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Eye on history

Civil Rights images capture the moments of a movement

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At one moment, he appears to be ducking for cover, at once the center of action and yet easily lost in the flurry of activity at a press conference. Info packs are being distributed to a hungry press, and he's just hoping not to get bonked on the head.

In another photograph, he's seated in a high-back wooden chair, waiting for something unknown. Clearly someone has said something a bit startling, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., usually the picture of calm, seems surprised by what he's heard.

The images come from Bruce Davidson's Time of Change photography series, on display at both Jackson Fine Art and the High Museum in its massive exhibit, Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-68. The exhibits showcase varied perspectives documenting the historic era in which King played such a pivotal role, and the blurring of lines between photojournalism and art.

Davidson was a member of the Magnum Photos collective at the time, and working on a Guggenheim fellowship. Time of Change earned him a first-ever photography grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Many of the images feel staged, their compositions are so perfect and full of impact.

"I do not come to my subjects with a hidden agenda," Davidson says in an e-mail interview. "I try to be patient and observe that which is in front of me. Pictures of [King] were done without his knowledge. I didn't attempt to know him, or become of his cadre of photographers, reporters and others. I remained mostly invisible in these epic historical times."

While Jackson Fine Art offers snippets from two of Davidson's landmark series – Time of Change and East 100th Street – the High's Road to Freedom presents more than 200 works from some of the era's most notable photographers, including Steve Schapiro, Morton Broffman, Bob Adelman and Danny Lyon covering everything from Rosa Parks to King's assassination. Their images convey the movement's triumphs and tragedies in several pivotal moments such as the hosing of demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., and the integration of public schools in Little Rock, Ark.

It's all part of an ongoing commemoration of the 40th anniversary of King's death and to underscore the High's claim as having the nation's largest museum collection of Civil Rights Movement photography.

High Museum photography curator Julian Cox loves how the collection shows both journalistic and artistic responses to the era: "I'm fascinated by the history, but I'm also interested in the photography," Cox says. "They both document the way the world looks. This collection melds work made by people who were defined then as photojournalists with works made by individuals who conversely were described as artists. These images can be installed side by side to show the plasticity of photography, and can comment on the world in different ways."

Not all of the photographs come from famous names. One image taken by an unknown press photographer shows a black woman and two black men protesting outside an Atlanta theater. A swarm of Ku Klux Klansmen and a police officer look on and the woman cracks a faint smile as she holds up a poster with the words, "ATLANTA'S IMAGE IS A FRAUD." (The letters, Cox notes, were accentuated for effect by an Associated Press staffer.) In another anonymous photograph, a cattle prod is set diagonally against a brick wall, the owner's hand barely in the picture – emphasizing the simplicity of the suggested violence to come.

The works underscore Atlanta's impact on the Civil Rights Movement – from the photos of local leaders such as King and John Lewis to Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young – and make the High a fitting home for such compelling work.

Many of the images are violent, others somber, still others express defiance from both sides of the struggle. "You see violence in these images, but also a very uplifting feeling," Cox says.

Cox emphasizes that Road to Freedom focuses on the struggle's nonviolent figures, hence the absence of more volatile personalities such as Malcolm X. (Stokely Carmichael is seen in a shot before his famous break with King.)

The media often get credit for showing the world the depth of the struggle for equality, whether in Davidson's photographs of unrelenting poverty in the rural South or in those taken during the countless demonstrations that erupted in brutality. At the Jackson exhibit, a duet of images shows a fireman's water hose falling inches short of a couple during the Birmingham protest. In the next shot, the spray inundates the woman in water.

"I think photography can be powerful and help facilitate social change," Davidson notes. "It is not a panacea, but it does provide us with observation and information and helps us feel and understand another person's life. I don't see my photographs as photojournalism; they are humanistic and they are carried in a personal way I see."

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