By Erin Bank
Stephen Somerstein has had several lifetimes worth of achievements so far in his 81 years. Almost as amazing as his photos in the Smithsonian, his Emmy Award or his career as an aerospace engineer is how Somerstein can recall and recount his experiences in explicit detail.
You might have seen Somerstein around the Richmond District. He is a few inches taller than 5 feet tall, he has a unique professorial look with gray hair (not as much on top as on the back of his head), a gray beard and mustache and a twinkle in his eyes that reveal his everlasting curiosity about the world around him.
His appearance does not tell the full story of his life, which he tells with seemingly boundless energy, eager to share his fascinating experiences and his many passions. He still a powerhouse in his early 80s. These passions have brought him from New York City to the streets of Montgomery, Alabama in the mid-1960s during the civil rights movement (and an eventual Emmy Award), to the deserts of New Mexico to test satellites as an aerospace engineer, to the company of Elton John and a photograph auctioned for $225,000, and finally to San Francisco’s Richmond District with a rejuvenated photography career.
Somerstein was born in New York City 1941 and remembers the black-out curtains prevalent during WWII. He and his older sister grew up in the mid-Bronx, near the Grand Concourse, which he remembers as a middle-class neighborhood full of first- and second-generation immigrants. He said everything he needed was within walking distance.
His mother was the valedictorian of her high school. She worked as a bookkeeper in various furniture and fashion industries. His father was a motion picture film editor, which gave Somerstein his first exposure to the world of film. He quickly found that he was more interested in how cameras worked – and the technical composition of how a film was set up – than the filming of movie stars. His father bought him an Argus C3 35mm camera, and Somerstein built a darkroom in a closet when he was 10 years old. He still has the first composed photo he took.
Somerstein’s technical interest didn’t stop at cameras. He also built ham radios and telescopes at home with parts rescued from the Army surplus stores that lined the streets of lower Manhattan, which he would get to by riding the subway alone. He read the encyclopedias his parents had at home and read books on the history of science at the Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. He would look for photography books but couldn’t find any that “analyzed and dissected what made a great photo.” Luckily, he was welcomed as an honorary member of a photography club on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. He met many famous photographers and, importantly, journalists who told stories with their photos.
The public library was across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, then located in midtown Manhattan, to which his mother gave him a membership. On his breaks from studying, he would visit the photography exhibits, even asking to see them up close. Wearing white gloves, he could handle an image to analyze it and ask, “Why does this photograph speak to me?”
As he got older and found his formal education wasn’t teaching him all he wanted to learn, he joined the Astronomy Club at the Hayden Planetarium, an international amateur radio club and built homemade solid fuel rockets he would launch in Central Park with his friends.
After graduating from high school, Somerstein enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY) to study for a Bachelor of Science degree in applied physics. He split his time between physics labs and the photography club, much to the chagrin of his professors. He soon joined the school’s evening newspaper, “Main Events,” as a photographer and worked his way up to editor-in-chief, leading the 3 a.m. editing sessions in order to get the paper out each Monday morning.
Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March
It was the mid-1960s, and the civil rights movement was reaching an inflection point. Somerstein and his fellow students at CCNY were concerned when John Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Anticipating another march, student groups stood at the ready to load onto buses at the Port Authority Bus Station (in midtown Manhattan). Everything was last minute, so Somerstein only had enough time to rush home to tell his mom that he was leaving for Alabama and hurry to his refrigerator to pack his film. He discovered he only had 15 rolls of film, but figured he could buy more somewhere. He never found an open store, so he arrived knowing that every shot was going to have to be a one-off.
“Consequently, I created a mental discipline of previewing every image on the fly, composing it and only taking one photo, solely if it met my standards,” Somerstein said.
Sometimes, this meant climbing trees to capture the scope of the 25,000 people gathered in the staging area, waiting for Martin Luther King Jr. He and the rest of the marchers started in Selma and were scheduled to arrive for the final leg of the march in Montgomery.
“I kept telling myself, ‘You are in the middle of history,’” he said.
Somerstein was struck by the plurality and the range of people both participating in and watching the march. He captured rabbis talking with priests, nuns and nurses, members of the United Auto Workers union, and journalists sitting on playground swings collecting their thoughts.
His focus turned to the civilians along the route because he thought about how they were who the march was for – the ones who hadn’t been able to vote, those who would feel the effects, whatever they would be, of the protests. These images captured families picnicking, all turned towards the march in front of them, youth with painted faces, and interracial couples holding hands with courage given to them by the march (and National Guard protection). Interracial marriage was illegal at the time. It was a 1967 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Loving v. Virginia, that decreed all state miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
When the march arrived in Montgomery, Somerstein got himself up onto the stage where King was giving his speech, trying to get a shot of the enormous crowd. From there, he took a photograph capturing the back of King’s head with the focus on the crowd enraptured by his words. As soon as he got it, he was off to the next shot, even though King was still speaking.
