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Street Photograhers Captured Mood Of The ‘60s

Above: Black Panther feeding son at Free Huey rally, Oakland, 1968

Audio

Aired 2/24/11

An exhibit of great pictures from legendary street photographers of the 1960s is up at the museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The images evoke a powerful poetry of mean streets, disaffected people and a changing time in America.

NAACP protest, Memphis, TN, early 1960s
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Above: NAACP protest, Memphis, TN, early 1960s

A great photograph is like a poem, it plays on expectations, reveals contradictions and gives us brand-new insights. An exhibit of great pictures from legendary street photographers of the 1960s is up at the museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. The images evoke a powerful poetry of mean streets, disaffected people and a changing time in America.

Guest: Doborah Klochko, executive director, Museum of Photographic Art, San Diego

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A great photograph is like a poem, it plays on expectations. Reveals contradictions, and gives us new insights. An exhibit of great pictures from legendary street photographer photographers of the 1960s is up at the museum of photographic arts in Balboa park. The images invoke a powerful poetry of mean streets, disaffected people and a changing time in America. Joining us to talk about the street wise exhibit is my guest, Deborah Klochko, she's executive director of MOPA. Deborah, welcome.

KLOCHKO: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Can you define street photography for us.

KLOCHKO: Well, I can, and it actually has multiple meanings, but in the context of this exhibition, it really is photography that is being photographed as it's happening of as it's unfolding, and most of that is happening on the streets in the 60s. And it comes out of this idea of street theatre where the protests that were going on in the decade of the 60s were being taken to the streets, and people were voicing their political views and their concerns for civil rights, women's issues, and the Vietnam war on the street.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds so much like photo journalism, news photography. How is it different.

KLOCHKO: Well, it's actually very different. These photographers that are in street wise, masters of 60s photography, are really photographing much more from a personal standpoint rather than for publication in any of the newspapers or magazines of the time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the photographs are in black and white.

KLOCHKO: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: They're very stark, they're very dramatic. Did you choose -- all of them to be in black and white or was that the way that the photographers generally wanted to shoot their pictures.

KLOCHKO: Well, it really was the predominant means of capturing images at that time which was black and white. But at the same time, I think it really adds to the strong feeling, the real issues, and for many people they were divided between black and white. Of so it's an interesting idea.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when we think of the 60s, we think of change and rebellion. And when we look at these photographs that are up at the museum of photographic arts, were the people in the pictures rebelling or are the photographers rebelling?

KLOCHKO: I would say a little bit of both. And really, that's -- you've hit exactly on the key point in this exhibition, which is Robert frank who was a Swiss photographer but came to America, received a Guggenheim grant to travel around the United States for two years, and that was in 1955. Of and what he did was phenomenal. He captured a look at America that was very different. Of it was darker, courser, and grainier than anything we were used to seeing. And that became the influence for the photographers that we selected in this exhibition. So they were responding to a change in aesthetic. But they were also responding to the changing mood of the country. So it really is that combination.

CAVANAUGH: There's one photograph you spoke about Robert frank, there's one Robert frank photograph in this exhibit that -- it's titled funeral in saint Helena South Carolina, and it's a group of African American men with hats on, obviously dressed for a funeral, sort of holding their hands up to their faces in thought, and in grief. Tell us about that picture and what makes it so striking.

KLOCHKO: Well, it's always a challenge to talk about photographs on radio, but you picked a wonderful image to talk about. It's graphic, it's just the compensation itself is really quite wonderful, every pose, every position really is striking in what he's depicting, and the fact that it's a slice of African American life, I think is very important as well.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about a new exhibition up at the museum of photographic arts in Balboa Park, it is called street wise, and with me is Deborah Klochko, he's executive director of MOPA. And I want people to know that we do have a few of the photographs up on our website, KPBS.org/These Days. If you'd like to take a quick peek and see a few of them. You use the word posed in describing this. But of course, these people, the people in this Robert frank picture are not posed.

KLOCHKO: Yes. I misspoke.

CAVANAUGH: Well, no, I want to take you up on that because you have another photographer in the exhibit.

KLOCHKO: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: Ruth-Marion Baruch, and a lot of her subjects do look as if they are actually posing to have their pictures taken.

KLOCHKO: Well, I think be what you find with Ruth-Marion Baruch is she's probably in many of the instances just saying could you stop this one minute?

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

KLOCHKO: And capture the image. But she's also -- they appear posed because she's presenting them in a very dramatic fashion. And most of them are portraits of an individual or a small group of people, and she's presenting them with a dignity which is very, very deliberate. Ruth-Marion Baruch was a white photographer and she was very political, liberal in her political views and was not happy with the way media was depicting the black panther the. So she spoke with the leadership of the panthers and really asked if she could show the other side. And that's what she really set out to do. The soup kitchens, the education, the family, but also the power of the black panthers.

CAVANAUGH: There's an awful lot of cityscapes too in these photographs. Really, time capsules of people, sometimes kinds of people you no longer see in the sense of going out being contrasted by their surroundings. There's one in particular where people are sitting in a -- at a bus stop, and they're waiting for buses they're against one another, and there's a very, very old woman who's smoking a cigarette. And it's just these things that we don't see anymore.

KLOCHKO: Well, it's also about alienation.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

KLOCHKO: And the fact that you caught onto the -- the visual idea of the urban as a source of image making, that was another big change that was going on in the country at that time. The fact that people were becoming more distant from one another. And the alienation in the cities is very much a part of the changes that were going on, and being photographed by these photographers.

CAVANAUGH: I do want to get in the -- the -- to talk just a lot bit about the photographs of Ernest withers that are part of the street wise exhibit. He spent a lot of time photographing the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis during which Martin Luther King was killed. He was an informant for the FBI. How did that happen?

KLOCHKO: Well, we don't really know all the answers to that. But I think it's important to understand that Ernest withers, an African American photographer from Memphis was photographing and very close to Martin Luther King and the movement. And depicting a -- the changes that were going on, the sanitation workers protest with their signs, "I am a Man," I think are really powerful. This disclosure of him being a paid FBI informant came out last year. After we had selected his images, and I went back to look at the pictures, and I realized that they didn't change, that they were still strong, meaningful images. But I think what's very important to think about with this is history is made up of layers, it's not just one thing or another. And what hit motivations really are, I've heard everything from the fact that his family was threatened to the possibility that he really wasn't a supporter of the militant black panther approach to gaining equality, but again, we really don't know, and it's part of history that's unfolding, and we offer links on our website to sites that provide the actual documentation that was uncovered about his being a paid inform apt.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm glad you didn't --

KLOCHKO: History in the making.

CAVANAUGH: I'm glad you didn't take the pictures out because you're right, they are extremely powerful. We're out of time but I want to let everyone know that the street wise exhibit featured at the museum of photographic arts will be up through May 15th. Deborah Klochko, thank you so much.

KLOCHKO: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to see some of these images or comment, go on-line KPBS.org/These Days.

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