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Through A Glass Darkly | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine | March 2016 |  www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

Turmoil, non-violent and violent protest, revolutions in social, sexual, and national politics – these themes form the soundtrack for the 1960s, a decade vividly brought to life in two recent photography exhibitions. The first, entitled “Dissent in America” at Maine’s Bowdoin Museum, features twenty-five black and white images by photojournalist Ken Thompson; the second called “A Dialogue with Solitude” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcases the work of native son Dave Heath, whose approach to the camera and his subjects is far more meditative and lyrical, but nonetheless powerful.  Both shows capture the unrest and energy of the times as it plays itself out against the backdrop of history and of personal context.

Ken Thompson was employed by the Methodist organization, the General Board of Global Ministries, to cover many of the crucial social moments of the decade. His mission was to document poverty, injustice, inequality, and prejudice with a view to facilitating change. Though his style is nominally objective – these are intended as news photos – there is no question where the photographer’s heart lies. His themes range from Southern rural poverty, to rampant, ignorant white prejudice, to the riots of Watts and the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King and his followers. Assembled as they are in the Bowdoin Museum’s small Becker Gallery, they create a powerful impact, their themes moving from the underlying causes of the civil rights revolution to coverage of some of its major events, pausing occasionally to meditate on the individual’s role in the grander sweep.

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Black and white images with strong contrasts of light and shade add to the riveting effect as in an image of a black man peering from the window of a run down rural building, hand to lips, in a moment of stasis. The effect on the viewer lies in the subject’s eyes – dark, saddened, even resigned, a prisoner behind glass looking out on a world in which he remains a second-class citizen.

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Thompson also captures several telling portraits of white racial hatred: a picture of the Klan picketing an integrated business and that of a woman with a sign which reads “Real Christians don’t beg the government for rights and freedom. True freedom is only found in Jesus Christ.”

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Another sequence reports on the Watts riots on August 12, 1965, and their aftermath which Thompson covered. His camera documents the devastation caused by the rioters and the cost not only to Los Angeles’ businesses but to its citizens. A powerful image shows mutilated store mannequins -  one missing limbs, another only a torso – lying amid debris. Though these are clearly inanimate objects, they symbolize the human destruction wrought during the violence (thirty-four deaths) as well as the cost in less tangible ways to the city’s population. Others in the series include the bullet-hole scarred bedroom of a tenement, community members surveying the smoke-charred ruins, and a picture of the Watts Towers, the ornate embellished steel sculpture by Simon Rodia, which was undamaged in the rioting.

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The display segues to calmer images of non-violent protest: photographs of the great 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Democratic Party Convention in 1964, demonstrators with flags, and the march in Chicago in 1965 to end housing segregation. In the last of these, Thompson allows the American flag to dominate, flying from window high above the crowd, and it is clearly an attempt to appropriate the symbol for the non-violent left wresting it from the exclusivity and chauvinism on the hawkish right. Other portraits in the group are dignified images of some of the prime movers of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Dorothy Cotton, James Bevel, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Everett Dirkson at work with their supporters and constituents. In Thompson’s hands, however, these are not merely news photos. The compositions are carefully arranged with odd and interesting angles; the lighting contributes to the sense of dignified gravitas, and the energy and commitment of the subjects radiate from the pictures. Perhaps the most striking of these “portraits” (depicted above) is that of an African-American youth captured on camera with his hands clasped, intently listening to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Though we see none of the boy’s context – not the 250 thousand marchers on the mall, not Dr. King – we feel the momentousness of the event in the boy’s earnest gaze. Unlike the first image of the old sharecropper, this young man’s eyes speak of quiet hope.

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A similarly powerful image with a personal thrust is that of an older black man in line at Mississippi’s Old Madison Courthouse to cast the first vote of his life. He faces the camera, the white dome of the government building looming behind him. He wears a fedora and neat suit in honor of the day’s significance, and his eyes speak with a reserved pride and dignity.

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The remainder of the exhibition chronicles other major demonstrations of the decade. A photograph 1966  taken from inside the tent of one of the striking African-American workers in “Strike City” shows the shanty town which underpaid Mississippi workers erected across the street from the White House to protest their poverty level wages. The akimbo angle of the view from inside the tent gives a feeling of its marginalized inhabitant and hammers home the continuing harsh and inequitable conditions for minorities in America. Another depicts a 1967 anti-war march in New York with a white marcher wearing a mock military uniform with a garish hat crowned with a model of a warplane.

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Finally, Thompson gives us two more lyrical images. The first is of two young civil rights activists, one black and one white, reclining on lawn in Mississippi during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.” The tranquility of the photograph offers a hopeful antidote to those which have come before and injects an upbeat note into the exhibition. 

