Is the Next Dr. King Making History Right Now on Your Instagram Feed?
Photographs played an important role in shaping public opinion about civil rights in the 1960s—and it’s happening now, too.
In the 1950s and ’60s, people looked to photographs to understand the situation of segregation, racism, and the resulting violence in the Jim Crow South. Photographs of civil rights activists, sit-ins, marches, arrests, and violent confrontations played a central role in shaping public opinion of the entire civil rights movement. Because photography was not yet embraced as a fine art worthy of display in museums and galleries, photographers of the era used magazines and newspapers to disseminate their photographs. As a result, their images reached millions of Americans.
In 2008, the High Museum of Art became one of the first museums to present a major exhibition recognizing civil rights photography as an important development in the history of photography as a medium. Road to Freedom, curated by former photography curator Julian Cox, received widespread attention and praise and toured to museums across the country. This exhibition also initiated the High’s commitment to making historical civil rights photographs one of the focal points of our world-class photography collection.
As in the 1960s, the past few years in the United States have sparked a groundswell of protests and public conversation about the vestiges of racism and inequality still endemic in our society. And just as photographers flocked to the South fifty years ago to add their artistic voices to the cry for freedom, photographers today are using their creativity to respond to the current call for racial equality across the United States.
Accordingly, the High has expanded the scope of our civil rights photography collection to make space for this burgeoning contemporary iteration of the art form. I’d like to introduce you to three new artworks in our collection that kicked off this expansion and allowed us to connect the historical and the contemporary.
In the fall of 2016, the High acquired a portfolio by Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey, a recipient of the High’s 1996 Picturing the South commission and a 2017 MacArthur Genius Award. Birmingham: Four Girls, Two Boys marks the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL, which took the lives of four young girls in a Sunday School class and led to the deaths of two other young boys during the violence that ensued.
To create this series of powerful diptychs, Bey traveled to Birmingham and photographed two models for each set: one the same age of a child killed during the attack, and one the age that child would be now had he or she lived. By simply placing the portraits side by side, Bey forces us to imagine what might have become of the children who lost their lives. Who would they be now? Would they still sit in the pews on Sundays with loved ones? How might the world be different with them in it? The photographs also provide a physical reminder of how much (or how little) time has passed since. Bey makes the case that those affected by racism and Jim Crow laws who are still living continue to face the enduring trauma of this history.
Acquired in the spring of 2017, Jason Lazarus’s Standing at the Grave of Emmett Till, Day of Exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL) depicts a bucolic and seemingly anonymous Midwestern landscape. However, the photograph’s title very specifically locates it in place and time: The grave of Emmett Till in Burr Oak Cemetery, a historically African American cemetery just south of Chicago, on the day his body was exhumed fifty years after his murder.
The significance of Till’s story in the history of both the civil rights movement and of photography cannot be overstated. Following his brutal, racially motivated murder in 1955, Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, encouraged photographers to take pictures of her son’s disfigured body in an open casket memorial. She hoped the photos would force the country to bear witness to the brutality of racism and the injustice of Jim Crow–era social structures. The resulting photographs are widely credited as a major galvanizing factor that initiated the civil rights movement.
Standing at the Grave is an attempt by Lazarus, who is a white artist, to grapple with the legacy of racial injustice and his own individual investment in that legacy. In the photographer’s own words, “Part of the point of the image is the inability to in any way visualize the initial terror and the ensuing historical arc that still continues — it is un-photographable.” By titling the work Standing at the Grave rather than just The Grave, Lazarus emphasizes the necessity of having a subject present to bear witness to history.
The understated composition places us beside Till’s grave soon after his body was exhumed in 2005. Till’s killers were never convicted, and the specific circumstances of his death were shrouded in mystery, which motivated officials to conduct forensic testing decades after his death. Lazarus’s photograph forces us to wrestle with the unresolved crime’s specter and how it still echoes in contemporary society.
On the occasion of the exhibition “A Fire That No Water Could Put Out”: Civil Rights Photography in late 2017, the High Museum acquired four works by Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright from her #1960Now series. Since 2014, Bright has been traveling with and documenting the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, a chapter-based activist group concerned with the unfair and violent treatment of black Americans, particularly at the hands of the criminal justice system.
Bright has documented the group’s widely covered protests in her hometown of Atlanta as well as in Selma, AL; Baltimore, MD; and Ferguson, MO. Bright’s use of hashtags in the titles and square-format photographs nods to the importance of Instagram and other social media in the contemporary movement for racial justice. Conversely, her black-and-white gelatin silver prints evoke the timelessness of these images and their strong visual and cultural connections to historical photographs of the civil rights movement.
Bright has described the photographs as a series of portraits of protestors rather than documents of protest. By humanizing the activists through deeply emotional close-up images, Bright hopes to combat negative stereotypes and media narratives that portray the movement as violent. She set out to capture the pain, hope, and anger of these activists, giving special emphasis to the role of young people in leading this new iteration of the civil rights movement. In this, she hopes to engender more empathy and support for the movement and encourage viewers not only to witness but also to act.
These acquisitions for the High’s collection represent only three small examples of how contemporary photographers are reckoning with history and racial inequality both in the United States and globally. The Museum will continue to champion and contextualize these artists’ important contributions in the hope of inspiring viewers to think deeply about civil rights and offer their unique voices to further the conversation.
Check out our exhibition “A Fire That No Water Could Put Out”: Civil Rights Photography and our civil rights photography collection.
By the Photography Department at the High Museum of Art