Atlanta exhibit displays photographic treasures

Civil rights images complex, compelling

When High Museum curator Julian Cox decided to honor the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, he could hardly have imagined that the anniversary — and the show he created for the occasion — would coincide with the Democrats' nomination of its first black candidate for U.S. president.

That milestone adds a layer of poignance and relevance to what was already a stirring exhibition, and a milestone in itself. "Road to Freedom" showcases the museum's newly acquired cache of photographs chronicling the civil rights movement, and, thanks to Cox's skillful curating, offers ways to see the period and the photographs with new eyes.

The exhibit brings to life a terrible and shining era in American history. It also examines the nature of photography, celebrating its aesthetic and political power even as it reveals its slippery truths. And it makes the case that the medium and the movement were made for each other.

Certainly there are parallels between the photographers and the participants. Just as King's campaign encompassed savvy leaders and everyday people, both white and black, the photographers in this show are professionals and amateurs of both races. They faced the same risks and many — who may have first come out of curiosity or on assignment — were motivated by the same moral passion.

Like the photographers, civil right leaders understood the role photography could play in bringing their case to the public. Jack Thornwell's photos of a screaming James Meredith, wounded and tumbling to the ground, and Joseph Postiglione's chronicle of the Anniston bus burning inject you into these events with an immediacy and credibility that no other (still) medium can match. It was inevitable that the two groups would become a tag team, intentionally or not.

How could anybody but the hardest of heart see Charles Moore's iconic image of a woman crumpling under the force of the water spewing from a fire hose in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park and not respond with shame?

If the moral issue is black and white, however, photography occupies a gray zone. To demonstrate that its "truth" is shaped by many forces and choices, Cox clusters multiple shots of the same event by different photographers. Dog-eared AP prints show editors' crop marks. Artists' contact sheets reveal the shots taken before and after the chosen frame. Texts recount photographers posing Rosa Parks on a bus.

Ultimately, however, the exhibition conveys a deep respect for the people on both sides of the camera. Picture after picture conveys the dignity, courage and discipline that nonviolence demanded of movement participants. Picture after picture bespeaks a photographer willing to insert himself into the thick and the danger of the moment to get the shot.

Messages from the front, these photos were pivotal in the success of the civil rights movement. Cox brings this home in a wonderful three-image sequence in the opening gallery.

First, Danny Lyon homes in on a gaggle of young boys at 1963 March on Washington; their rapt expressions and upraised arms distill the spiritual roots and force of the movement.

Next, the image is on the cover of the newsletter published by SNCC, Lyon's employer. The layout, in which one boy seems to be reaching for the title word "Now," converts the photo to a call to action.

Finally, Bob Fletcher's 1966 photo shows the cover pinned to the porch wall of a shotgun house in Ruleville, Miss. Juxtaposed with the upstretched arm in the poster is another show of hands — a little boy reaching toward the outstretched arm of his mother shadowed in the doorway. The picture has become a rallying cry for the generations.

As the Lyon and the Fletcher images attest, the movement was also good for the photographers. The road to freedom brought them to the crossroads of art and moral purpose. Energized by urgency (and newspaper deadlines), they created a flood of enduring pictures — and some great art.

REVIEW

"Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968."

Through Oct. 5. $18; $15, seniors and students with IDs; $11, children 6-17; free for members and children 5 and under. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. High Museum of Art. 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444; www.high.org.

Bottom line: A landmark exhibition, a high point for the museum and a gift to the community. You should see it — more than once.

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