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Omaha Magazine

Past and Present: Photo Projects Put the 1960s, 1930s Under a New Lens

Mar 01, 2022 11:53AM ● By Chris Bowling
Bill ganzel shows off his sixties photo project

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

The Alabama sun shined on JoAnne Bland in early March as she stood in a familiar place.

She has often told stories about the small overpass above the Alabama River near her hometown of Selma—specifically about March 7, 1965, nicknamed Bloody Sunday—the day police beat and gassed unarmed protesters marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward the state’s capital in Montgomery. 

Bland, 69, is used to journalists, academics, and researchers furthering their agendas using her experiences seeing racism and violence collide as an 11-year-old girl, and her work since as a civil rights advocate. The story, in their mind, is already made up.

This March day in 2012, however, was different.

As she posed for a photo wearing a floral yellow top, she didn’t consider the man behind the camera opportunistic or vulturous. He’d done his research. He listened when she spoke. Bland thought of him as a friend.

“He was special,” Bland said of the photographer, Bill Ganzel. “He came and was humble…he made a lasting impression on me. I’ll never forget it.”

That sentiment is exactly what Ganzel, a photographer and journalist from Lincoln, wants to capture with his project “Sixties Survivors.” 

The 1960s produced dramatic changes in culture, art, and politics. The cold war, the civil rights movement, The Beatles, John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War—the list could go on alongside books, documentaries, and other media feeding an unending appetite to re-examine the historical decade. These stories are often told through big-name historical figures, with little deference for how the past impacts present. 

Ganzel started “Sixties Survivors” in the early 2000s with intent to focus on the lesser-known figures from history, real people whose firsthand experience, in some cases, goes undocumented. By finding these people nearly 60 years later, the viewer can reflect on how things have, or have not, changed.

He isn’t proselytizing. Ganzel doesn’t want people to walk away with any particular message. All he wants to do is bring people closer together, and, if they draw their own conclusions, all the better.

“What photography can do, and what audio can do, is give you the emotional content,” Ganzel said. “It helps you empathize. And maybe find your own parallels.”

Ganzel’s fascination with compiling firsthand stories and reflections of the ’60s is personal: he’s a child of the era himself. Ganzel was born in Lincoln and raised in towns from Illinois to western Nebraska, graduating in 1967 from Waverly High School and in 1977 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s journalism program. Television and photography opened a curious window into others’ lives. When he was a kid, his family had a copy of “The Family of Man,” a photo book derived from a 1955 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that sought to bring people together through photos compiled from hundreds of international photographers. Ganzel felt drawn to the message of humanity, especially in a post-World War II world that had seen nuclear destruction, ethnic genocide, and more senseless death.

While attending college, Ganzel visited an exhibit at Sheldon Art Museum featuring photos from the Farm Security Administration. The pictures were taken by the government with the goal of “introducing Americans to Americans,” and showing the plight of poor farmers during the New Deal era. Ganzel had heard his parents’ stories of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, but didn’t understand them until he saw the images of ramshackle homes, grasshoppers devouring dry fields, and raw pain in people’s faces. When he found out the photos, thousands and thousands of them, were free for anyone to reprint, he got an idea.

“So I bring that set of photographs home and think, ‘OK, what am I going to do with these?’ Well, I could go out, and, maybe on a weekend, or maybe a vacation, or whatever, and find these same places.”

Many of the people in these iconic photos went unnamed, and their locations were vague at best. Some had no captions.

By the late 1970s, Ganzel had earned several grants, driven countless miles, and taken an archive’s worth of photo and audio material for a project he called “Dust Bowl Descent.” Sometimes he’d have a person’s name and a town to look up in a directory. Other times it was a wild goose chase of detective work.

He tracked down people such as Florence Owens Thompson, the unnamed woman in the photo “Migrant Mother,” one of the most iconic depictions of poverty in the Dust Bowl era, and American history.

Owens Thompson shared with Ganzel how exploited she felt by the way Dorothea Lange photographed her and used her image. Lange hadn’t asked for her name or story. Because of Ganzel’s work, Owens Thompson, who died a few years later in 1983, set the record straight.

“Photography is one slice of time,” Ganzel said. “But this project and the [Sixties Survivors] project, the projects that I ended up getting interested in, are half a lifetime.”

In 1980, The Sheldon Art Museum displayed “Dust Bowl Descent,” a series of 45 32-by-40-inch panels. A few years later the exhibit traveled the country, and the world. In 1984 it was published as a book, which Ganzel recently updated as an e-book that includes audio from his interviews.

All of this happened while Ganzel had a separate career. Between the grants and the road trips across the Great Plains, Ganzel worked as a staff or freelance photographer for the North Platte Telegram, Lincoln Journal Star, and Omaha World Herald before landing at the public broadcasting network now known as Nebraska Public Media. Two years after starting there, he became the associate producer for a series titled “Legacies of the Depression on the Great Plains.”

