A Place to Resist Apathy: “Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000” at Lane Hall Gallery


Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph]

Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph.

Big town civil disobedience meets big-time photojournalism in Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000 at the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Lane Hall Gallery.

The exhibit features 40 artworks by renowned national and international photographers Nina Berman, Donna Binder, Donna Decesare, Ricky Flores, Frank Fournier, Lori Grinker, Meg Handler, Lisa Kahane, Gabe Kircheimer, Carolina Kroon, Meryl Levin, TL Litt, Dona Ann McAdams, Thomas McGovern, Thomas Muscionico, Brian Palmer, Clayton Patterson, Sandra-Lee Phipps, Sylvia Plachy, Alon Reininger, Richard Renaldi, Joseph Rodriguez, Linda Rosier, Q. Sakamaki, Catherine Smith, and Les Stone.

Lending a timely coherence to this sprawling history are curators Tamar W. Carroll of the Department of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Meg Handler, photographer and former photo editor of The Village Voice; Michael Kamber, New York Times photographer, adjunct faculty of the Columbia Journalism School and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center; and Joshua P. Meltzer, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

As the Women’s Studies exhibit gallery statement tells us, “New York’s streets were turbulent and often violent in the 1980s and 1990s, as residents responded to social changes in their city as well as national and international developments. These photographs highlight both the key roles of activists and journalists in enacting democratic social changes, and invite viewers to reflect on how theses social issues, as well as social movements and the practice of journalism, have evolved in recent decades.”

Lori Grinker, Manhattan 1985 - Guerrilla Girls, black and white photograph.

Lori Grinker, Manhattan 1985 - Guerrilla Girls, black and white photograph.

Add the following information, and the exhibit’s reason for being become abundantly clear, the photojournalists listed above form “a cohort of photographers, born between 1950 and 1970 [committing] themselves to documenting these struggles for social change as they unfolded. Progressive and independent, some published their work in The Village Voice, the nation’s first alternative newsweekly, and some joined the cooperative photo agency Impact Visuals, dedicated to social documentary photography.”

Quite right said because what’s most striking about Whose Streets? Our Streets! is its unvarnished, no-holds-barred investigation of NYC social conflict during what has often been considered a relatively tranquil period in the city’s history. After the turbulent 1960s and equally controversial 1970s, the politically correct take on late 20th century New York City is that “strong” mayors like Rudolph Giuliani were instrumental in cleaning (and clearing) the place up. This exhibit intends to set that record straight.

Among the exhibit’s areas of concern are race relations, police brutality, housing and gentrification, labor, education, the environment, war, LGBTQ rights, HIV/AIDS, feminism, reproductive rights, and censorship. None of these incendiary topics gets short shrift through one lens or another of these stalwart photographers.

For what their work means in practice -- and it’s certainly borne out by the extraordinary oversized color and black and white photos on display at Lane Hall -- is a willingness to publicize marginalized communities pushing social discourse as far as it needs to be pushed. As these photos attest, it’s sometimes necessary to forge a few furious steps forward when the majority of society inevitably wants to take a step back.

As such, and above all else, the key concepts of this display are discord and commitment. Because as Whose Streets? Our Streets! shows us, civil strife through disobedience requires an unequivocal devotion to one’s beliefs in the face of monolithic opposition.

Richard Renaldi, Manhattan, March 24, 1988, black and white photograph

Richard Renaldi, Manhattan, March 24, 1988, black and white photograph.

Take, for example, the issue of Richard Renaldi’s volatile Manhattan, March 24, 1988 where he visually captures a confrontation between New York City’s so-called Finest and a member of the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) group. The “Finest” is a nickname for the New York Police Department going back to the 19th century Civil War while the purpose of ACT UP is to “work towards grassroots social justice through protests highlighting the need to advance medical research, treatment, and advocacy.”

Civil disobedience is always going to be a matter of choosing sides -- and as Renaldi’s black and white photograph illustrates, practice is always going to be harder than theory. As the exhibit tells us, the photo features “Mark Harrington, a member of the ACT UP as he’s getting arrested at a demonstration to lower the prices for AIDS drugs.”

Depending on your point of view, the protest may or may not be a worthwhile civic gesture, but the artwork itself is nothing if not pure partisan photojournalism. Renaldi captures Harrington being dragged away in a classic nonviolent dilemma action tactic where resisting arrest is done by falling limp upon confrontation. As the photograph effectively illustrates, this kind of civil disobedience simultaneously prevents the authorities from effectively responding to mass protests while also highlighting the sometimes-arbitrary use of force against ostensibly passive resistance.

The peaceful dilemma is a high-risk strategy -- and certainly not one for the faint-hearted -- but as Harrington’s photograph dramatically illustrates, this disproportionate incivility lays bare the inherent imbalance between those in power and those not in power. What remained was his willingness to court personal danger while snapping this intense political instance. Not a bad day’s effort for a future 2015 Guggenheim Fellow bravely working his beat.

Sandra Lee Phipps, Manhattan, 1992, black and white photograph

Sandra Lee Phipps, Manhattan, 1992, black and white photograph.

Likewise, Sandra-Lee Phipps’ black and white Manhattan 1992 finds this Atlanta-based photographer injecting herself in the middle of a street protest for reproductive rights. The image is an example of a talented photojournalist capturing a privileged moment despite the unquestionable distracting bustle occurring around her.

The protesting crowd of the photo’s bottom third is compositionally set against a strong horizontal directional streetlight, which is in turn contrasted with an even stronger vertical symbol of a protester defiantly thrusting a menacingly bent metal clothes hanger toward the camera.

Phipps has done her work well. Utilizing one of the most powerful visual icons of self-induced abortion as her key signifier, Phipps shows us the graphic stakes at hand in the battle for reproductive rights. It’s certainly a provocative enough photograph illustrating by scarce indirection the risky back-alley method of birth control practiced when women do not have the right to make such determinations for themselves.

Both these photographs are examples of the clash of conflict by direct action. Yet perhaps the single most gripping photograph in this powerhouse display is New York City-based Sylvia Plachy’s understated 1987 black and white Graffiti Painted Under the Williamsburg Bridge.

Working from the artful principle that less is always more, Graffiti Painted Under the Williamsburg Bridge captures the solitary dimension of social strife. Plachy finds the paradoxical unyielding will to struggle at an abandoned site where the word “AIDS” has been anonymously scrubbed on its side.

In this instance, one word says more than enough. Graffiti has historically been one of the oldest forms of protest -- if only by being an individualistic victory over mass conformity. What Plachy has done with her composition is to contrast light against dark in what might initially seem like a futile gesture in the most unlikely of places.

Yet social protest is also a matter of raising awareness by any means necessary. And as such, even an abandoned shack is not merely an unlikely place to be heard because as Whose Streets? Our Streets! uncompromisingly shows us, there will always be a time and a place to resist apathy.

Plachy finds dissent in Graffiti Painted Under the Williamsburg Bridge -- and she, too, will not be silenced.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000” runs through December 13 at the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Lane Hall Gallery, 204 S. State St., Ann Arbor. Exhibit hours are Monday-Friday from 8 am to 5 pm. For information, call 734-615-6613 or visit irwg.umich.edu