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“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
(The more things change, the more they stay the same)
~Les Guêpes, January 1849
By Elin Spring
Looking at America’s racial divide before and during the Civil Rights Movement is a scary business. Scary because it echoes so deafeningly with the Black Lives Matter movement today. James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of our nation’s early “angry Black men,” a prolific and highly-charged novelist, playwright, poet and essayist who elevated cultural criticism to an echelon that commanded attention and respect. With stirring urgency, he decried the “American illusion” of racial equity, publicly insisting, “Time is now.” Drawing from its extensive photographic archives, the Carpenter Center at Harvard University has mounted a powerful interweaving of Baldwin’s narrative and the images of 31 photographers working during his lifetime, reflecting this period of national upheaval. TIME IS NOW: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America will be on view at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, through December 30th, 2018.
The exhibit is arranged chronologically, starting in the 1930s with some painful reminders of the racial status quo, such as Marion Post Wolcott’s white plantation managers paying cotton pickers in 1939. Francis J. Sullivan’s 1951 Lion’s club revelers mugging with two men in blackface is wince-worthy, as is Steve Shapiro’s prophetic portrait of an indignant James Baldwin standing by a store’s “Coloreds Entrance Only” doorway as a wary white clerk peers out in 1963.
Skillfully organized by Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museums, the photographs track not only the fatigued resignation of those during the Jim Crow era and the foment of protestation, but a selection of beautiful portraits of everyday life from both insiders and outsiders. Marion Palfi’s vacant “Wife of the Lynch Victim” (1949) and Roy DeCarava’s intimate, gracefully depleted “Man coming up subway stairs” (1952) contrast movingly with Leonard Freed’s iconic and equally metaphoric aspiring muscle boy (1963). Shining through the political symbolism is sheer artistry – a section of one wall flows with lyrical figure studies by photographers such as Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson. And in fine documentary tradition, there are redemptive expressions of innocence, love, and humanism.
This is a profound and resonant exhibit, a tragic measure of America’s persistent racism. It concludes with Dawoud Bey’s 1989 Polaroid street portrait of two boys in the doorway of a home in Washington, D.C.. These boys are on another threshold, too – to adulthood – and as one stares into the camera while the other averts his gaze, we are left to wonder what became of them? One chilling rejoinder is just a few photographs away, in Steve Shapiro’s “Stop Police Killings.” Same as it ever was.
For hours, directions and more information about this exhibit, go to: https://carpenter.center/program/time-is-now-photography-and-social-change-in-james-baldwin-s-america