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Dan Budnik, who photographed history, is dead at 87
Dan Budnik, Students praying for jailed voting rights activists, Dallas County Courthouse, Selma, Alabama © Dan Budnik. The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Dan Budnik, who in a long career as a photographer captured abiding images of 1950s artists at work, key events of the civil rights movement, the Hudson River restoration effort, Native Americans in the Southwest and more, died Aug. 14 at an assisted living residence in Tucson, Arizona. He was 87.

His nephew, Kim Newton, said the causes were metabolic encephalopathy and dementia.

Budnik shot assignments for Life, Look and numerous other leading magazines, and his work was collected in several books, including “Marching to the Freedom Dream” (2014), which featured his pictures from three significant civil rights moments: the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, the 1963 March on Washington and the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

There were many photographers at those events, but Budnik had a knack for the unexpected yet telling moment. At the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, Budnik took a position behind King as he addressed the enormous crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“I knew everyone else would be photographing him from the front and the sides,” he said in an interview included in “Marching to the Freedom Dream.” “But I’m about six steps above him, knowing he had to exit in reverse and go up the steps to where I was.”

He was rewarded with some memorable images of King being swarmed by well-wishers. One showed a white man very eager to shake King’s hand.

“But King is a sardine, looking at all these bodies between them,” Budnik said. “The guy is leaning on the tops of heads of people. He’s so adamant about shaking Dr. King’s hand. And so King squirrels around, corkscrews, frees up an arm. And then they do the brotherhood clasp.”

At the Selma march, almost two years later, Budnik looked for evocative moments. One came when a Black teenager unfurled an American flag and started to march. Budnik captured the image of an Army National Guard sergeant saluting — since guardsmen were taught to salute the flag.

But, he recalled in an interview with The Austin American-Statesman in 2000, “the next seven guardsmen turned their backs to the boy with the flag.”

Budnik’s nephew, who teaches at the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and is a noted photographer himself, learned his craft in part by accompanying his uncle on photo shoots.

“Walking down the street or on a trail, he would point out objects or subjects that most people would just pass by in their normal rush through life,” Newton said by email. “It was his awareness and unconventional approach to life that helped bring about the intimacy one sees in his work.”

Daniel Budnik was born on May 20, 1933, in Mineola, New York, on Long Island. His father, Maxim, was a butcher, and his mother, Tessie (Lesniak) Budnik, was a bookkeeper.

He grew up on Long Island and often told the story of an incident when he was 5 that first made him aware of racial prejudice. Playing marbles with a kindergarten classmate who had recently moved north from Alabama, he was shocked when the boy saw a local Black man who was well known in the village and started throwing rocks at him and describing him with a racial epithet.

“I could not come up with a logical explanation for his behavior,” Budnik told The Independent of Britain in 2015. “When I went to Selma in ’65, I thought about that boy.”

At 17 Budnik moved to the Los Angeles area to live with a sister. He graduated from high school there and returned east to study at the Art Students League of New York, thinking he might become a painter. But in 1952 artist Charles Alston, one of his teachers, showed him a book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“Talk about epiphanies,” Budnik said. “It changed my life.”

First, though, came military service: He was drafted into the Army the next year, serving until 1955. He used his mustering-out pay to buy a Leica IIIf camera at a pawnshop.

Among his first subjects were the abstract expressionists and other artists he had come to know in New York. He began photographing them as they worked, continuing to do so into the mid-1960s, capturing Willem de Kooning, Lee Bontecou, David Smith and many others.

Decades later, living in Arizona, he frequently photographed another artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, in her later years. His pictures of artists were compiled into several gallery shows.

In 1957 he took a desk job with the agency Magnum Photos, learning from some of its top photographers. By the end of the decade he was a professional photographer himself, generally working as a freelancer. His work in Alabama in 1965, for instance, started out as an assignment for Life — he pitched the idea of photographing the segregationist side of the evolving civil rights movement.

He had managed to secure meetings with Gov. George Wallace and with Jim Clark, the notorious racist sheriff, when the clash known as Bloody Sunday took place in Selma, followed by the Selma-to-Montgomery march, disrupting his original plan. His images of the march never made any magazine, but decades later, at a friend’s urging, he turned them into a gallery show and then a book.

In the meantime he had also become involved with his friend Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River and shot photos for a Look article about the waterway in 1969. He had also taken an interest in the Native American life and culture in Arizona, where he eventually settled.

As with his involvement in the Hudson River campaign, he did more than take pictures; for example, he helped the Navajo and Hopi peoples resist strip mining.

“I was, in effect, an unpaid lobbyist for Native American causes,” he told Arizona Highways magazine in 2014.

His photographs illustrate “The Book of Elders: The Life Stories and Wisdom of Great American Indians” (2014), a project he created with Sandy Johnson.

Budnik’s marriage to Toby Gemperle in 1959 ended in divorce in 1962. His marriage to Kirsten Williams in 1988 ended in divorce in 1990. In addition to his nephew, he is survived by a son from his first marriage, Aaron, and a grandson.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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