developing West, and from the Great Depression to the near present. Many are iconic. The surprise is how relevant they are today. Take Levitt’s 1942 photo of a boy dressed for Halloween. He has a heart painted on his forehead. That detail — coupled with the joy communicated by his wistful grin — reminds us that childhood, even in hard times, can be sweet, and that there were interludes in America’s past when blackness didn’t always equate to troubling headlines.
exercise in nostalgia, a paean to good times past. So, too, does a photo made by Peter Bransten, of kids playing on a swing set that once stood near the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The children are blurred, the light diffuse, the scene idyllic. Never mind that San Francisco in 1972 was hardly a place of peace and tranquility; the moment captured is transcendent.
Whatever the fun, there's no shaking the seriousness of this show’s intentions. Lava Thomas’ tribute to those murdered by a white supremacist at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church points to the deepest fissure in American life: race. It’s a chevron-shaped array of wall-mounted tambourines covered in black lambskin, each of which carries the name of a victim embossed on the surface. This blunt, mute statement, standing in contrast to the gospel music evoked by the instruments, all but screams of the violence that claimed nine lives in 2015. Neighborhood Watch, Doug Halls’ 1995 experiment in surveillance, points to another fissure. Observe the telling details he extracts from a single photo of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district
and you too may feel spied-on. (One thinks of the photographer/protagonist in Antonioni’s Blow Up.) Like so much else in the show, it resonates across time, linking the gumshoe methods of yesteryear to those currently being deployed across the Internet by governments and corporations.
Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” These American Lives offers much proof.
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