Julian Cox, Rebekah Jacob, Monica Karales. Controversy and Hope: The Civil Rights Photographs of James Karales. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 2013. xxii + 125 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-157-0; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61117-158-7.
Reviewed by Kera Lovell
Published on Jhistory (January, 2014)
Commissioned by Heidi Tworek
Over the past few years the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights movement and the expansion of visual studies scholarship have aligned, facilitating a growing discussion about the movement’s strategic use of media. Reporter Michael Durham, gallery-owner Steven Kasher, and curator Julian Cox have honored the movement’s struggles and successes in beautiful hardbound photographic anthologies. The new collection of images by civil rights movement photographer James Karales, titled Controversy and Hope, continues that conversation. Edited by chief curator for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Julian Cox, the anthology’s ninety-three plates trace the photographer’s documentation of the movement between 1960 and 1965, unveiling never-before-seen photographs and shedding light on a relatively unknown mid-century photographer.
The collection was born from the 2009 exhibition of Karales’s photography—“1968: Controversy and Hope / Iconic Images by James Karales”—at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina. The collection’s ninety-three photos were taken from more than two thousand images across a multitude of archives: the Karales Archive in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Look archives at the Library of Congress, the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, the Rebekah Jacob Gallery, and the Karales family estate. The collection is organized chronologically into five episodes of Karales’s work photographing the movement: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) passive resistance training in 1960 (eight photos), the 1962 SCLC Birmingham Convention (eight photos), the King home and family in 1962 (six photos), King in Birmingham in 1962 (eight), organizing rallies in Birmingham and Atlanta in 1962 and 1963 (nine), and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March as the collection’s dramatic crescendo (fifty-three photos).
Controversy and Hope begins with three brief introductory essays by activist Andrew Young, gallery owner Rebekah Jacob, and curator Julian Cox that provide background on the conception of the collection, Karales’s professional experience, and the context of his civil rights photography. Karales began his career as a professional photographer during the height of the photo essay in the mid-fifties. Cox argues that the medium’s popularity reflected a “seismic shift” in mid-century print journalism, as wirephoto technology along with the expansion of the independent press merged. Cox states that magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Look, Life, Jet, and Ebony “did brisk business and revolutionized the use of photography by publishing stories ... built around a clutch of carefully edited images” (p. 10). Karales’s Greek American heritage immediately informed the subject matter of his first photo projects, which intimately portrayed Greek Americans in Canton, Ohio, and African Americans in the integrated working-class coal-mining town of Rendville, Ohio. His efforts to document the daily lives of working-class minority cultures in the Midwest attracted the attention of photography curator Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), who had just broken ground curating a monumental international multicultural photo exhibition called “The Family of Man.” Blending popular art and journalism, the exhibition featured 273 photographers with 503 pictures from 68 countries. Steichen organized the exhibition as a collection of photo essays—a medium which Steichen argued reflected a stylized, yet objective truth about “‘the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world’” (p. 8). Karales’s photography of working-class minority cultures drew the attention of white middle-class readers in Look magazine, where he worked between 1960 and 1971. In addition to covering some aspects of the civil rights movement, Karales also documented segregation in New York City and civilian deaths in the Vietnam War. Jet centered his work in a human-interest photo essay on Richard Adams—an African American social worker and speech therapist working in an all-white public school in rural Iowa.
Glancing through the collection, readers will quickly notice two themes underscoring the collection: patriotism and religion. Nearly every photo includes an American flag or, in the case of the calendar hanging in the dining room of the King home, an eagle. The flag’s stripes are mimicked in the towering organ pipes framing movement leaders who rallied crowds at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Likewise, religious imagery saturates the collection, with nearly every photo set in a church or featuring a religious symbol or leader. While these motifs begin the collection subtly, their presence dramatically builds through the anthology, consuming your focus by the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, where Karales photographed nuns, priests, rabbis, and preachers bearing crosses and Christ figures, clasping the hands of activists who waved, carried, and even wore gargantuan American flags. The inundation of these symbols is neither circumstantial nor coincidental. Their presence does more than simply reflect the backing of the church and the movement’s quest for the full rights of American citizenship; their repetition was undoubtedly calculated. Although unmentioned by Cox and Jacob, these motifs work to position civil rights activism as herculean—both inherently patriotic and empowered by a force greater than the nation.
Rather than serving as a critique or hard-hitting analysis of Karales’s life and work, Controversy and Hope remains an important primary-source collection that beautifully captures the struggles of the civil rights movement. From the front lines to the King home, Karales chronicled the solace, deliberation, and difficulty activists experienced and faced in their daily lives. Juxtaposing clutter and clarity, darkness and light, Karales presented the movement as a powerful unified front. Ultimately, Controversy and Hope invites current and future scholars to further investigate Karales and the movement, to help answer lingering questions about why Karales’s photographs were seldom exhibited.
Kera Lovell. Review of Cox, Julian; Jacob, Rebekah; Karales, Monica, Controversy and Hope: The Civil Rights Photographs of James Karales.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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