Written By: Bill Syken
The photos that Frank Dandridge shot for LIFE magazine paint a vivid portrait of violence and race in 1960s America. He reported on riots in Harlem, in Watts, and in Newark,. He was in Selma, Alabama when Martin Luther King marched in the days immediately after Bloody Sunday. Dandridge’s most famous photo is of Sarah Collins, a 12-year-old girl whose eyes were in bandages after the bombing of a Sunday school class at the16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That bombing killed four girls, including Collins’ sister, while wounding many others and leaving Collins blind in one eye. The image of Collins in her hospital bed made vivid for America the cruelty of this horrific bombing by four men who were members of a splinter group of the Klu Klux Klan.
Dandridge, who was fairly new to LIFE when he took that historic shot, is now 83 and lives in Los Angeles, where he settled after his second career as a television writer.
In a phone interview, the jocular Dandridge recalled the unlikely beginning to his photography career. He was a teenager in the U.S. Marines, playing in a barracks poker game at Camp Lejeune, when one of his opponents threw his Kodak Pony camera into the pot. Dandridge’s hand was a winning one indeed, especially after the soldier who had lost the camera taught Dandridge how to use it.
When Dandridge left the Marines at age 19, he returned to his home to New York City and began taking pictures, shooting model portfolios and birthday parties, and roaming the streets to add to his portfolio. As a young man who was “full of beans,” as Dandridge puts it, he wasn’t shy about asking for work, and it paid off: He wrote a letter to Jimmy Hoffa asking for access for a photo story, and ending up spending two-and-a-half weeks with him in Miami for Pageant magazine, being in the room when the labor leader was on the phone cursing out John Kennedy.
Dandridge persistently called LIFE magazine to pitch ideas, usually about a celebrity or politician coming to New York, and he was always turned down. But then one day the LIFE editor called Dandridge to see if he was available to shoot a story on racial conflict in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963; the protesters had agreed to give LIFE inside access, but only if they sent a Black photographer. Dandridge told the editor he would check to see if he was free—which he very much was. “I ran around the apartment for fifteen minutes yelling and screaming like an idiot, then called them back and told them I cleared the schedule,” he recalled, laughing.
The Cambridge assignment proved to be life-changing in two ways. One was that Dandridge did well enough that LIFE continued to give him more assignments. The other was that he developed a relationship with the protest leader, Gloria Richardson. She and Dandridge would eventually marry. “I was down there two or three times, and the center of action was Gloria’s house,’ he says. “She was a bright and courageous lady. It just happened that way.”
Later that year Dandridge took his famous photo of Sarah Collins—a shot he would never have gotten without a little bravado. Dandridge, in the company of Collins’ family, entered the Atlanta hospital where she was being treated, and on the way to her room he bluffed his way past hospital worker telling him to leave by explaining that he had the hospital administrator’s permission to take pictures (which he did not). That tactic worked until he reached Collins’ floor and a man answered Dandridge’s explanation by saying, “I’m the administrator!” Still, Dandridge got into Collins’ room. “I knocked or six or eight or ten pictures,” he says. “Then I got out before something bad happened.” He kept charging ahead that day despite resistance because, “What was I going to do, walk away from the picture?”
Another of Dandridge’s more memorable shots was a photo from the Harlem riots that ran as a spread over two pages in the July 31, 1941 issue of LIFE. The photo showed a young man who had been hit by a stray police bullet being taken to an ambulance by his friends. Dandridge recalls that he and a writer had been up in Harlem chasing the action all night when one of his legs went out. The writer propped him up against a telephone pole, and from the position he got the shot. After the photo ran, Dandridge was particularly pleased when he was at the office and legendary LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt asked him how he got the shot—which depended on Dandridge having his flash unit with him.
Dandridge is a jocular and engaging storyteller, and his eye for telling detail comes through in not just his pictures from his words. Talking about growing up poor in Harlem, he related how he and his mother for a time lived a single room, and could only use one shelf in a shared refrigerator in a common area. After his mother, who survived major bouts of tuberculosis, found steady work at the city’s Board of Health, the first thing she would do with each paycheck was to buy subway tokens to make sure she would be able to get to work. When Dandridge’s career took off, and she refused to believe that he could earn $2,500 for a week’s work when her annual salary was $5,000, he brought her a copy of his paycheck, and she kept that document until the day she died. “The thing I was happiest about with my career was how much it meant to mom,” Dandridge says.
In addition to shooting for LIFE, Dandridge worked for many other magazines, including Look, the Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy. His Playboy assignments included photographing an interview between Alex Haley and James Baldwin. That was a highlight for Dandridge, because he had worked as an assistant to James Baldwin in the days before his photography career took off (that job enabled him to upgrade to a new camera from the one he was as a Marine).
Dandridge’s photography helped pave the transition to his second career as a television writer. Dandridge had served as set photographer on a number of movies, including Jules Dassin’s Uptight and Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement. With LIFE ending its original run in 1972, and other magazine clients such as Look and The Saturday Evening Post going under, Dandridge became a fellow at the American Film Institute. His sold his first script in 1974 to the TV series Kung Fu—an episode titled Night of the Owls, Day of the Doves, about three prostitutes who inherit a hotel and try to go legit.
His television credits include episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, St. Elsewhere, and he was on the writing staff of Generations, the first soap opera to feature an African-American family among its original characters.
As a man who documented so much racial struggle in the 1960s, Dandridge has found the events of recent times, with the police killings of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and so many others, to be particularly heartbreaking. During the 1960s he had a real sense that he was witnessing the beginning of societal change in regard to race .
“It’s been sixty years and the same bullshit is still going on,” he says . “…In spite of the Obamas and the Thurgood Marshalls and the Ralph Bunches, even Malcolm X, all those people who spoke up—all of that, what has it added up to? It adds up to black people are still scared to be living in America. Sometimes I just want to cry.”
The one “pebble” of hope, he says, is the Derrick Chauvin verdict in the officer who killed George Floyd was found guilty, and the promise that cell phone cameras can help hold those who abuse their power accountable. It’s an interesting perspective from a man whose most famous photo, of Sarah Jean Collins in her hospital bed all those years ago, helped begin the accounting.