America in Crisis

A group exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery explores decades of social change in the US

The Selma March, Alabama, USA, 1965. © Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

In the 60s, a project entitled America In Crisis was released into the world conceived by photographer Charles Harbutt and Magnum New York’s then-bureau chief Lee Jones. Featuring imagery from 18 photographers, the show, book plus accompanying short film and installation explored the issues prevailing in the country at the time. This was decades ago and little has progressed, point blank. In a new revisiting at London’s Saatchi Gallery, an exhibition of the same name sheds light on social change in the US with a group exhibition of 40 leading American photographers such as Bruce Davidson, Zora J Murff, Kris Graves, Stacy Kranitz and Mary Ellen Mark. Multiple similar themes from the work proceeding have been brought to the fore: inequality, racism, poverty and the demise of the American Dream to name a few, which are coupled with the more modern-day markers like Covid-19 and the rise of Black Lives Matter.

Curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris and Tara Pixley, the exhibition – which runs until 3 April 2022 – illustrates many deliberate comparisons towards the original project. This includes the same chapter structure as before, with titles such as The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle of Equality making appearances. It also consciously sheds light on a diverse and contemporary presentation of photographers today, featuring honest and thought-provoking imagery from those who are actually embedded in the stories – like Zora and his mixed-media narration of power, race and privilege, or Stacy Kranitz who’s spent years documenting a community in Appalachia. Below, I chat to Sophie, one of the show’s curators, to discuss the danger of repeating history and the wavering power of the image in today’s digital world.

The Capitol, 6 January 2021. Washington D.C. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Can you tell me about the parallels between the new and old exhibition with Magnum Photos?

Clearly, things have changed. I studied history and history of art college, but in my day and age, you were told that there was an idea of history of progress. Maybe it’s just getting older, but it all becomes a bit circular after a while. 

In 1968, it was a massively tumultuous year globally. Charles Harbutt felt there was an opportunity and a need to create the original project, and it was that same period of time leading up to an election that he and the Jones had the instinct it was going to be quite a pivotal moment. 

We’ve used the original framework, but we involved all chapter headings except one; a chapter on the unwanted Vietnam war in 68. We didn’t replicate that into the contemporary project, because we felt that there isn’t an unwanted war or any contemporary equivalents. Now, you could say Afghanistan, but honestly, we felt that there was so much going on with the domestic policy issues that we were addressing, that to bring that in would have made it too complicated. 

In 2020, there was the unlawful killing of George Floyd, and that was really the catalyst for the explosion on the streets of Black Lives Matter. And there’s Covid-19, which was a very different experience to the original exhibition. There are a number of different catalysts and contexts. However, the core premise is the American Dream versus reality on the ground, and the long form issues within, the founding of America, the slavery and the issues around equality; all of these things are long-form issues. The Deep Roots of Poverty being another section that addresses the fact that, despite it being such a wealthy country, there’s a lot of people below the poverty line. So there were a number of things that we felt still resonated 50 years after the original project.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 © Stacy Kranitz

How do you think photography can impact social change? And how does this exhibition highlight that?

I don’t think photography changes things by itself. I think the days of believing in that are long gone. We all take photographs but it is a very slippery medium; I think it can be re-contextualised in lots of different ways. That’s what the third room deals with – the fact that people tell stories with photographs that sometimes shift the meaning of that image completely. 

What I do think, though, is that because it’s a recognisable medium, we all know how to take pictures and there’s a way to gain a better understanding the world around us. I think it is a language, despite its mutability, and it does inform us about and gives access to points of view; it’s all about acknowledging that it provides a window into different perspectives on the world. 

I think there’s also something to be said for the still image. There’s so much visual noise out there; we’re all hopelessly addicted to our phones. I think there’s something quite meditative about standing in front of an individual picture and just engaging. I really feel this is a project to be seen in the space that it’s shown. It gives you time to pause for thought. It’s also telling that there’s a lot of different strategies within the show from the individual practitioners, in terms of how they choose to communicate using their photographs. 

Bungalow Family with Last Ash Tree, Midway, Chicago, USA, 2018. © Paul D’Amato

What would you say are the key takeaways for visitors of the exhibition – to educate, to steer away from the noise of the digital world?

It’s interesting to see how history can repeat itself. I don’t want to oversimplify, but I want people to be more conscious of how they read images, the power of photography and the importance of it as communication as well as an artistic medium. 

