Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MLK, Selma and Dennis Hopper 1965

On Monday we got the ritual observances we’ve come to expect on MLK Day: the pictures of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at the March on Washington in 1963; the fragments of the “I Have a Dream” speech that most of us have cemented in our memories, if not our everyday practices; the majesty of King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; the fiery power of his last speech, in Memphis, the night before the world changed on April 4, 1968.

But we can’t forget Alabama in 1965, and the arduous journey that took King and thousands of his supporters from Selma to Montgomery on a march that subjected them to the American South at its worst, a region in the height of Jim Crow rage.

Over days in late March 1965, coping with chilling rain, police harassment and the wide range of physical challenges that befall any group of people marching 57 miles in open country, the civil rights marchers made their way on a journey that remains, in many ways, the distilling symbolic experience of the civil rights era.

That year, Dennis Hopper — yes, folks, that Dennis Hopper, the maverick actor, screenwriter, activist and (at that time) fledgling photographer — took his camera and went to Alabama to document what was happening.

Some of what he captured in March 1965 found its way into “Dennis Hopper: Signs of the Times,” a recent exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in lower Manhattan. It’s resurfaced again; the Vanity Fair Web site has republished nine of the images from the exhibition in a slideshow you’ll find at this link.

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The images from the VF slideshow bear an emotional velocity that punches through the years and into the present day:

King at the podium on what was almost certainly March 25, 1965, the day the third and final march between Selma and Montgomery was completed. Facing a thicket of microphones, speaking truth to power, King delivered the celebrated “How long? Not long” oration that still resonates.

As you can see in the photo above, Hopper allows the natural drama of the moment to dominate. There are no tricks or sleight of hand by perspective (like photographing King from below and face on, for example — a more conventional composition for depicting an imposing authority figure). There’s a welcome directionality to the composition; Hopper took the shot roughly level with the orator; he approaches King as an equal, rather than a god. Considering what was said that day, it makes great sense

A second Hopper image that seems to convey the spirit of the march — and certainly the stakes — is a shot of a young black boy, maybe seven or eight years old with eyes and a face as old as time, as old as the struggle that was in his blood and his bones before he was even born. If you want another timeless moment, look closer: He wears a cap marked FULL EMPLOYMENT, this little brother too young to be gainfully employed himself — back then.

In light of the current jobs and economic crisis, you have to wonder where he is today. How old he is now — 52? 53? In the prime of his employable years? How does that long-ago message resonate for him in today’s economy?

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What Dennis Hopper documented in those pivotal American days, what Martin Luther King said in that dangerous time, are more than just mildly interesting fragments of history. A meaningful photograph has a way of being a time machine, of marking a moment in the past that projects itself meaningfully into the future. What it documents is as important when we see it — whenever we see it — as it was the day it was taken.

Monday was MLK Day in America. We’ve only to look back at these photos, and other images that are the visual fabric of postwar America, to recall how long ago the struggle for what we take for granted was.

And how recently.

Image credits: Photographs: © 1965, 2010 Dennis Hopper. Images from “Dennis Hopper: Signs of the Times,” courtesy Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York. Directly republished from Vanity Fair.com.

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