New photography exhibition explores America in crisis

Originally conceived in 1969, America in Crisis was a group initiative that used the power of image-making to assess the state of the nation. Taking the form of an exhibition and a publication, the project was led by Lee Jones, then Magnum Photos’ New York bureau chief, and American photographer Charles Harbutt.

“Many of us felt that the 1968 elections would be somewhat special; that deeper issues for America were not limited to electing a president,” Harbutt said at the time. “I felt the fundamental problem was that the traditional American self-image as learned in public schools, Hollywood movies, advertisements and 4th of July speeches – the American Dream itself – was questioned…”

Top: #FXCK July 4: Police Brutality Against Women and LGBTQ+ Rally, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020 © Sheila Pree Bright; Above: The Selma March, Alabama, USA, 1965 © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Massive support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, USA, 1968 © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

America in Crisis took a critical look at the United States at a time of great social, political and cultural upheaval, examining the key events of 1968 that led to the inauguration of Richard Nixon. And despite the rise of fake news in recent years, photography’s role as a means of witnessing arguably seems just as relevant today. It is in this spirit that the Saatchi Gallery in London opens its new exhibition of the same name.

Curated by photography consultant Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and Los Angeles-based photographer and scholar Tara Pixley, the exhibition brings together original historic photographs from 1969 and recent works made over the course of another tumultuous period in American history.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 © Stacy Kranitz
The Capitol, Washington, USA, January 6, 2020 © Balazs Gardi

By revisiting and updating the original exhibition now, the curators hope to create a unique dialogue between key photographers from 1968, such as Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt and Mary Ellen Mark, and the work of contemporaries from 2020, including Kris Graves , Balazs Gardi and Zora. J Murf.

Following Harbutt’s original concept, the new exhibit has the same chapter structure as the 1969 publication. Section titles such as The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle for Equality, have relevance today. palpable.

Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020. Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects © Kris Graves
Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone, © Anastasia Samoylova

While bringing together these two eras of photography provides an opportunity to examine the changes in documentary practice and image culture that have taken place over the past five decades, the overall aim of the exhibition is to confront the persistent myth of American exceptionalism and question the nature of its ongoing “crisis”.

“I think a crisis to me involves a singular event or a slice of time and I think 2020 was a continuation. It was an expression of the pain of the wounds that had been simmering in America since the founding of our country,” explains photographer Leah Millis, whose work is featured in the exhibition.

“Journalism is what really matters to me and photography is the medium I use to tell stories, to show people what’s going on,” Millis continues. “Diversity is essential in this context. Who is the person behind the lens? We are all individuals and we all work to be fair journalists, but we all bring our perspectives and experiences. It really matters.

America in Crisis is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London until April 3; saatchigallery.com

Tracey L. Sweeney