Photojournalist Matt Herron, a Rochester native who was known for chronicling the civil rights movement, has died in the crash of a glider he was piloting in northern California, where he lived.
The 89-year-old’s work primarily appeared in the news magazines of the day, including Life, Look, and Newsweek.
Matthew John Herron was born in Rochester on August 3, 1931. His father, also named Matthew, was a certified public accountant. His mother, Ruth, was a fabric artist and weaver.
Herron was given a camera when he was 7 years old, with Ruth encouraging the hobby by constructing a darkroom in the basement of the family home.
Herron graduated from Princeton University in 1953 with a degree in English, and briefly attended the University of Michigan for Middle Eastern studies and Arabic. Registering as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, Herron moved to the Middle East, teaching at a Quaker school in Ramallah on the West Bank. He met and married a teacher there, Jeannine Hull.
Herron’s time in the Middle East revived his interest in photography. He moved back to Rochester with Jeannine, took on a job as a corporate photographer for Kodak, and began studying with Minor White, a landscape photographer who taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Herron also worked with the iconic Dust Bowl documentarian Dorothea Lange.
Herron’s work on behalf of civil rights began in 1963, when he was arrested at a pro-integration protest at a Maryland amusement park. Two years later, he and his family — which now included two young children — moved to Alabama, where Herron began chronicling the civil rights movement with his camera. His daughter was at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham two weeks before white supremacists infamously set off a bomb, killing four Black girls attending Sunday school.
A collection of photographs by Herron and his team of photographers, who called themselves “The Southern Documentary Project,” was published in a book, “Mississippi Eyes.” In it, Herron wrote:
Those of us who trained our eyes (and our cameras) on Mississippi, had our eyes trained in turn by Mississippi. Our encounters with Mississippi taught us to look at this special place with eyes that were skeptical and questioning. What was said to us; what was seen by us was not always truthful or actual. And when we left this place, we carried our newly trained eyes with us. From that time onward, we looked at the world through Mississippi Eyes.
One of Herron’s most famous images is from Jackson, Mississippi, in 1965, depicting a highway patrolman angrily tearing an American flag from the hands of a 5-year-old Black child. Behind them, another patrolman holds a sign, “No More Police Brutality,” that he had taken from the child’s mother.
In 2010, Herron was interviewed by the San Francisco-based Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement for a digital oral history project. “We embraced each other,” he said. “We sang freedom songs together. We wept together. It was the only time in my life that I lived in what I consider a truly integrated society, where there were no barriers.
“I was photographing things that I wanted to photograph. I was trying to bring to life a political movement which eventually transformed the country.”
Herron’s life was not limited to photography. He was a part of the Greenpeace protests against commercial whaling. He learned to play the double bass when he was 80.
Herron was 70 when he first began to learn to fly. Piloting his new self-launching glider, he died at the scene of Friday’s crash, about 125 miles northwest of Sacramento.
Herron is survived by Jeannine and their two children, Matthew Allison Herron and Melissa Herron Titone, and five grandchildren.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s arts & life editor and reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]