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 He continued in public television for nearly 30 years. Ganzel shot photos, wrote stories, ran public affairs, produced specials, ran its news department, and explored new opportunities presented by a technological advancement called the internet before being laid off in 2003. 

Through his company, Ganzel Group Communications Inc., he did some documentary work for Wessels Living History Farm, a museum outside York, Nebraska, that strives to teach agricultural history. As that wound down in the mid-2000s, Ganzel contemplated his next project.

He had largely moved away from intense projects after his deep dive into the Dust Bowl. Outside of documentaries on topics like the history of feminism or conscientious objectors, he delved deeper into art photography and landscapes.

Ganzel’s interest in people and time was once again piqued with another large collection of copyright-free, historical photos that had become available.

In the 1960s, LOOK magazine dominated. Filled with glossy, big pictures of celebrities, politicians, and everyday people, it reached about half of America at its height. Those readers included Ganzel, who preferred its social commentary and depth reporting over its competitor, LIFE.

A variety of reasons, including the popularity of TV and decreasing revenues, put LOOK out of business. After ceasing publication in 1971, parent company Cowles Communications Inc. donated the entire photo archive of LOOK, 5 million photos, to the Library of Congress. The collection took decades to be cataloged and made available to the public. The collection still hasn’t been fully digitized—some images are available to view as thumbnails online, but most must be viewed in Washington, D.C.

By 2006, Ganzel heard the collection was available and thought he’d revive his Dust Bowl technique and apply it to about 50 to 75 people from the 1960s.

Today, Ganzel’s website features profiles ranging from household names like John Lewis and Dick Cavett to those less widely known, such as Bland and Omahan Martin Desilets.

In 1967, Desilets was photographed after an 18-hour flight that carried 108 bombs weighing between 500 and 750 pounds from Guam to Vietnam, where they were dropped along the North Vietnamese supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

About 60,000 American troops died during the war. It’s estimated between 1.3 and 3.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian people were killed. Ganzel photographed Desilets in 2008, posed in front of a restored B-52 at Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum outside Ashland, Nebraska. During the interview, Desilets’ memories of the war were practical, “If your bombs hit in the target area, you did your job,” he told Ganzel.

Reflecting on the past, Desilets can now see why experiences like his in Vietnam should be documented and remembered.

“[The problems we were fighting back then are] probably the same as today,” he said.

The interventionist mindset of the Vietnam War somewhat parallels current conflicts in areas like the Middle East. Drones and remote missiles now wipe out targets instead of men in airplanes.

Likewise, things Bland and many others fought against in the 1960s still exist. Nebraska State Sen. Julie Slama proposed a 2021 bill that would require residents to show photo identification to cast a ballot. Bland also sees grim reminders of the 1960s in charged uprisings around issues like critical race theory, police brutality, and calls to end systematic racism.

“Sometimes I wake up and I think apparently I’m back in the ’60s,” Bland said. “Particularly in the last, say, five years, when it wasn’t a nice place to be. Because you think we made all these gains and now we’re near eroding them one by one? In the name of power? It’s just ridiculous.”

Bland thinks storytelling can help stop the clock from turning backwards. When Ganzel came to interview her nearly a decade ago, she didn’t understand how much trauma from Bloody Sunday she’d internalized. When the questions started and Bland felt Ganzel’s warm, welcoming presence, the walls came down.

“It was like a cleansing,” she said. “You don’t realize how much you’ve internalized until you start to talk about it. And since then, I’ve opened up more and more about it.”

Though Ganzel and Bland only met once, she considers him a close friend and an inspiration for her own project documenting everyday people in her area who played roles in the civil rights movement but went uncredited.

Lewis Marshall was a 15-year-old boy from Selma who carried the American flag from Selma to Montgomery during that fateful march. The original LOOK photo of Marshall went uncredited. Years later a local museum sought to build a statue of the nameless boy. When Ganzel tracked him down, Marshall had no idea his courage had been immortalized and recognized in such a way.

This is why Bland said a project like “Sixties Survivors” is important. What people think is history is often a scrunched up, watered down version of what happened. It’s told through heroes and villains, big wins and losses. The truth, however, is much more complicated.

It’s about sacrifices that are never repaid, pain and hurt that’s never signed away by a law or Supreme Court ruling.

After George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in summer 2020, people took to the streets in scales of protests many hadn’t seen in decades. The parallels between past and present blur, and the importance of one accepting lessons from the other seem necessary.

“I think [sharing our stories is] very important,” Bland said. “Most of the time you hear the narrative’s been sanitized, and that’s not good for our children. Because then they have a false sense of what happened.”

Ganzel holds the same driving principle. He’s a grandfather now and has watched America develop through some of its hardest, and most prosperous, years. It’s impossible not to want to reflect and document this history so that, maybe, it can help set the record straight for the people who need it.

“I just inherently believe that the better we can all tell each other’s individual stories, the better off the future will be,” he said. “The better off future generations will be.” 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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