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The display closes with a similarly hopeful photograph entitled “Peace Child 1967” which depicts a host of marchers in New York’s Central Park on their way to the United Nations to call for a halt to the Vietnam War. A woman pushes a baby carriage in which the sleeping infant’s blanket proclaims “Make Love Not War.” Thompson leaves the viewer with the hope that a new generation will emerge from the struggles of the past.

No such optimistic message is voiced in Dave Heath’s series of photographs which explore the various faces of solitude and the meaning of the individual amid the multitude. Taken from Heath’s book, A Dialogue with Solitude, the exhibition is a poetic meditation on the individual and society, and its context is once again the turbulent 1960s.

The first section documents Heath’s own dysfunctional family history, where abandoned as a child, he grew up in poverty and foster homes in Philadelphia, emigrated to Toronto and found his vocation as a photographer in the early 1950s. The photographs are dark and gloomy, statements of inner trauma, alienation, and isolation, such as the photograph of a circular table with no parents visible and a dark shadow evoking the abandoned child.

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The second section documents the vulnerability of impoverished and otherwise lost souls. There is an unsettling image of a drowning in Central Park, dominated by a somber policeman in the foreground and a ground of curious spectators who contemplate the fact of death. Another depicts two black men, one with clenched fist, gesturing at the camera in anger. The cause of his threatening gesture is unseen, but we feel the pent up emotion.

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Another grouping explores faces in the crowds of cities- solitary figures wandering through streets, sitting in smoke-filled coffee shops – where even among others, there is a feeling of isolation. And then, as if to counterbalance these solitary figures, there are photographs of couples in love. These close-up images in moody lighting – a pair kissing, a pair holding hands and walking city streets, for example – still retain their sense of alienation. Though the people may be physically close, there is a feeling that they are individuals lost in their own thoughts.

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The next grouping also explores alienation of the individual from his fellow men. There is a vulnerable old man hesitatingly making his way through a downpour in Central Park or the disconcerting, yet touching image of a woman with dwarfism contemplating the gilded statues of two monumental Egyptian deities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is as if Heath is meditating on the contrast between an ideal of godlike perfection and the actual diversity of human life.

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In its book form, the center spread is Heath’s photograph of a misty Central Park lagoon, dominated by the winged statue of an angel which seems poised for flight. The quietude of these photographs is, however, merely a respite, before the exhibition takes another violent turn with its sections on the Korean War and on the misery of African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. His war photographs are of individuals or of the machinery of war, such as the striking picture of a still life arrangement of machine gun shells, in which one provocatively appears unfired. 

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The portraits of African-Americans speak to Heath’s passionate assumption of the civil rights cause and his admiration for James Baldwin’s writings. Again, these are largely portraits, but the faces and eyes convey a wide range of moods from pain to anger to quiet meditation, leading the viewer to wonder what the causes and contexts for these emotions are.

Two of the final sequences address the themes of youth and childhood. The images of young, idealistic people in coffee houses, engaged with the literature, music, and poetry of the time gives an uplift to the exhibition. Many were taken in New York’s Seven Arts Coffee Gallery, which was frequented by the Beat poets. There are some striking photographs of Allen Ginsberg engaged in animated conversation or poet Gregory Corso giving a reading with Jack Kerouac in the audience.

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The images of childhood, however, are far from all idyllic, though the group begins with a photograph of two delicate leaves in a water fountain. The dominant image here has been called “Vengeful Sister” and depicts a harsh scene with a small boy writhing on the ground in pain and his older sister, wearing a flowing white dress, sweeping out of view, having clearly been her brother’s tormentor. The photograph may reference Heath’s own trauma, when he and a female orphan were taken in by a family, who would later return him to the orphanage, keeping only the girl. The almost nocturnal illumination in the photograph gives it a menacing, nightmarish quality.

Heath ends his book with an image of a chalked mask on a black wall – graffiti with the simplicity of a hieroglyphic – which seems to affirm the photographer’s vocation to record and communicate details of external and internal life around him. Heath pairs this with a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” suggesting that his own artistic journey has been a similar search for light among shadows, insights born of struggle, and tenuous connections with fellow men.

These two exhibitions not only give the viewer an incisive glimpse into the 1960s, but they explore the ways in which social and political upheaval mirror the personal struggles of human beings. Both Thompson and Heath capture the energy of the decade, the chiaroscuro of the times, as well as some of its more lyrical moments. If Thompson’s lens is more unsparingly (but not entirely) objective, while Heath’s is consciously poetic, both achieve memorable moments of frozen time. The images bring back a time of conflict, when for many, revolution was a goal, not an anathema, and turbulence was the catalyst not only for societal change but also for personal growth.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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