When he turned, he saw folk singer Joan Baez (in her 20s at the time), waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the State House for her turn to perform on stage. At the top of the stairs was a line of armed state troopers. He took the shot. Somerstein sold this photo to the New York Times Magazine, but all the rest went into his personal archive as he graduated and began his career as a physicist.
Given his passion for photography, perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that much of his nearly 50-year scientific career involved new ways of seeing the universe.
He started in Boston, where eventually he led a research program at the Solar Satellite Project at the Harvard College Observatory. He used tools of spectroscopy (measuring ultraviolet and infrared emissions that are invisible to the naked eye). His work involved trips to the White Sands Mission Range in New Mexico to launch solar satellites, which he found to be a great adventure.
In 1977, a former Harvard colleague recruited him to the West Coast to work on nuclear fusion technology, solar panel electronics, and diagnostics for the oil shale industry, at the Occidental Research Corporation in Irvine, California. He presented his work on fusion to then Gov. Jerry Brown, who was interested in alternative energy sources.
Somerstein joined Lockheed Martin in 1985, where he stayed for the rest of his career as an aerospace engineer. He was part of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, and later, numerous top-secret research programs with high energy lasers, space shuttle orbital experiments, optics on the GOES weather satellite, as well as designing several instruments for the James Webb Space Telescope – which is now a million miles from earth and in orbit around the sun – providing remarkable images of the universe.
He was promoted to the position of senior scientist, received two U.S. patents, and worked in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Southern California. (One of his patents is for a “binary half-tone photolithographic optical apodization mask.”)
“It had been great fun, but it was time to retire after 24 years at Lockheed Martin. It was time to return to photography,” he said. He retired in 2009 at age 68.
Photography in ‘Retirement’
Just before retiring, Somerstein married for the first time at age 67 to another talented artist, Eva Strauss-Rosen. They moved to San Francisco to be closer to friends and the rich art scene. They settled in the Outer Richmond neighborhood near Golden Gate Park.
Their home is filled with an eclectic collection of cameras, hard-cover books, a Tiffany-style lamp, Egyptian artwork, a Remington sculpture and, of course, his Emmy award.
In 2013, Somerstein’s early life caught up with him in an unexpected way. The City University of New York (CUNY) Media Department called him, looking for any photos he might have from when King gave the commencement address at CCNY in 1963, to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. Somehow, no local or national media sources had covered the event. Sure enough, as he went through his archives, Somerstein found his photos of that event, a memory he had lost over the years. Impressed by the images, the head of the media department asked what else he had. Somerstein told him about the Selma march. These photos were pulled out of his archive and displayed for an exhibit at the media department. The exhibit also included a video using his photography, which won an Emmy award in 2014.
Somerstein’s images were also used to frame many of the shots used in the 2014 film “Selma,” including the movie poster. He was not asked permission to use his photographs, which resulted in “friendly negotiations” with Paramount Studios to receive compensation for the use of his work.
In 2015, the president of the New York Historical Society happened to be visiting the CUNY chancellor, whose offices were located next to his exhibit in the media department. This visit led to Somerstein’s exhibit at the Society, and the media coverage of the event sparked the interest of galleries and dealers, allowing him to sell his prints.
Yet another surprise was in store: He received a phone call from Elton John who asked if he would be interested in donating a photo for John’s huge fundraising auction for his AIDS Foundation, held during his annual Oscar viewing gala. After Somerstein agreed (in exchange for two tickets to John’s famous Oscar party), the full-time curator of John’s photography collection contacted Somerstein and chose the photograph from behind King as he was speaking to the marchers in Montgomery. Soon thereafter, a 40×60-inch print was shipped off to Los Angeles for the auction.
Somerstein and his wife were sitting in the crowd at the gala, witnessing other photos being sold for $10,000, $15,000, up to $70,000.
Bidding for Somerstein’s image started at $90,000. Bids quickly reached $150,000, but they didn’t stop there. The photo finally sold for $225,000.
“It was quite an extraordinary experience,” he said.
Since then, Somerstein has continued to license his work, mostly through Getty Images. He always carries a camera with him, a lightweight Sony RX100.
“I enthusiastically photograph life and the culture that I find interesting,” he said. “I still love to capture political and social events. Photographically, I see San Francisco as I did New York – as a tapestry of life waiting to be captured with its own unique qualities. Most of my photos are spontaneous, as I tend to feel that posed photos lack the inner quality of the subject.”
He also spends his time going for afternoon walks around Spreckels Lake, enjoying late-night steak sandwiches at Tommy’s Joint or meals at the Beach Chalet where he can admire the WPA-era murals and the building’s architecture.
“If someone asks you, ‘What is the most important thing?’ it’s luck and the sensibility to take advantage of an opportunity when it comes along.”
His photography career was the result of these little accidents, as he calls them, and said he is “dazzled” by the impact his photos are having 50 years later.
For more information, go to somerstein.com.