Photo: Benedict Fernandez, Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., Central Park, New York, 1968. Gelatin silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Beinecke Fund, 2.2002.745. Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Over 150 years ago, during the Civil War, the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech titled “Pictures and Progress,” which spoke to the ways in which images shaped our understanding of life. Douglass was speaking at a time when photography had just arrived, creating a type of immediacy comparable to the revolution of the Digital Age. With the advent of photography, the ability to capture moments from life and reproduce them en masse imbued this brand new medium with a superpower: the ability to become agents of justice.
Whereas art had been used as a tool of the upper class, photography leveled the playing field by becoming the first democratic art to find itself in the hands of the people. Anything and anyone could become a subject in its own right, including facts that had been hidden from plain sight. Images have the ability to convey meaning and understanding in ways that words never could, for “seeing is believing,” as the old saying goes. As it turns out, this applies to both first and secondhand experiences. Images have the ability to bear witness and speak truth to power, to right the wrongs of injustice and become a vehicle for change.
As an activist, philosopher, and orator Douglass understood the power of images to right the wrongs of racial injustice that has plagued the United States from its very inception. Douglass was a patriot and as such, he understood the nature of citizenship requires active participation in the movement. The freedom of expression is the foundation upon which all progress is possible. As outlined in Article 11 of the Declaration of Independence, “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”
As patriots, we may be hear the call of the First Amendment and be compelled to create and disseminate truth as well as dismantle lies accordingly. Bestselling author, curator, and Assistant Professor at Harvard University Sarah Lewis does just this, bringing the conversation to the forefront of the national stage in a new exhibition, Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship, now on view at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, through January 8, 2017.
Featuring works by Bruce Davidson, Benedict Fernandez, Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Henry Louis Stephens, the exhibition spans two centuries of American history, providing a contemporary discussion on issues of art, justice, and African-American culture. Vision and Justice speaks to Lewis’s faith in the power of images to bridge the divide by speaking in a language that does not use words to reach our hearts and minds.
Lewis also guest edited the Summer 2016 issue of Aperture magazine, of the same name, to tremendous success as it has already sold out its first printing. In it, she writes, “In 1926, my grandfather was expelled in the eleventh grade in New York City for asking where African Americans were in the history books. He refused to accept what the teacher told him, that African Americans had done nothing to merit inclusion. He was expelled for his so-called impertinence. His pride was so wounded that he never went back to high school. Instead, he went on to become a jazz musician and a painter, inserting images of African Americans in scenes where he thought they should—and knew they did—exist. The endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures, without representational justice.”
Picking up the threads, Lewis weaves together a compelling portrait of African American life since the Civil War, reminding us of the many ways in which images have become catalysts for change, for progress, and for justice.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.