed the material for Karalis’s first solo exhibition in 1958 at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village. That same year, two of his photographs from the Greek-American community of Canton were purchased by Edward Steichen, caretaker of photography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the years 1958-1959 he undertook on behalf of the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company to register logging companies in Oregon.

The interest gathered in Karalis’s work and Smith’s recommendations led to his collaboration with Look magazine in 1960. In his early letters, he focused on issues related to African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960 he photographed Richard Adams, an African-American speech therapist and social worker with his white students at an Iowa public school. Between 1960 and 1961, he attended passive resistance training sessions of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta, Georgia, recording African-American activists preparing through physical and verbal abuse simulations to deal with possible attacks. In 1962 he followed Martin Luther King Jr. in the south, recording speeches, demonstrations, and prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement, such as Rosa Parks. The spontaneous snapshots that Karalis took in King’s personal space stand out, after the unprecedented move of the leader to give permission to the photographer to record private moments with his family, with which he was overprotective. In one of them, King appears to explain to his then seven-year-old daughter, Yolanda, that due to racial discrimination he could not visit a popular amusement park (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his daughter, Yolanda, 1962). A few years later, in March 1965, he undertook the coverage of the march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote in a report by Look for the Clergy’s Turning Point of the Church. Thoughtful, penetrating and unprejudiced, Karalis’s approach to the African-American struggle is reflected in the portrait of fifteen-year-old protester Lewis Marshall with the fixed gaze shaded by the American flag surrounding him (Lewis Marshall for Carrying Mont Flag, Sel 1965). On the last day of the march and just minutes before its end, Karalis immortalized a seemingly endless crowd of protesters with the American flag in the center resolutely marching to the top of a hill defying the upcoming storm (Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965). The photograph, an allegorical image of the obstacles that protesters would encounter on their way and the courage to face them, is still considered emblematic of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and of American history as a whole.

In 1963 he traveled for the first time to Vietnam, where he would not return again until 1967 to cover the activities of the US Special Forces. He photographed scenes of military training and battle, life in villages, hospitals, prisoner-of-war and refugee camps, as well as children of war, like the little boy staring into the lens with a baby in his backpack in a makeshift cloth purse. (Vietnam, 1963). From 1969 onwards, he would photograph the degraded neighborhoods of Manhattan’s Lower East Side: children playing, young people having fun, but also racial discrimination, efforts to clean up abandoned buildings, and the venerable Bruce Ritter, founder of homeless, Covenant House.

In 1971 Look magazine suspended its operation. Thence, Karalis worked as a freelancer with other popular magazines and newspapers, such as the Saturday Review, Life and Money. In 1975 he married Monica Karales of Swiss origin with whom he had four sons. He lived in Croton-on-Hudson, New York until his death from cancer in 2002.

His photographs have been exhibited at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, the Gibbes Museum of Art, the Rebekah Jacob Gallery, the Howard Greenberg Gallery and elsewhere. Material of his work is included in private and public collections and archives, for example: Duke University, International Center of Photography, High Museum of Art, Kennedy Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and Library of Congress (archives of Look magazine). The 1965 Selma March in Montgomery was awarded by the National Press Photographers Association and selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as one of the 40 images in the Picturing America program depicting American history through art. His work includes: Julian Cox, Rebekah Jacob, Monica Karales, Controversy and Hope: The Civil Rights Photographs of James Karales, Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013 and Sam Stephenson, Howard Greenberg, Vicki Goldberg, James Karales, Göttingen: Steidl, New York: Howard Greenberg Gallery, 2014.

Xenia Giannouli
Art Historian