Some of these earlier images would have been viewed by the original audience in 1969 as news photographs, and now they’re almost iconic, which I hate as a word. But something like Bruce Davidson and the Selma Marches, they have such a power as images; they’re almost talismanic because they’ve been reproduced multiple times. Then the reboot was referenced a lot during the Black Lives Matter protests pre-2020 as a kind of seminal protest image. Photography is an incredible, aesthetic medium. I want people to enjoy the layers of the show and how we encounter photography. The top line is to engage with the issues that have allied between both eras, but also to be conscious of photography, how we encounter it and read it and to do it in a considered way.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary Committee and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Grant Park, Chicago, 1968 © Charles Harbutt

Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020. Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects © Kris Graves

Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone. © Anastasia Samoylova

Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, USA, 1968. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

The Capitol, Washington, USA, January 6th, 2020 © Balazs Gardi

America in Crisis, organised by Saatchi Gallery, opens from 21 January to 3 April 2022. The exhibition is curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and academic Tara Pixley. Tickets from £5. Members go for free.

Zora J Murff

The esteemed photographer talks us through his new roster of exhibitions and book, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)

American Father, 2018

For Zora J Murff – a photographer, artist and educator based in Arkansas – to be published by Aperture is not too dissimilar from a chimera. An illusory dream of kinds, Zora could “hardly believe it” as he won the Next Step Award and was affirmed a new book from the publisher, entitled True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis). Coupled with an exhibition at London’s Webber Gallery plus a presentation of his new series American Mother at Paris Photo, Zora is sharing perhaps his most direct and critical commentary of work to date – that being a compilation of photographs, archival imagery from the past 12 years. In these works, the artist speaks of power, privilege, race and white supremacy, plus the impact it’s had on Black people in America. Zora tells me more below.

Fronting (Affirmation #4), 2020

It would be great to begin by hearing about your first steps into photography. What sparked your interests in the medium? 

I started taking photographs in my early 20s. At the time, I was a social worker providing services to kids in the juvenile criminal justice system. I found the work rewarding in many ways, but something always seemed missing. Being an employee of the criminal justice system was conflicting. Even though I served kids and families who found themselves in difficult circumstances, I was present as a punitive measure. It was an environment where most of our practices and processes were dissonant from rehabilitation, and even though I could understand what changes could change that reality, I wasn’t in a position to speak on or enact them. 

I often felt stuck and decided to go back to school to study art. I started my first serious body of work, Corrections. Creating that work was my first education in researching a violent system and speaking on that violence through the practice and interpretation of image-making. Furthermore, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors, Margaret Stratton and Jeff Rich, who were present for my ideas and taught me how to articulate what I was trying to express both visually and in language. I quickly learned that I had been searching for a profession where I could work with people and help them in similar ways. 

At No Point in Between

What’s your ethos and what messages are you hoping to share? 

My ethos as an artist is to have the courage to be vulnerable and to speak my truth. In my earlier works, I kept a distance between myself, the subject, and the viewer. I am present with my thoughts and camera, but I am speaking on those things through nuance and perhaps imperceptibly. I credit this to studying in historically/predominantly white institutions where Blackness had not been allowed, was not accepted and therefore not understood. Because of our society’s belief and wholesale practice in racialisation, I find myself in adversarial situations for being Black. These confrontations happen daily, sometimes self-initiated but mostly by force. My work deals directly with existential questions and presents various aspects of our social reality. Those answers I have found don’t differ from my early experiences with my first professors: being an artist is an endeavour in self-determination. I carry this sentiment with me into everything I do. 

At No Point in Between

You’ve opened two exhibitions and recently published a new book with Aperture — tell me about this new body of work. How does it compare to your past projects? 

True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) is me going for broke. When I first learned that I had won the Next Step Award and would be publishing with Aperture, I could hardly believe it. I had a conversation about it with the good homie Kris Graves, and his advice was, “Now is the time to be direct.” This book is me, parts of my life narrated by me and a choir of folx who have all supported me in getting to this exact moment. It’s not so much a body of work, but my collective commentary on the last 12 years as a means of being critical of “the come up.” I am talking about what it means to participate in systems whose agents have continually seen and used me as a diversity token. 

At No Point in Between

How do your hope your audience will respond to the work?

My goal with this process was to create something that pulled out all of the stops because it’s not every day artists get to publish at this level. My goal with this process was to spread this opportunity as widely as possible, so my people could eat. 

I don’t have goals for audience response or plans for what this work can accomplish in general. As the title states, the book is me putting out affirmations for myself as I experience a crisis of consciousness. People who have lived similarly to me will find themselves in these pages. The only thing I could ever ask is that viewers bring themselves to the artwork with an open heart and critical mind (both outward and inward). 

What’s next for you?

I’m going to take some time to celebrate and enjoy in this work with the people I love. Everything else is just white noise. 

Gas Money (Affirmation #1), 2019

Reservoir

At No Point in Between

Self Portrait as a Dreamed Man (After Bayard), 2020

Untitled (False walls #1), 2020