MANCHESTER, N.H. – Racism is an abstraction. Its consequences are anything but abstract, though they tend to be visible only to its victims. Ralph Ellison knew just what he was doing in giving his great novel the title “Invisible Man.” This ostensible invisibility has meant that the photographic image, whether moving or still, has played a vital role in opening eyes and changing hearts and minds. The George Floyd video is just the most shocking recent instance. The Jacob Blake video is the latest.
There are only 10 images in “Photographs From the Civil Rights Movement.” They come from the permanent collection of the Currier Museum of Art. The show, curated by the Currier’s Kurt Sundstrom, runs through Dec. 31.
That small size is a virtue, allowing for close and sustained attention. Nor does lack of quantity mean lack of quality. Both Garry Winogrand and Bruce Davidson have work in the show. And two of the six photographs from Ernest Withers are among the most justifiably famous images of the civil rights era.
Another virtue is a willingness to define “movement” loosely. The Winogrand photograph, “Central Park Zoo,” from 1967, is one his most famous (and surreal). Although it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement, per se, it has everything to do with race and society.
We see a handsome man and attractive woman. He’s Black, she’s white. The obvious inference is that they’re a couple (in fact, they weren’t). What further encourages that inference also upends it: Each is carrying a chimpanzee — and the chimps are dressed up, like human children. Winogrand’s friend Diane Arbus once said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret.” The secret here is the longstanding American obsession with miscegenation. That same year, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
Part of the weirdness of the Winogrand is how (ostensibly) straightforward it is. Conversely, Charles Moore’s photograph of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., were attacked in 1965 trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, manages to be dreamlike as well as horrifically reportorial.
The title is grimly straightforward: “State Police Wearing Gas Masks Fire Teargas at the Marchers and then Charge Them a Second Time.” There’s nothing abstract about that. Yet filling the background, behind two officers and a demonstrator trying to protect himself, is a cloud of whiteness, the gas, which is soft and sinister and all the more symbolic for being chokingly real.
Bloody Sunday is one of three landmark events recorded here. In 1957, nine Black students integrated Little Rock Central High School, in Arkansas. Withers shows them getting out of a station wagon in front of the school. Bending over to help them is a soldier from the 101st Airborne Division, called in by President Eisenhower to escort the students. The paratrooper looks like nothing so much as a doorman opening a taxi door for hotel guests. It’s almost as surreal an image as the Winogrand.
In another photograph, Withers shows Martin Luther King Jr. and his chief lieutenant, Ralph Abernathy, sitting in a crowded bus. The title explains why the event shown is historic: “First Desegregated Bus Ride.” What we’re seeing is the outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What we’re also seeing is Withers’s artistry. He makes sure we register the presence of King and Abernathy, but he makes equally sure to situate it within the bus interior. One way he does this is by not cropping out the partial profile of an expressionless white man in front of King. Instead of cluttering the image, it works to frame King’s face.
Withers understood what an effective graphical element letters can be: on placards, on signs. They don’t just convey a message — obviously, a matter of great importance in this context — they’re also visually arresting. Davidson understood this, too. His image of the back of a police van strikingly provides frames within frames (doors, divider). But what really catches the eye is off to the side, a protest sign confiscated by a policeman: “Khrushchev can eat here Why Can’t We.”
Withers has three sign photographs here. One is famous. It shows striking Memphis sanitation workers holding a sea of signs, all bearing the same sans-serif message: “I AM A MAN.” “All men are created equal” the Declaration of Independence says. With just four syllables, the strikers are holding America to account.
It was in support of the strike that King had gone to Memphis when he was murdered. Nearby hangs a photograph taken there after the assassination. Marchers carry signs with several messages, but all with a similarly blunt black-on-white sans-serif force. Withers shot the sanitation workers straight on. Walker Evans couldn’t have done it more classically. Here the camera angle is oblique, as if a strictly frontal approach would have been too painful.
The final sign photograph creates a cross-section of society. A Black father pushes his child in a stroller. It bears a sign, “Daddy, I Want to Be Free Too.” Father and child fill the left-hand side of the photo. A police cruiser with the words “Emergency Squad” and “Police City of Memphis” fills the middle. In the background we see the signage for two stores. Withers manages to present family and politics, government and the status quo, and, dominating both, commerce. That’s an awful lot to get into a single frame, but Withers does it. Which is fitting, since “Photographs From the Civil Rights Movement” gets a lot into a single, small exhibition, too.
PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
At Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Dec. 31. 603-669-6144, currier.org.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.