Born and raised in Northeast Portland, photojournalist Bev Grant long ago moved to New York where, while Portland slept, the world was happening.
Grant is a self-declared radical and makes no claim to journalistic objectivity. She and her 35mm Pentax dove headlong into the political activism and nascent feminist movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Those heady times, now nearly forgotten, are brought back to life in Grant’s highly personal images, as in this photo of the Fillmore East Takeover (1968):
Grant has returned to Portland with a show of her “political” photographs at Reed College’s Cooley Art Gallery. I do not know yet which of Grant’s images are in the Cooley exhibit, so this is neither a review nor a preview. Instead, it is an introduction to a radical young woman’s visual record of a turbulent time, a body of work that was part journalism, part propaganda—and, due to Grant’s strong eye, often art. Although I was shaped by some of the same social unrest as Grant was (albeit more as an outside witness than a cohort), my interest here is not the politics or the history but the artistry Grant could capture in the tender and tumultuous streets of New York.
Photojournalism is its most powerful, I believe, when it rises to art. But the marriage of art and journalism is a precarious union. One partner relies on creative imagination while the other is tied to a witnessed reality. Making it work, as with any good marriage, is largely a mystery. The French photography critic Roland Barthes believed that the key to a powerful photograph is what he called “the punctum”—the detail, often subtle, that leaps off the image and triggers the viewer to feel rather than see. This 1937 photo of a Depression food line by Margaret Bourke-White illustrates Barthes’ thesis:
The message of the image is, of course, the “big lie,” the core contradiction in the American story. However, the key to the image’s power, its “punctum,” is the woman directly under the “American Way” slogan, holding an empty basket while eyeing suspiciously the white lady behind the camera. The other figures in line are all but interchangeable while the happy family on the billboard are just caricatures posing for a toothpaste ad. But that one woman’s proud gaze reaches the heart of the viewer, and her basket becomes the focal point of the image.
Grant’s photos, like all documentary photography, are primarily a vivid record of events and times. That is reason enough to experience them. But Grant, like Bourke-White, can rise beyond that, reaching dramatic heights. She does so with this potent image (above) from her series Robert Kennedy Assassination. Distilling a nation’s shock, the news vendor’s right hand is poised in the shadow between the frozen sadness of his face and stacks of the New York Post’s “Critical” headline. All the concentrated hope and fear of the moment comes to rest on that hand. Within hours, it would be wiping away tears.
Grant’s lens could grab exuberant joy and irony as artfully as it did grief. In this image of The Miss America Pageant Protest (1968), Grant anchors the composition with the abstract mass of a black shroud draping the beauty queen poster as if a bottle of India ink had been poured over the print. To the right of the caricature’s fake smile shines the genuine grin of a protester, capturing her glee in a moment of power. The diagonal line of string that she controls, acting like a razor partitioning the image, divides the real from the fake, the past from the future. (Grant also used a diagonal line in the Kennedy Assassination image, but there it serves more to tie than to divide.)
In this photograph from her New Haven Demo series, Grant’s eye found art in fury as well. The somber shadow of a distorted profile against a blazing white stack of pamphlets turns what could be just one more image of raised fists into a surreal symphony of irresistible determination. It’s as if a Golem from another time has joined the movement. Again, a subtle “punctum” transforms seeing into feeling with a visual power fifty years strong.
No matter which of Grant’s images might be displayed, her show at Reed will be a window to a time half a century ago when America’s powerless found their voice.
- March 28 – June 11, 2022
- Cooley Art Gallery, Reed College
- Free and open to the public
- Public viewing dates to be announced. Visit website for information.
- Reservations required for exhibition viewing
- Proof of vaccination and booster required on campus
This essay was first published by Portland artist David Slader as part of his most recent art letter to subscribers, and is republished here with permission. In the full letter, which you can see via the link, he also discusses his own most recent painting, and impending action by the Supreme Court in the case of Andy Warhol, a photograph of the musician Prince, and copyright law.