A History of Protest

September 6th, 2021  |  Published in *, September 2021

On the Getty Center’s sprawling picturesque campus, one room contains the small but powerful exhibition In Focus: Protest – on view until October 10th. The exhibition collects images from crucial points throughout US political history. Bound together, the images generate a patchwork history. I say patchwork, of course, because photography – by way of distilling a story into a single image – has a way of telling multilayered stories. Sometimes those layers consist of what’s missing from the image. Among this collection, some of the images might intentionally comment on what’s missing. What’s missing from others might come to mind from historical context. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the images, in a way that I’d argue makes these unique from, say, a painting or a sculpture, is that it can be challenging to identify intentionality. Each image could just as easily be neutral documentation as they could be political statement. The camera eye is adept at tracking moments as they occur.

From left to right, the square room doesn’t order the images in exact chronological order, but there is a loose linear timeline. Robert Mapplethorpe’s image of the American Flag, for instance sits toward the beginning of the timeline despite being taken in 1977. It does happen to be an image that feels closest to an explicit political statement, thusly suggesting a tone for the images that follow. The print renders the flag black and white. Mapplethorpe strips color from the flag in order to strip American symbolism of projected meaning. The frayed stripe ends recall the frays of American discourse and policy. Audiences in 1977 would have been recalling the civil rights struggle as well as the violence and rhetorical abuses toward Asian people that accompanied the strife of the Vietnam war. American politics have never been, of course, simple and orderly as the symbolic flag might allude. Those vibrant reds, whites and blues become mute when histories of strife, war and voter suppression emerge. Mapplethorpe’s flag points toward a darker, more tattered ideal of American culture.

American Flag, 1977 Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1946 – 1989)
Gelatin silver print 35.3 × 35.3 cm (13 7/8 × 13 7/8 in.)
Jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with funds provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the David Geffen Foundation © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2011.7.6

Adger Cowans’ angle might feel the most neutral of the collection. Taken from a bird’s eye view, the image displays the density of a crowd gathered at a Malcolm X rally. Notably, however, Malcolm X is generally unidentifiable. A small stage where he presumably stood sits in the lower left quadrant of the image. From this vantage, he is given essentially the same breadth of focus as his audience. By decentering Malcolm, the image also decenters his ideology and symbolic imagery. By centering the breadth of the crowd, the image highlights the importance of bodies for a mass movement as well as the vibrant magnitude of the very bodies that the movement has fought to attain rights for. The power of Cowans’ image, then, lies in quantified force.

Malcolm X Speaks at a Rally in Harlem at 115th St. & Lennox Ave., New York, September 7, 1963 Adger Cowans (American, born 1936)
Gelatin silver print 16.2 × 23.5 cm (6 3/8 × 9 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Adger Cowans 2021.12.2

Bruce Davidson’s contribution performs a similar decentering of leaders in Selma. It contrasts by focusing on individual participants rather than a large crowd. Martin Luther King Jr. is on the outskirts of the film frame. The image focuses on the faces of a few who took part in the march. The handful of faces are serious, while the central face is fixed midchant. Their eyes don’t appear to be filled with a sharp rage, rather, they appear dutiful, focused on the task at hand. The central face is painted white, with the word “Vote” across his forehead. The paint functions as both a plea for rights, as well as an indictment of the American privileging of such basic rights in favor of whiteness. Within the context of the exhibition and the events of the last year and a half, the indictment stands in the face of ongoing attempts at voter suppression.

March from Selma, Alabama, negative 1965; printed later
Bruce Davidson (American, born 1933) Gelatin silver print 21.7 × 32.8 cm (8 9/16 × 12 15/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos 2018.40.9

Dorothea Lange’s image is no less powerful, and no less devoid of context. She chronicles a group of students chanting the Pledge of Allegiance. The girl in the center, a Japanese American, was shipped to an internment camp with her family days after Lange captured the photo. Interestingly, the images Lange captured during this evacuation of Japanese Americans were “locked away for documentary evidence” rather than being used as propaganda. Perhaps such a decision was made to hide the carelessness with which the government is willing to render some populations part of political agenda. The image shows, of course, just how deep thematic propaganda runs in American systems. It is perhaps the simplest of ironies to grasp an image of a girl, on the brink of condemnation, honoring the very entity that will condemn her. It’s also interesting that the image is included with this collection as it expands a complex idea of what protest might look like, suggesting that the image itself is an act of protest.

Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco, negative April 20, 1942; print about 1960s Dorothea Lange (American, 1895 – 1965)
Gelatin silver print 34 × 25.6 cm (13 3/8 × 10 1/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2000.50.16

The exhibition finally culminates with two images that audiences should recognize from contemporary discourse – one of two retired confederate statues, and the other of a graffitied statue overlaid by an image of George Floyd. These, oddly, are the only images captured in color. I don’t assume that to be a necessarily purposeful contrast, but it does provide extra emphasis for the date of capture, placing them more firmly within the exhibition’s particularly curated timeline of American History. They remind us of the ongoing divides and fractured discourses haunting American culture and protest today. The statues of Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard find themselves hidden away. Voices have risen against the honoring of treasonous figures, some successful to the point of removal from the public eye. The very enduring existence of them is linked to the opposite voices – those who see an inescapable part of American history. Whether they should be preserved in this way might be a topic for another conversation, but their continued existence certainly speaks to the continued unwillingness of the American psyche to grapple with a violently racist past.

Fragment VI: General Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017
An-My Lê (American, born Vietnam, born 1960)
Inkjet print 142.2 × 100.3 cm (56 × 39 1/2 in.)
Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco © An-My Lê courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery L.2020.3

The Getty’s collection curates a history that stretches across social groups. Recognizable images of black protestors are situated alongside Japanese Americans and white Americans protesting in favor of the Vietnam War. There are images from women’s marches, showcasing more layers of the American struggle for rights. Perhaps one of the biggest blind spots is the lack of photography of queer protest movements – Stonewall, for instance, is absent. This is a history that can be disheartening, especially as we reflect on the contemporary images as current points in the timeline. The American struggle to build a genuinely intersectional culture – a true melting pot as some might like to say – remains a consistent struggle. Despite the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter protestors remain on the streets. Memories of Japanese internment haunt the recent campaign to #stopasianhate. Conversely, however, the exhibition performs an admirable neglect of violence. The images are largely devoid of riot shields and batons. Viewers aren’t prompted to look at bloodied, abused protestors. Those kinds of images are crucial to documenting the struggles of mass movement. But by eliding them here, these images are allowed to be admired for what they are. While the documentations highlight captured integral moments, many of the images feel lacking in agenda, allowing viewers some critical distance. By sacrificing the visceral, the collection is able to widen the scope of historical reflection. When we’re thinking about protesting for George Floyd, or against voting restrictions, we should have Davidson’s image from Selma in the back of our minds.

–Josh Beckelhimer

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