Exhibition | Picturing Protest
Fifty years after the watershed events of 1968, the exhibition Picturing Protest examines the visual framing of collective action between 1960 and 1970 around the country and on Princeton’s campus. The American civil rights movement and opposition to the US war in Vietnam both came to the fore in that heady decade, spurring protests across America both spectacular and everyday. These campaigns for freedom and justice created a framework for protest that would influence the tactics and forms of other political movements that began to cohere towards the end of the decade, including those for women’s liberation and LGBT rights. To this day, the documentation of protests by these movements has shaped the way we visualize resistance and imagine possibilities for civic engagement.
As 1960s marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins gave material form to First Amendment freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—the camera bore witness to that activism. Today mobile phones ensure that no demonstration goes undocumented, but in the 1960s, photographic coverage was part of careful media strategies conceived by civil rights organizers to give visibility to resistance and amass financial and political support. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other organizers of anti- segregation actions in Birmingham, Alabama, understood that photography was necessary to tell a story of relatable human emotion and bald police brutality. As peaceful protesters were pummeled with water from fire hoses, attacked by dogs, and arrested in large numbers, the activist and photographer Charles Moore, on assignment for Life magazine, captured images that gripped the nation and elicited public outrage. As King wrote of the powerful photographs of 1963 broadcast worldwide, “The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught . . . in gigantic circling spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.”
Inspired by the civil rights movement, suspicious of US political leadership, exposed to graphic visual testimonies of the death and destruction in Vietnam, and concentrated on liberal college campuses, students across the country—and at Princeton—organized and campaigned against the war. A Princeton chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded in 1965 and led increasingly vehement anti-war protests, as captured in photographs from the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, the archives of Princeton University. Within an hour of President Nixon’s announcement in April 1970 of the US military invasion of Cambodia, more than 2,500 students and faculty filled the University Chapel to protest the escalation of the war and to contemplate collective action. On May 4, after a mass meeting of 4,000 students and faculty, a campus-wide anti-war strike began that would last until Commencement 1970.
On the same day at Kent State University, four unarmed students were fatally shot and nine more were wounded by members of the Ohio National Gaurd responding to approximately 500 anti-war protestors. John Filo was a senior working in the student photography lab when the shots rang out. During the confrontation and ensuing chaos, he photographed a fourteen-year-old runaway named Mary Vecchio as she kneeled over the bleeding body of Jeffrey Miller. Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning image transcended documentary photography to become a visual icon of the Vietnam War era, a signifier to this day of cultural memory and the public critique of violence.
Amidst photographs that bear witness to protest, this exhibition presents works of art that cite, splice, and assemble these images of resistance. In Birmingham Race Riot (1964), Andy Warhol crops, reverses, and reprints one of Charles Moore’s iconic images from 1963 to interrogate the ways mass media desensitize the public to violent events. Robert Rauschenberg’s silkscreened collage No. 48, from Surface Series from Currents (1970), incorporates the headline “Anti-War Marchers Back GE Strike,” referring to the General Electric Strike of 1969–70, a protest harnessed by the anti-war movement. Whether through collage or printmaking, these re-presentations underscore the powerful visibility of political movements in this period and investigate the capacity of news media to interpret suffering and courage.
More than a dozen new photography acquisitions, works by leading artists of the decade, and rarely seen highlights from Princeton University’s archives come together in Picturing Protest to contemplate the role that images play, fifty years later, in recalling and reinvigorating social struggle.
In May 1968, as French students took control of the streets of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre interviewed the student movement leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who argued that “what matters is not working out a reform of capitalist society, but launching an experiment that completely breaks with that society, an experiment that will not last, but which allows a glimpse of a possibility: something which is revealed for a moment and then vanishes.” In an American context, the works on view in Picturing Protest are themselves glimpses of possibility. Even if they only fleetingly revealed a potential future, “that is enough,” in Cohn-Bendit’s words, “to prove that something could exist.”
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement