Associated Press Mourns Renowned Photographer Gene Herrick at 97

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The desk at the Associated Press has turned a page in its history book, acknowledging the end of an era with the passing of Gene Herrick. A retired AP photographer, Herrick bore photographic witness to seminal events of the 20th century, capturing iconic images as diverse as the trenches of the Korean War to the palpable public electricity surrounding figures of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the trial of Emmett Till’s killers. The camera shutter fell silent on this unparalleled storyteller Friday at the age of 97.

Herrick’s indelible images crystallized historic moments, writing narratives of singular significance through his lens. In 1956, his camera captured the defiance etched in Rosa Park’s face as she was fingerprinted following her rebellion on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. That same year, his photo of Martin Luther King Jr. immortalized a rare moment of triumph and affection, King smiling as he received an impromptu kiss from his wife, Coretta Scott King, on a courthouse step, just after he triumphed against a case of conspiracy boycotting Montgomery buses.

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The way Herrick tells it, capturing the iconic image was a matter of serendipity. In a 2020 interview with the Associated Press, he reminisced about the day, saying, “I knew he was going to be let out of jail that morning. And all these people were out there on the steps waiting for him, including his wife, who reached out and gave him a big kiss.”

His departure was noted by his longtime companion Kitty Hylton, who confirmed his passing in a nursing home in Rich Creek, Virginia, surrounded by those who held him dear. “He was so proud to be a journalist. That was his life,” Hylton said. “He loved The Associated Press. He loved the people of the AP. He was so grateful to have had all the adventures that he had.”

In a career laden with remarkable encounters and moments, Herrick never shied away from controversy or danger. Apart from immortalizing the Civil Rights Movement, he also reported on the gruesome trial and subsequent acquittal of two white men accused of murdering Emmett Till, a black teen who suffered a gruesome fate for allegedly flirting with a white woman, only to have the men confess their crime a year later in a magazine interview.

Herrick, however, reserved his supreme pride for his coverage of the Korean War, believing that the heart of a journalistic action is always at the frontline. In 2015, in an interview for AP’s archives, while acknowledging the threat, he candidly commented, “So is civilian photography. I’ve come pretty close to getting killed many times with guns and having guns put in my chest in the riots in Clinton, Tennessee and places like that.”

His illustrious career included covering sports, particularly Major League Baseball, prominent personalities such as Elvis Presley, and five U.S. Presidents. Herrick once conveyed his gratitude for his profession by saying, “God and the AP have given me opportunities I could never have had… I mean, I’m the luckiest kid in the world to have done what I’ve done.”

Herrick’s extraordinary range impressed Julie Pace, AP’s Executive Editor, who acknowledged his talent for capturing history with a “sharp eye” and the “power of his visual storytelling.”

He embarked on his journey with the AP as an office assistant at the tender age of 16 in Columbus, Ohio. A fortuitous opportunity arrived when his AP photographer roommate couldn’t cover a Cleveland Indians game, thrusting Herrick into the world of photojournalistic storytelling.

The journey continued with Herrick’s appointment as an AP photographer in Memphis. Despite his modest experience, he raced to the frontlines of Korea in 1950, charmingly recalling his naivety amid the danger of war. His wartime adventure ended with him laughing at the memory while strolling down the memory lane in 2015.

After dedicating two decades of his life to the AP, Herrick retired in 1970 to work with the developmentally disabled in Columbus, and later in Rocky Mount, Virginia. At 91, he was bestowed with the honor of being inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame, an acknowledgement he treasured greatly.

Born in Columbus, Herrick is survived by two sons, a daughter, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His passing may have marked the end of an epoch, but his iconic images live on, forever encapsulating the dynamism, drama, and beauty of the time.