Mounted to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Time of Change generates plenty of heat. It comes not only from club-wielding cops and racist antagonists but also from scenes of everyday life: churches, farms, country lanes, tenements and county fairs — places where black life was lived, quietly and outside the view of white Northerners. Combined with pictures of protest, they make for a panoramic view of African-American history, each image detonating explosions that reverberate as you move through the room. The result is a visual odyssey of novelistic scope, at once compassionate and caustic, critical and accepting, and not always what it seems.
Time of Change: 1961-1965, Bruce Davidson’s photos from the Civil Rights era, thrusts us back into the circumstances that caused black America to erupt during those years. In 1961, he accompanied anti-segregationist Freedom Riders on a bus from Montgomery to Jackson. Two years later he photographed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, and in 1965 he joined the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery. Plenty of other photographers covered this territory, but none, save Robert Frank, did so with anything close to the poetic force that Davidson brought to the task. Speaking to the New York Times in 2009, Davidson drew a sharp distinction between documentary photography and his own method, likening his assembly of seemingly disparate images to bits of charcoal “that catch fire and burn into each other.”
The strongest example – and also one of Davidson’s most iconic images — is Two Women at Lunch Counter (1962). In it, a black woman is caught off-guard, looking into Davidson’s camera. Beside her a white woman stares sourly into her soda, her inverted U of a mouth, the very picture of revulsion. We assume it was taken in the South. But it was not. It was in New York City. Proof that what we see often depends on what we believe. Likewise, the men seen in Hecklers Taunting Freedom Riders, Montgomery, Alabama (1961) could just as easily be cheering a victorious football team as doing what Davidson says. In another loaded image, two National Guard troops on a sidewalk look more afraid than the black delivery driver who is the picture’s ostensible subject. He seems aware of what's going on, but cool in comparison to the soldiers. Fear, Davidson reminds, us ran both ways. Even at an all-black rally in Harlem the audience looks sober and shaken — a sharp contrast to the sign-waving, fist-shaking images we have of crowds addressed by King, Malcolm X and other leaders Davidson photographed during this period.
A Magnum photographer, Davidson, by the time he undertook this series, had already logged plenty of time covering outsiders: Brooklyn gang bangers, East Harlem slum dwellers and concentration camp survivors on the Lower East Side. As with those series, Davidson’s skill at presenting human relationships is what prevails in this one. We see it in the black nannies that love white children as their own; in the questionable gratitude of a black cotton picker being paid in coins by a farm boss; in the bemused faces of white children viewing their black cohorts skipping down a sidewalk; and in the suspicious glare cast by a white family onto a group of blacks gathered in the glow of a fireworks display. Where Davidson is unrelentingly critical is in his depiction of rural poverty. The shotgun shacks of sharecroppers, the bare-bones one-room schoolhouse and the cabin whose walls are a collage of deteriorating new clippings tell us precisely why the Civil Rights movement began in the first place. Davidson’s investigation also captured glimmers of beauty and hope. During the march to Montgomery, he photographed a girl in a diaphanous rain poncho, illuminated such that she appears angelic. That, too, seems to find its counterpart in a burning cross, which appears otherworldly, even though the circle of hooded Klansmen surrounding it says otherwise. For all the ambiguity presented, the one certainty seen in the faces of those pictured is the almost universal recognition that change is close at hand.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“Bruce Davidson, Time of Change: 1961-1965” @ Robert Koch Gallery through July 3, 2014.
Images © Magnum Photos/Bruce Davidson courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.