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The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has engaged the public through its online and social media presence and by producing and collaborating on exhibitions and books that showcase visual and audio materials from its collections since 2007. Much of this material is from the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA), a physical and virtual center that collects, promotes, and preserves African American visual and aural culture. The museum’s new multi-volume book series, Double Exposure, is a welcome means of sharing selections from CAAMA’s photography collection of over fifteen thousand images.
The second and third volumes, reviewed here, are Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality (2015) and African American Women (2015), both edited by Laura Coyle and Michèle Gates Moresi. These small, beautifully designed paperback volumes of 72–80 pages each include a foreword by the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III; two short introductory essays by prominent historians, activists, poets, or photographers; and a selection of 52–59 photographs spanning more than 130 years. Simply identified by title, photographer, and date, with an occasional brief historical explanation or, more infrequently, a relevant quote, the images are the focus of these elegant little books.
Describing the power of photographic images and the role they played in the civil rights movement, photojournalist James “Spider” Martin relates an anecdote involving Martin Luther King Jr.: “At last all Americans can vote. I was standing on stage wrapped in the curtain folds. B’ham was my home town. As Dr. King walked off stage he saw me there. He shook my hand and said, ‘Spider, if it weren’t for guys like you shooting those pictures we could have marched and protested forever and nothing would have happened. The world saw your pictures. Thank you’” (http://utpressnews.blogspot.com/2015/11/spider-martin-image-and-activism.html#sthash.5fsKlCvx.dpbs). Along with images by Martin are those by well-known photographers of the civil rights movement including Leonard Freed, Ernest C. Withers, Bruce Davidson, Charles Moore, James Karales, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, and others.
The photographs selected for Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality show pivotal events and now-renowned places and leaders, but also indicate the breadth of the movement through images of the unsung or unknown; communities of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children; ordinary people doing the extraordinary. Presented with an image of Desegregation of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas (1957) is a photograph of unnamed black children in Oklahoma on their first day of school integration (1955–58). Juxtaposed with a photograph of Women Activists with Signs for Voter Registration (1956) in San Francisco is one of King being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama (1958). While the South, as the geographical nexus of civil rights, is well represented, the volume reminds readers that the rest of the country participated in the movement in places like Newark, Brooklyn, Harlem, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Most of the photographs are from the 1960s, but the pictorial narrative extends back to the 1940s and 1950s showing evidence of daily discrimination in images like Overton Park Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee (1950s), along with galvanizing events through such pairings as the image of a happy son and mother, Emmett Till with His Mother, Mamie Bradley (ca. 1953–55), contrasted with a photograph displaying the arresting presence of a woman who made the nation see brutality and took up the mantle of activist, Mamie Bradley Speaking to Anti-Lynching Rally after Acquittal of Men Accused of Killing Her Son, Emmett Till, Harlem, New York (1955). Between the two images that create the before and after of a storyboard is a haunting recollection by Muhammad Ali of seeing photographs of Till’s broken body, which serves as a proxy for those horrific images. While there are a few images that show tragedy, there are many more that show courage, determination, and indomitable spirit.
The book also reminds readers that the struggle for justice continues, most prominently in the introductory essays and in Roderick Terry’s 1995 photograph, I Am a Man, from his series, One Million Strong, taken more than fifty years later than the earliest image in the book. Civil rights activist and U.S. Representative from Georgia, John Lewis, contributes a brief essay, “Portrait of a Revolution,” providing a participant’s look at the nonviolent methods adopted by the civil rights movement, their impact internationally, and the ongoing work for “liberation, equality, and justice” (12). Lewis, wearing a light-colored trench coat, face set in furrowed determination on the Bloody Sunday walk from Selma to Montgomery, along with Hosea Williams and other marchers, is shown making history on the cover of this volume. At the same time that this detail from Martin’s iconic photograph, Two-Minute Warning (1965), highlights the resolute men, he also records another man in a light coat, a second photographer, capturing this moment and freezing it in time.
Like Lewis, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, interweaves a personal narrative with the historical in the second short essay for the volume, “Reflections for a New Generation.” Although neither author discusses specific images, in his call to reflect upon both the history of racial injustice and contemporary challenges for equality, Stevenson exhorts readers to pay attention as “the hope of civil rights and justice now resides in all who bear witness to these images and choose to stand and speak” (18).
Like the second volume in the series, the third, African American Women, uses photographs to convey the diversity of life and experience in the United States through an African American lens. There are images of icons such as activists Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman, and artists Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham. More prevalent, however, are photographs of women whose names were only known in their local communities or have been lost to time. These women are largely working and middle-class, between the ages of twenty and fifty-something, and living in rural areas, small towns, and cities across the country; they are midwives, laundresses, cooks, singers, choreographers, and activists; they work in beauty salons, restaurants, and construction; they go to school, enter beauty pageants, get married, cradle children, go to bars and parks, sing, protest, converse, and contemplate; some are captured unaware, and others pose for the camera. Through journalistic documentation, snapshots, and portrait photographs, these African American women are reinscribed into history, their stories given visual form. As Lewis writes on the NMAAHC website: “Until we understand the full African American story, we cannot understand ourselves as a nation, as a people.”
In African American Women, the editors once again provide a smart pairing of images. For instance, Alan Copeland’s well-known photograph Kathleen Cleaver at Home (1968), which features the Black Panther member standing in an open doorway, shotgun in hand, is juxtaposed with Black Panther Mother and Her Newborn Son, Baby Jesus X, San Francisco, California, No. 125 (1968), by Ruth-Marion Baruch, an image that deliberately recalls traditions of picturing the Madonna and Child. Placing Baruch’s rarely reproduced photograph next to Copeland’s famous image presents a more nuanced representation of history and expands the narrative. It asks viewers to reconsider their understanding of the past and the use of images in shaping it.
The images range from circa 1850 to 1998, and their credits run the gamut from unidentified and regional image makers to major names in portrait and documentary photography. The book includes well-known and powerful images like Lyon’s Leesburg, Georgia. Arrested for Demonstrating in Americus, Georgia, Teenage Girls Are Kept in a Stockade in the Countryside (1963), and wonderful, unfamiliar photographs like the evocative ambrotype in its protective case, sheltering the image of a woman and a child by an unidentified photographer in 1860. The woman has the barest hint of a smile. The child, echoing her elder with hands clasped in her lap, instead displays a solemnity as she takes very seriously her job to sit for this photograph.
As Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of NMAAHC, acknowledges in her introductory essay, there is a lack of female representation behind the lens in this volume. She also offers ways to think about this rich collection of photographs. In the volume’s second short essay, Natasha Trethewey (United States Poet Laureate 2012–14) speaks to the influence of photographs on her art but also to their power to demand engagement and remembrance, and “evoke strong emotions, to connect us to the lives of others, and to compel us to necessary reckoning” (18).
While the art historian in me was rather disappointed by the lack of contextualizing research, the pedagogue in me simultaneously delighted in the accessibility of these reproductions of primary documents. This is not the book with which to conduct deep art-historical research or to generate bibliographies, although art historians will certainly find new images to study. Nevertheless, its carefully curated photographs lend themselves to constructing narratives and provide an excellent entry point for students to begin accessing material for further research. Currently about six thousand images are available from NMAAHC’s open access online photographic collection, which includes Dublin Core identifications, although there is no accompanying scholarship. Incorporating the search tool URL into the books and inviting the public to use it would have been a way potentially to expand engagement with pictorial primary sources. These volumes deserve a place on library bookshelves enriching the photographic section in general and adding to the significant number of books examining or reproducing images of African Americans.
Rhonda L. Reymond
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, West Virginia University
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