“In Focus Protest”: A Close Look at the New Getty Center Exhibit

When 17 year-old Darnella Fraizer pulled out her phone to record police officers pinning George Floyd to the ground in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she had no idea of the extent to which that video would forever change the narrative of racial inequality. (change racial inequality)

The Getty Center “In Focus Protest” exhibit detail

“Camera in hand, photographers often take to the streets, recording protests and demonstrations or bearing witness to daily injustices to make them more widely known. Such images have inspired change for generations”, says the title of the exhibition “In Focus Protest”. At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, overlooking the bustling city skyline, is a small room dedicated to this exhibition.

Like the video recorded by Frazier that sparked the largest movement in the United States, photographs and videos have the ability to document and capture the specific sentiment of a protest. This specific sentiment can then be transmitted, invoking others to feel the anger, sadness, and passion of such protestors.

Despite being held in such a small room, the impact of the photographs displayed was enormous.

One of the first photographs displayed is titled “American Flag”, captured by American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1977.

“American Flag” by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1977

“It is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are.”

Cesar Chavez

When looking at this photograph, you will find something common among other photographs of the American flag: the flag is standing tall and flying freely in the wind, symbolizing a widely-valued American ideal of freedom. However, you will also notice that this flag is tethered and ripped. “Mapplethorpe evoked the frayed character of American ideals during a period when equal rights for gay men and women in the United States seemed nearly unimaginable”, says the photo blurb.

Left: “Vietnam Pro Demonstration” by Mary Ellen Mark, 1968;
Right: “Jose Rodriguez-Soltero Burned a Flag in a New York Happening Protesting U.S. Foreign Policy. No legal Action Was Taken against Him but the City Tried–Unsuccessfully–to Revoke the Theater’s License” by Fred W. McDarrah, 1966

Following the concept of photographing the American flag, the next two images juxtaposed demonstrate the polarizing contestation of the symbol of the flag. From a symbol of undying patriotism to a symbol of injustice and oppression, the flag may possess different meanings to Americans. Both photographs displayed were taken during the Vietnam War.

“Fannie Lou Hamer” by Louis Draper, 1971

One of the main things that draws you to this photograph is Hamer’s gaze. As a determined voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer encouraged, “Let’s try to get together. And strive to be yourself and not somebody else”.

“March from Selma, Alabama” by Bruce Davidson, 1965

As the face of the exhibition, this photograph omits a sense of outcry, a long struggle for justice. One of the main aspects of the photograph to note is the age of the boy in the focal point — here, Bobby Simmons was just 18 years old. Davidson states, “I wanted to see them [the marchers] as individuals, not just as symbolic silhouettes in a faceless crowd”. It is important to note the importance especially of the youth’s participation as a symbol of innocence and hopefulness for a more just society.

Following along the themes of youth are two images taken fifty years apart, in two different cities, during two different issues, by the same photographer. Immediately we can observe alikeness between the two images — the fearlessness and leadership put on by young women. On the left and the right we can see girls of a similar age bracket, who have seized agency in the face of oppression.

“Robert F. Kennedy and Cesar Chavez Celebrate Mass as Chavez Breaks a Twenty-Five Day Fast, Delano, California” by William James Warren, 1968

“It is how we use our lives that determines what kind of men we are”, says Chavez at a hunger strike alongside Filipino and Latino farmworkers.

“Malcolm X Speaks at a Rally in Harlem at 115th St. & Lenox Ave,. New York” by Adger Cowans, 1963

The exhibition later takes you to these three photographs, all taken at protests and rallies, but at different angles. Freed’s photograph focuses on individual faces, Adelman’s shows the depth of the protest crowd, and Cowan’s provides a bird’s eye view.

“Screen” by Glenn Ligon, 1996

Taking up an entire wall of a four-walled exhibit is Ligon’s “Screen”, where he took and enlarged a newspaper photograph from the Million Man March in Washington, DC. “Ligon has noted that while the march was meant to inspire African American unity, women and gay men were excluded”, says the photograph’s blurb. Ligon states, “I’m interested in what citizenship is in a democratic country… and the responsibilities that come with it”. On the video screen is Louis Farrakhan, a controversial organizer of the Million Man March.

“These are the Thoughts That Set Fire to Your City” by Anthony Friedkin, 1993

Graffiti and riots generally hold a negative connotation in the public sphere, yet both have something in common: disruption. This photograph follows the 1992 Rodney Kidney Riots that happened across Los Angeles.

“Untitled #10” by Catherine Opie, 2009

Here, we witness young people and their symbolization of hope and innocence. The boys take a playful stance on a perch in the National Mall, trying to get a closer look at the ceremony. Taken during President Obama’s inauguration as the country’s first black President, these boys represent the dawning of a new age of America.

“Fragment VI: General Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, Louisiana” by An-My Le, 2017
“George Floyd Projection, Richmond, Virginia” by Kris Graves, 2020

With the dawning of the new age of America, we can observe and reflect on history and how we can improve. The above images prove this struggle and America’s reckoning with its troubled past. In the top photograph is the statue of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States Army, getting moved into a storage unit after being on display for the general public. On the bottom image is Lee’s statue with graffiti and George Floyd’s face and BLM projected.

“Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco” by Dorothea Lange, 1942

Children’s symbol of hope and innocence can also be tied to their shielding from the “outside world”. Here we have a young Japanese girl reciting the American pledge of allegiance with much determination and passion, all while the United States government would take Japanese Americans into internment camps weeks later, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Top: “Trolley, New Orleans” by Robert Frank, 1955
Bottom: “Railway Station, Memphis, Tennessee” by Robert Frank, 1955

A Swiss photographer, Frank states, “America is an interesting country… but there is a lot here that I do not like and that I would never accept. I am also trying to show this in my photos”. In both of these photos we see the harsh realities of segregation in America, which can be truly taken in and understood from an outsider’s perspective.

Top left: “Women’s Campaign Train for Hughes”, by Underwood & Underwood, 1916
Top right: “Untitled” by Bill Owens, 1970s
Bottom left: “A Women’s Liberation Marcher is Temporarily Overwhelmed by a Group of Women Marching against the Women’s Liberation Movement in Downtown Los Angeles” by Robert Flora, 1979
Bottom right: “Birmingham, Alabama” by Bruce Davidson, 1970s

These four photographs capture the tenacity of women and their vital role in inciting change and starting conversations. Though varying in different issues and taken in different time periods, we can see how women have pervaded the sphere in order to demand change.

Photography and video is vital in evoking empathy and emotion in us, as a community, state, and nation in ways that written word does not have the ability to do. By invoking different senses, we are able to step into the world of protests, empathize with protestors’ struggles, and evidently, use the energy and passion to drive the change in becoming a more perfect union.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Julianna. I’ve really enjoyed your first post and looking forward to more. You inspired me to plan a visit to the Getty with my mother later this month on her visit from NYC. It’s been a long time since I stepped into a gallery. This is a great peak at what’s there.

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