May 24, 2013 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
Charles Moore, Fire Hoses Aimed at Demonstrators, Birmingham, 1963,
Gewlatin silver print, 11” x 14”
The very time I thought I was lost/
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off
In the preface to his 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, a poetic exploration of race and religion in the United States, James Baldwin made an important, if paradoxical proclamation: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” More than half a century after thethirty-one-year-old African-American writer released his book to a shifting American public, civil rights issues are still a vast and clumsy national topic.
Monroe Gallery’s current show of black and-white photographs is titled, simply enough, 1963, and covers that tumultuous year in American history with empathy and remarkable beauty. While human-rights concerns were gaining visibility in many parts of the country, changes must have felt imperceptible in many others, and the exhibition does a great job of visually encapsulating this disparity. Entering the space, one first sees photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr.—fitting enough, considering he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. An image of this iconic moment shows King at a podium, surrounded by listeners. Nearby,the picture Fire Hoses Aimed at Demonstrators, Birmingham, 1963, depicts three people being blasted with water from an unseen fireman during a protest in Alabama. The image is jarringly visceral and utterly captivating. In President John F. Kennedy Visiting Berlin, 1963, we see a gaggle of admirers clamoring around the figure of the president in a black car. JFK’sassassination would take place just five months later, a knowledge that, for the viewer, imbues the scene with an incredible poignancy. In a nearby photo, a barefoot Jackie Kennedy walks along the Palm Beach shoreline with her little son.
Undoubtedly, for most of us the show is a powerful history lesson. James Meredith, the first African-American to graduate from the infamously segregated University of Mississippi, is pictured surrounded by U.S. Marshals but his face retains a calm poise. A sobering handful of images memorialize the funeral of Medgar Evers, a pioneering and vocal advocate for African-American rights, who was shot and killed by a Ku Klux Klansman who wasn’t initially convicted of the crime. For the most part, the other half of the gallery space displays work that’s less politically and emotionally charged. A particularly lovely composition shows Steve McQueen and his wife relaxing in a hot tub, cigarettes and wine goblets in hand. The next photograph shows the be-sunglassed actor sitting on a sofa, holding a pistol. Next to this is a four-paneled composition of Sean Connery, posing with a sly grin and a gun. An image of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and a handful of photos of athletes like Arnold Palmer and Sandy Koufax round out this part of the show. These shots are no doubt meant to inject a little levity, but I thought the placement of images that either depict violence or else strongly suggest it, coupled with Hollywoodstyle showiness and triumphant moments in sports history, made for an incompatible and somewhat unpalatable juxtaposition.
In 1963, ten years after he spoke of his conflicted relationship with America, James Baldwin penned a letter to his teenage nephew, elaborating on what he called “my dispute with my country.” In it, he warns the boy that though people know better than to behave out of fear and hate, they often “find it very difficult to act on what they know.… To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.” Fifty years after this letter was written, it can still be said that the politicians who ostensibly represent us are afraid to be committed to a strong position when it comes to making decisions on issues like gun control and same-sex marriage. There’s a potentially squirmy reaction from photography lovers who walk into Monroe Gallery and expect foggy landscapes and nudes, and that’s one of the reasons 1963 is such an admirably courageous little exhibition. More than a show, this grouping of photographs is really a meditation on an era that isn’t completely in America’s rearview mirror. In 2013, being an American and loving America can feel downright paradoxical, and though we can’t always make amends for the wrongs committed by our nation in her past, the work in this show seems to quietly remind us that through learning and remembering, we can pave the way for a kinder future.