Photography's documentary impulse is particularly well-suited to images of politics and public gatherings, in which the energy of ambition, protest and mass enthusiasm is exuded in decisive moments that often play powerfully before the camera. This exhibition offers a remarkable range of photographs that span the medium's early days in the mid-1800s to the postmodern era of the late 1980s, with everything from rustic images of political rallies to conceptual photo-montages of presidential power.
Images of presidential inaugurations, for example, are among the political events that attracted the best-equipped photographers of the 19th century, beginning with the inauguration of James Buchanan (the first such event to be photographed). Buchanan, in fact, was among the first American presidents to sit for photographic portraits, and is the subject of a superb and rare Matthew Brady daguerreotype that survives as a salt print, as do other Brady images of the day.
Indeed, every early photographic style and standard--daguerreotype, salt print, even magic lantern slides--was pressed into service to capture politicians and crowds in those burgeoning days of the American republic, when larger-than-life figures such as Teddy Roosevelt waved from steamboat decks. By the early 20th century, of course, the enduring standard of the silver print lent itself to all manner of political personage and event, from presidents in motorcades to trade-union protests and civil-rights demonstrations, as well as violent moments such as the police clubbing of communist demonstrators in New York in the 1930s.
Not surprisingly, it is New York City--America's great metropolis, always a drawing card for the politically extreme and the intellectually daring --that serves as the backdrop for a good many dramatic political images. The sight of the Black Panthers on the march in the turbulent, revolutionary era of the 1960s, or of sympathetic intellectuals such as Susan Sontag being arrested for her political stridency, are the sort of classic New York images that fill this exhibit. At the same time, the waves of politics are evident far afield of the great cities--in heartland locales such as Iowa, where photos of political rallies capture the fresh, hopeful faces of the Midwest, or Little Rock, Arkansas, where rural poverty and racial tensions are sadly evident.
If anything, American politics makes its home in Washington, D.C., and intimate photographs of sitting presidents, such as a youthful John F. Kennedy, are the handiwork of privileged official photographers such as Jacques Lowe, while images of great moments in the shadow of Washington's great monuments resonate powerfully. Then there are the strong, narratively expressive images of newspaper photographers such as Arthur John Daley, who can place the viewer squarely in the midst of politicians as vivid as Nelson Rockefeller as they press the flesh on the campaign trail.
And yet, as much as American politics has lent itself to great documentary photography, it has been just as ripe for satiric and conceptual art, and photos are often the medium of choice when it comes to modern political commentary. Consider Christophe (Krzysztof) Pruszkowski's eerie photo multiple exposures, conflating the faces of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, or those of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Nixon, Carter and Reagan, in single images that suggest the blur of personality, events and policy, and the frequent interchangeability of political aims, that are among the legacies of the world's great democracy. In its way, this exhibit is as sprawling and sensational as America itself.