A few weeks ago, we were united in disgust, watching a clip of a campus police officer pepper spraying peaceful Occupy protesters at UC Davis. Perhaps a turning point in the Occupy movement, this incident was also a reminder that images, whether from professionals or amateurs, have long been a vital part of political and social change.
Recent events have given Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography, organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, and now on view at The Light Factory, an unexpected timeliness. Many of the photographers in this exhibition were deeply involved in the situations they documented, and they brought visual evidence of a changing culture to a larger public.
In an informative catalog essay, Andy Grundberg stresses that street photography is a slippery term that some of these artists resisted. In Streetwise, it is applied to a range of aesthetics and points of view, from Ernest Withers magisterial photographs of striking workers to the voyeuristic work of Diane Arbus.
Streetwise actually begins in the 1950s with the pioneering work of Robert Frank — 10 selections from "The Americans," his landmark book that reveals a detached, despondent nation. In "US 91, Leaving Blackfoot, Idaho" (1956), two males, a driver and passenger, are hyperfocused and suspicious, and leave the viewer with the sensation of being dropped in the middle of a story. The other nine photographs are of emotionally empty people, with the only smile belonging to a Santa face printed on a metal serving tray.
Frank's vision of deep alienation, which ran counter to prevailing notions of a sunny postwar America, set the stage for many younger photographers, inspiring them to explore their own ideas about politics, inequality, loneliness and transgression in ways that were personal, informal and sometimes unpalatable.
Streetwise has its ups and downs, but it is a compelling exhibition. Arbus fans will likely be disappointed by the three placid works on display, except perhaps for "Puerto Rican Woman with Beauty Mark" (1965), an extreme close-up in which Arbus (and by extension the viewer) appears to be assaulting the subject. A major treat is "Central Park Zoo, New York" (1967), one of Garry Winogrand's best-known images, which depicts a stylish interracial couple holding chimps dressed in children's clothes.
People who live outside the law populate the work of Jerry Berndt and Danny Lyon. Berndt's pimps, hookers, pickpockets, evangelicals and other scoundrels in Boston's red-light district seem to enjoy a weird sort of racial parity. Whatever the color of the players in these small dramas, all are just doing their jobs, and most are up to no good. The grit and empathy in Lyon's images are authentic; he belonged to the motorcycle gang he depicted and he went to great lengths to gain the trust of the inmates he photographed.
In our current political climate, images of race and class — both direct and implied — by Ernest Withers, Bruce Davidson, Ruth-Marion Baruch and Lee Friedlander have a fresh urgency. Perhaps the most powerful images in Streetwise are by Withers. A participant in the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, he's represented here by photographs of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, which was Martin Luther King Jr.'s final march, the Memorial March after King's assassination, and other images of protest both peaceful and violent in his hometown.
Baruch's 1968 photographs of Black Panther rallies show a very different relationship between artist and subject. The Panthers controlled their image carefully and Baruch was uniquely privileged in being allowed to photograph them. She wanted to show a more dignified, family-oriented side of the Panthers than what was seen in the media, which may explain why these photographs tend to be a bit formal. One can also sense that the Panthers were still very much in control and that the people Baruch photographed were guarded, allowing only so much emotional access.
Many of Davidson's photographs in Streetwise address large issues through personal moments. "Time of Change (black schoolgirls walking by white children)" and "Time of Change (two women at lunch counter)" are notable for their quiet intimations of a shifting balance of power. In the former, white children look on apprehensively as a blur of smiling black girls rush past them and don't acknowledge them. In the latter, a black woman looks confidently, almost confrontationally, at the camera, while a petulant white woman looks down at the counter.
In Friedlander's ambiguous photographs, people are often represented by fragments and reflections; several of the images depict the affluent being oblivious to the suffering of those around them.
Although Streetwise addresses power struggles, outrage, absurdity and other charged states of being, the overall mood is subdued. This is a contemplative show that merits close scrutiny.
Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography, through Jan. 22 at The Light Factory, 345 N. College St. www.lightfactory.org. 704-333-9755.