Civil Rights in American Photography

Civil Rights in American Photography

This essay is in response to our 2016 focus installation "Civil Rights in American Photography: Photographs from the Collection of Judy Glickman Lauder."

One of the enduring themes in the history of American photography is the continuous push-and-pull between documentation and art, which is often a distinction that either matters little from the start, or fades as time passes and images last. Civil Rights in American Photography presents a group of photographs from which both truisms hold: this suite of photographs from the collection of Judy Glickman Lauder contains some of the most searing photographs in American history. Intended for print media, they were made by a group of brave young photojournalists. They affected millions of viewers upon their first publication almost a half-century ago, and continue to affect us today.

Just as our current moment of racial conflict in the United States has been indelibly marked by the presence of cameras—either on our phones, or, increasingly, on the dashboards and uniforms of police officers—photojournalism played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement by serving as a microphone of what was happening in Southern cities and towns. Far from merely illustrating news stories, photographs provided the stories themselves, as well as texture, context, and drama. Charles Moore's image of protestors being sprayed with water hoses by police officers and Bill Eppridge's portrait of a grieving mother in Meridian, Mississippi, served as shocking proof that the unthinkable was happening. At the same time, portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the dramatic images of peaceful demonstrations, helped to create a more comprehensive understanding of the movement and its many participants as events unfolded throughout the 1960s. These photographers' first responsibility was to bear witness to the profoundly important events of the Civil Rights Movement, but in the intervening decades we have come to recognize their photographs as part of a vital chapter in the history of American art, too.

The photographs in the PMA's focus installation, Civil Rights in American Photography, serve as a reminder of the incredible emotional power and political resonance these photographs still wield. Particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the experience of seeing afresh this heartbreaking record of racial inequality in America—and the faces of the brave, resilient activists who fought against it—reminds us of the surprising and sometimes subtle power of art to shift our perspectives about what is happening in the world beyond our own line of sight.

Image: James Karales (United States, 1930-2002), Selma to Montgomery March, Alabama, 1965, gelatin silver print, 12 7/8 x 19 1/8 inches. Collection of Judy Glickman Lauder, 4.2015. © Estate of James Karales, Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery.

 

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January 12, 2018
Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator

Jessica May, PMA Deputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, was the project director of the museum’s acclaimed reinstallation project, Your Museum, Reimagined. May served as co-curator and co-author of Richard Estes’ Realism (PMA and Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2014), and curated the 2013 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, Piece Work. Her research and curatorial interests include the history of documentary practice, contemporary photography, and postwar figurative painting in America. Prior to coming to Portland, May was Associate Curator of Photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the co-author of American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke-White (University of California Press, 2010), and the Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know (ACMAA, 2011). She graduated from Barnard College and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on Walker Evans. She lives in South Portland with her wife and son.