Culture  /  Art History

The 1960s Photographer Who Documented the Peace Sign as a Political Symbol

Jim Marshall photographed the spread of the peace sign between 1961 and 1968, with his images now published for the first time by Reel Art Press.
Jim Marshall Photography LLC

Between 1961 and 1968, photographer Jim Marshall followed the spread of the peace sign. Designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, its subsequent adoption by the American Student Peace Union helped make the peace sign a symbol of 1960s Vietnam protests. Holtomwas inspired by the “N” and “D” semaphore flag signals — standing for “nuclear disarmament” — and also by his own anguish at the world. As he described in a letter to activist and Peace News editor Hugh Brock, he was in “despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad.”

Marshall photographed the sign’s evolving symbolism of peace and love, tagged on New York City subway advertisements, chalked on sidewalks, spray painted on walls, stuck on car windows, worn on buttons at rallies, scrawled on guitar cases, and suspended on necklaces. However, Marshall, best known as a prolific photographer of musicians like the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Ray Charles, left the images in his archives during his lifetime. Now, several years after his death in 2010, Reel Art Press has published the photographs for the first time in Jim Marshall: Peace. The publication was edited by Amelia Davis, who manages Marshall’s estate, and Tony Nourmand of Reel Art Press.

“He recognized its cultural significance, and was intrigued by the symbol’s ability to morph between causes, and evade strict definition,” writes music journalist Peter Doggett in one of the book’s essays. “Regardless of the ostensible subject of his photographic assignments, he documented the symbol’s appearance on subway walls and street posters, on political banners and in hippie collages. At one moment, it might be the central motif of a protest march or campus demonstration; at another, it acted almost as a secret code for those with the same political leanings.”

And the symbol endures in the protests and demonstrations of 2017. (One photograph of a sign that reads “No on the travel ban,” referencing the 1960s restrictions on Cuba and Vietnam, is especially timely.) Looking at Peace, there’s a chronicle of the symbol’s early life, with some accompanied by “Ban the Bomb” and others inverted. Slowly, its message and shape standardized, and each use expressed, wordlessly, a connection to a cause. As street artist Shepard Fairey states in the afterword, “Small rebellious acts like a piece of graffiti pushing back against injustice encourage me to take action and remind me that regardless of how alone I may feel, there are kindred spirits out there.”