NEW HAVEN — Lee Friedlander needs no introduction on the arts pages. He’s one of the two or three greatest living American photographers. The Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom likely does. It’s the subject of “Let Us March On: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom,” which runs through July 9 at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The exhibition observes the 60th anniversary of the march, which took place in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1957. An estimated 25,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ruled unconstitutional segregation in public schools.
The first sizable African-American rally on the National Mall, the Prayer Pilgrimage presaged the March on Washington, slightly more than six years later. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his “I have a dream” speech at the latter, spoke at the former. It was his first national address.
King figures in several of the 58 photographs that make up “Let Us March On.” One’s tempted to say how young he looked. Yet he always looked young. Of course he did; when he was murdered he was just 39.
The most standout King image shows him addressing the crowd from in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a study in ascent. Friedlander, shooting on the fly, manages to stack the image with verticals: microphone, King, an American flag behind him, and the columns of the memorial’s portico. It’s not just every voice that’s being lifted and sung.
Friedlander, then 22, was just starting out. He covered the march as a freelancer. No less than now, the freelance life was hard. The photographs found no taker. It wasn’t until 2015 that they were published, by Peter Kayafas at Eakins Press. He’s the son of the estimable Arlette Kayafas, of Boston’s Gallery Kayafas, and no less estimable Gus Kayafas, of Palm Press.
That no one wanted these pictures is baffling. We now see them as distinctly — even unmistakably — Friedlander, throwing off a nervy energy and stuffing the frame with a wealth of visual interest that somehow never gets confused or fatiguing. The show is densely hung, filling nearly all the wall space in a small gallery. That’s fitting, as a similar density defines so many of the images.
King is not the only famous person to be seen. Other civil rights leaders include Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph (does 20th-century American history boast a nobler face?), Rosa Parks (all right, maybe hers). There are also Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mahalia Jackson.
Seeing them is a pleasure, but the show’s heart — like the march’s — consists of anonymous demonstrators. A Cub Scout stares into Friedlander’s lens, arms crossed, a watch-it-mister look on his face. The frame contains dozens of other people. Friedlander, in his Friedlander way, has found the one who’s unforgettable.
That scout notwithstanding, nearly all the people we see are middle aged or older. Suits and church-lady hats predominate. It would take a few more years for demonstrations to be associated with the young. The age of the people and their presumed middle-class status make these images even more moving. These were people experience had robbed of illusion. They knew how entrenched were the forces they were up against and how much more they themselves had to lose than most African-Americans did. They convey an unflagging quality of dignity and resolution that’s breathtaking. Formally, the pictures are terrific. Surely, though, Friedlander would be the first to concede that their subject matter is what’s most memorable about them.
Some 500 yards from the gallery is Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. It’s observing an anniversary, too, one closer to home: the 75th anniversary of the founding of the library’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Weldon, the poet, novelist, and activist, is perhaps known for his lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Johnson was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing of African-American literature, music, and theater in the years after World War I. More than 300 items make up “Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & the Beinecke Library.” It runs through April 17.
The names most commonly associated with the renaissance are literary: Johnson, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston. All are represented, though not always in expected ways. A legal pad shows Johnson’s notes, crossings-out included, for “The Book of American Negro Spirituals.” The manuscript of Hurston’s masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” is on display. But so are three photographs that show her, an anthropologist by training, performing a West Africa-originated Crow Dance. Hughes held on to invitations he received to rent parties. Who knew that they were printed up, like business cards? Fifty or so are on display.
A delightful “Night-Club Map of Harlem” from 1932 attests to the importance of nightlife and music. The dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the actor-singer Paul Robeson, the actress-singer Ethel Waters, the singer-dancer Florence Mills (in a particularly striking Edward Steichen photograph) all make appearances. Best of all is Josephine Baker. Twenty-six contemporary postcards show why she was already a legendary performer. She looks dapper in white tie and tails — and no less so (maybe even more?) wearing nothing at all.
LET US MARCH ON: Lee Friedlander and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom
At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through July 9. 203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu
GATHER OUT OF STAR-DUST: The Harlem Renaissance & the Beinecke Library