Photographing the Civil Rights Movement in Unfamiliar Streets: a Guest Post by Katherine Bussard
Katherine A. Bussard’s superb new book Unfamiliar Streets: The Photographs of Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia was recently featured at one of the New York Public Library’s “An Art Book” evenings. If you weren’t able to be there, you can listen to the proceedings:
Today, we’re very pleased to have a guest post by Katherine Bussard, discussing one of the book’s iconic images.
Katherine A. Bussard –
On May 3, 1963, photojournalist Charles Moore was on assignment elsewhere, when the radio news about the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations compelled him to drive to the city. He arrived in the early afternoon, just before firemen turned their hoses on demonstrators. Within minutes, Moore would take one of his most notorious photographs.
Moore placed himself just behind the firefighter’s triangular formation as they directed a stream of water with a force of 100 pounds per square inch on demonstrators huddled on the city sidewalk. The water from those hoses blasted the demonstrators off the streets, succeeding in the goal of dispersing or containing them for arrest before any of them could approach the white downtown and city hall. In order to make an image that could be felt, Moore got as close to the action as he could, placing himself right beside the firefighters. He was so close, in fact, that one of them confided to him, “We’re supposed to fight fires, not people.” From his position, Moore was able to capture the straight, white line of water drilling into one demonstrator’s back, creating an image that, when it was published in Life magazine, would convey to that publication’s readers the intensity and brutality of a this public demonstration for civil rights.
Moore’s proximity to the action and his mode of photographing served, in printed form, to bring the viewer into the action vicariously. The viewer is aligned with the firemen, and the immediacy of the scene accomplishes Moore’s goal of providing “a feeling of what it was like to be involved.” Published as a full-bleed spread on the opening page to Moore’s photo essay, the image dominated and ceded little space to Life’s requisite text components, including the photo essay’s title: “They Fight a Fire That Won’t Go Out.” Both Moore’s formal photographic strategies that aligned the viewer’s gaze with the camera’s as well as the article’s bold title prompt the reader’s identification with the firemen (“they” decidedly does not refer to the huddled demonstrators). This image and Moore’s other photographs of the events in Birmingham helped a nation understand that the event was remarkable not only for its utilization of city streets but also for the catalyzing effect its representation in the press had in rallying white middle-class support for those rights. Moore’s photographs became part of the quintessential record of racial violence in the United States in the aftermath of the Birmingham demonstrations.
In my most recent book, Unfamiliar Streets: The Photgraphs of Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Moore’s street photographs from Birmingham offer an example of the rich dialogue between what would become the defining site of 1960s demonstrations—the streets—and their political use as a photographic subject with wide circulation and impact. No era of US history is more closely associated with the street in its actual events and popular recollection than the 1960s. The characterization of that decade—then and now—through its political protests, acts of civil disobedience, and public unrest originated in the struggle for civil rights. (The demonstrations of the 1960s were certainly not the first time Americans had used city streets to seek political and social change, but they were the first sustained, nationwide demonstrations to capitalize on a well-established, widely circulating picture magazine press, as well as on burgeoning mainstream television coverage.) Photographic images, and especially street photographs, of civil rights demonstrations played a different role than ever before in depicting and disseminating that movement’s ongoing political utilization of city streets. Remarkably, histories of photography have rarely reckoned with these pictures. The literature on street photography has done so even more minimally. Moving forward from this, my book sets out to construct a new historical model for understanding a genre that remains fresh and timely. After all, our streets today are no less sites of dispossession, demonstration, power, and spectacle than they were in May 1963.