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One of the first times Libby Hiller Settlemyer unexpectedly came across her father’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in public was in the mid-1990s during a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

The portrait, which has appeared on book covers, coffee mugs and more, was not hanging in the museum. It was being sold in the gift shop.

“There’s my dad’s photo on posters and postcards and all this swag and he wasn’t getting credit for it,” she said. “That picture was being used all over the place… When I was a grad student at [Virginia Commonwealth University], they had a display case in the library for Black History Month and that was the first time I’d see it on a poster. It just made me sad that he wasn’t getting any credit for it.”

So, Settlemyer approached her father Jack Lewis Hiller, 83, of Springfield, about seeking any kind of recognition for his photograph.

The result: After more than 50 years since taking King’s photo, Hiller’s portrait of the civil rights icon is hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and is the lead brochure art for the gallery’s “One Life: Martin Luther King Jr.” exhibit, which runs until June 1, 2014.

The photo

Jack Lewis Hiller was nearly the same age as King, then 31, when he photographed him.

A history teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools, the coincidence of Hiller and King both being in Richmond at the same time in 1960 is linked to two meetings of education advocacy groups representing whites and blacks.

Hiller traveled to Richmond as a delegate of the Virginia Education Association. Across town at Virginia Union University, a historically black college, the Virginia Teachers Association, an organization representing black educators, had invited King to speak.

“The [Northern Virginia Sun] asked me if, while I was down there, I would meet with a reporter, Helen Dewar [who later went on to write for the Washington Post],” said Hiller, who occasionally freelanced as a photographer for the Sun, a corporate predecessor to the Sun Gazette.

“I only got $4 an assignment but it gave me a lot of entrance into places,” he said. “Having that press pass game me a lot of freedom.”

Hiller said he did not take any photos of King during his speech, but afterward was invited with reporters attending the event to a press conference with King.

“I was the only photographer there. There were lots of reporters. But no other photographers,” Hiller said. “He’d already earned a reputation. He’d just gotten out of jail [after arrested during a Georgia restaurant sit-in]. He was at the beginning of his career, but was already kind of an icon.”

Armed with his 35mm camera, “which was all the rage,” Hiller said, he took multiple photos of King, but had no idea what he had until he developed the film.

“The photo ended up being very symbolic. He’s sitting there looking at a reporter who was asking a question and he’s got his hands folded under his chin,” Hiller said. “Behind him was either a door or a cabinet. I don’t remember which, but it divided the background perfectly behind him (into black and white)… I shot lots of different pictures but I didn’t realize what I had until I got back.”

‘A wonderful find’

Roughly 15 inches by 19 inches in size, the portrait of King—developed on gelatin silver photo paper—found various homes in the Hiller house, spending much time in the closet, or in Hiller’s American History classroom at Groveton High School [now West Potomac High School]. King’s portrait survived a move to Pittsburgh, where Hiller was a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University (Class of 1969) before moving back to Virginia.

Hiller said he had a sense that his portrait had captured something special, “But I didn’t know what to do with it.”

The National Portrait Gallery came into the picture after Hiller’s daughter had visited the gallery.

“One of the aspects of my jobs is to respond to possible new acquisitions [requests],” said the National Portrait Gallery’s Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs and curator of the “One Life: Martin Luther King Jr.” exhibit. “A lot of times , what we see is an object that might not be of a quality that we would except or it’s a derivative of another original [photo or portrait]… It’s a wonderful find. It’s one of the most evocative photographers in the exhibit.”

The “One Life” exhibit, which is chronological, includes about 50 photographs, printed portraits from publications like TIME magazine, pledge cards, programs and other memorabilia from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Aug. 28.

“[Hiller’s photograph of King] was a perfect image to put into that timeline,” Shumard said. “It’s a beautifully composed picture. What’s important to know is that Jack Hiller wasn’t in a formal studio setting with lighting. He was in a crowd of people getting this photo…

“The black-and-white background really pushes King forward… I have seen other images of him where he is contemplative. He’s in thought, pausing to respond with his hands clasped under his chin.”

Hiller’s submission to the National Portrait Gallery was reviewed by a panel of curators and historians considering its quality, value-added to the gallery as well as the story behind the photo. All submissions are also reviewed by gallery commissioners for final approval, Shumard said.

“It wasn’t just because it was Dr. King, but because it was something that we wanted,” she said.

Hiller has made a gift of the portrait to the gallery. He and other artists and photographers showing work in the “One Life” exhibit will meet for a Sept. 10 reception honoring their contributions.

Settlemyer said she had an opportunity to visit the gallery with her father to view the King portrait when it was displayed as a new acquisition a few years ago.

“People were coming up and admiring it,” she said. “People were just so amazed to meet him and curious as to how he got the photograph. That was really rewarding.”

Hiller said having his photograph in the National Portrait Gallery is a highlight to his longtime love of photography.

“I can brag about it, but I was at the right place at the right time with the right equipment,” he said. “It was a lucky shot.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com