Civil rights and wrongs

EXHIBITIONS: A rare display of American civil rights photography from 30 years ago moves, but lacks proper documentation
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
STEPHEN KASHER is a photographer and journalist who has been collecting camera- work associated with the American civil rights movement. Last year he organised an exhibition of this material at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York; now the show has come to the Photographers' Gallery in London. It makes an especially moving display, and I learnt a lot, though not enough. Why, I wondered, has no one done such an exhibition before, and more thoroughly?

"Appeal to This Age" is a historical exhibition about a period that might seem remote to a younger - or a British - audience. It presents photographs taken between 1954 and 1968. The first date was chosen because it was the year of the Supreme Court decision on Oliver Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a ruling that ended legal public-school segregation in the USA. 1968 was the year when Martin Luther King was assassinated; and the year when, as Kasher says, the struggle for civil rights became part of a larger tendency.

This concentration on the popular politics of only 30 years ago makes telling points about such post-1968 developments. For instance, one notices how few women appear in the photographs of "Appeal to This Age". Then you see that a 1966 picture of Stokely Carmichael by Lee Lockwood is captioned with a reminder that women within Carmichael's Students' Non- Violent Co-ordinating Committee protested about his attitude toward them. His response was: "the position of women in SNCC is prone". The caption goes on to read: "Some historians date the beginning of the Sixties women's movement to this exchange."

I wonder which historians, and regret that an exhibition about such an important subject should be so sparsely documented. The captions to the pictures are generous; still, though, one asks for more. I'm curious to have information about the 40 photographers whose works are on the walls. Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, Charles Moore we know. Many other acute - and brave - cameramen and women (just three women, in fact) deserve their own record in photographic and human history.

I can guess why the catalogue is so thin. Exhibitions of this sort hardly ever find proper sponsorship. Still, Kasher's essay makes a good introduction to the enterprise, and the Photographers' Gallery is also selling Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer's Voices of Freedom (Vintage, pounds 8.99). This is a gripping oral history of the civil rights movement - unillustrated, alas - with contributions from dozens of "ordinary" people among the thousands who took part in demonstrations and other protests, as well as from well-known figures in the campaign.

There seems to have been a parallel among the photographers: some famous, others anonymous. Broadly, there were two types of civil rights photographers. First, there were the professionals who covered events for Life and other magazines, or who were attached to agencies such as Magnum and Black Star. To these we must add local press photographers such as the Memphis-based Ernest Withers. But furthermore, as we now learn, there were "movement photographers", people within the SNCC who trained in the use of the camera while events unfolded all around them - events which of course they recorded.

They learnt photography as they went along, just as they learnt the new politics of protest. They also taught themselves how to use the media. Probably no one within the circle of movement photographers had the time or inclination to become more sophisticated in aesthetic terms. Hence the blurring of camera styles. The characteristic movement print is a blend of documentary and news photography while, inevitably, war photography has a strong influence. So there's a contrast between Charles Moore's highly professional shots of demonstrators being attacked by police dogs, and the more home-made - or at any rate self-taught - reportage of Tamio Wakayama, Julius Lester and others.

There's a special use of portraiture in this show. It's born of a need for documentation and the continual insistence on dignity. Here are policemen, some photographs announce: this in truth is the way they smile and snarl, those billy-sticks are for real. On the other hand the protesters are not often separately recognisable. Each one of them represents the people as a whole. This is the point of Withers's photo of a Memphis march. Every single person has the right to say "I am a man", and they do so both anonymously and collectively. Placards appear quite often in these photographs, emphasising that demonstrators have a shared and simple message. Declan Haun's picture of a teenager carrying a placard with the single word "Justice" is unexpectedly beautiful.

For beauty was of course beside the point. The ideal for photographers in the earlier part of the movement was pride. When a political leader such as Martin Luther King is photographed, he's shown in humiliating rather than heroic circumstances. He is not making a speech but being arrested, just like so many other blacks. And yet pride comes through. King's spirit seems to be the inspiration of "Appeal to This Age". Pictures of Malcolm X and of the aftermath of rioting in Baltimore give a rather different flavour to the show. One suspects that photography after King's death became more aggressive. The change can perhaps be seen in Julius Lester's career. In 1966 we find him taking a thoughtful picture of a sharecropper family. In 1968 he was the author of a book: Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama!

Steven Kasher writes that "these images help to keep present a great moment in our democracy. We have no photographs of the American Revolution, but we have these photographs of the second American Revolution ... " It's true that their importance is beyond dispute and that their messages are as valid today as in the Sixties. Why then, I wonder, do they seem so dated, a precious record of "a great moment", but somewhat like relics of that moment? Probably because of the vast technical advances in newspaper photography; also because television reporting became all-important in the years immediately after King's death. All the more reason, then, why these prints should be very thoroughly catalogued, and their photographers diligently celebrated.

! "Appeal to This Age": Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (0171 831 1772), to 14 Oct. Mon-Sat 11am-6pm, admission free.