Jim Marshall is best known for his photographs of musicians in the 1960s and ’70s, which capture the style and flavor of the times along with iconic performances. But as Peace, a new book published recently by Reel Art Press, shows, Marshall’s focus extended beyond performers and events such as the Newport Folk Festival to the era’s most ubiquitous symbol, the peace sign. In the book, Marshall finds it everywhere, in buttons pinned to jeans and backpacks, painted on guitar cases and protest signs, scribbled and spray painted on walls, or rendered in flowers. As Peter Doggett recounts in the book, the peace sign was invented by Gerald Holtom, a British pacifist and member of the Direct Action Committee, a group in opposition to nuclear proliferation. Holtom designed the symbol in 1958 for a local protest, combining the flag semaphores signals for N and D, for Nuclear Disarmament. The symbol took off, and was eventually taken up in the U.S. by the Committee for Non-Violent Action, among others.
As the artist and activist Shepard Fairey writes in the book, “The artful nature of these image indicate Marshall saw the role of the Peace Sign as a crucial character or protagonist within the culture.” Many images record the symbol as a character in urban graffiti. On the walls of New York City subways, the symbol shares space with other tags and posters. In other images, the peace sign is almost incidental. Marshall records long-haired crowds at protests, where someone’s parka is decorated with a small pin. At a San Francisco rally, a protester confers with police and media, while signs behind him call for an end to the war in Vietnam. Marshall, Doggett writes, “recognized [the symbol’s] cultural significance, and was intrigued by the symbol’s ability to morph between causes, and evade strict definition.”
Marshall died in 2010, and the book can only guess at his feelings about the symbol. Joan Baez, who was a friend of Marshall’s, was surprised to see the images, since, she writes “from my experience he was somewhat of a hawk.” Nonetheless, she writes, the images in Peace are “as artful and powerful as his acclaimed photos of stars, musicians, and festivals.”