In 1962 Karales met Martin Luther King and began to chronicle this multi-dimensional life: spiritual aspirant, humble father, philosopher – and ultimately, martyr for racial justice. He was one of the first photographers to enter King’s house in Atlanta. Civil Rights had become increasingly bloody. King needed to show a more “humanistic” side of himself.
As the two men sat at the kitchen table, Karales listened-and photographed-while King told his daughter Yolanda that she couldn’t go to Funtown. No “colored” were admitted. King told Karales “One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky.” The caption in the February 12, 1963 issue of LOOK reads “I told my child about the color bar.”
James Karales graduated with a BFA in photography from Ohio University in 1955. That same year, his portfolio secured him an assistantship to W. Eugene Smith, who was then printing his Pittsburgh photographs. Karales continued photographing his own projects while honing his printing skills under Smith’s tutelage. He had two big breaks in 1958 when Edward Steichen bought some of his Rendville pictures for the Museum of Modern Art and Helen Gee exhibited the Rendville photographs at the Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village. Karales became a staff photographer at Look in 1960, and for the next eleven years traveled the world as a photojournalist. The Village Voice described Karales’ prints as having “the weight of history and the grace of art.” In 1965 Karales recorded the Selma to Montgomery March as scores of people walked for 54 miles in protest. The New York Times called his Civil Rights images, “a pictorial anthem of the civil rights movement.” When Look folded in 1971, Jim Karales went independent—and was criticized for being too modest. That trait may well be the secret appeal of his work.