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Art + Activism : Summer of '68: Photographing the Black Panthers, at the Norton Museum of Art

The Norton Museum of Art is currently exhibiting Summer of ‘68: Photographing the Black Panthers. The exhibit features 22 photographs recently acquired by the museum which were shot by husband and wife duo, Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch. The photographs document the lives and activities of the people of Black Panthers Movement in Oakland, CA during the tumultuous summer of 1968. The collection of work casts an empathetic light on a side of the Party, who were traditionally viewed as a militant and violent subset of the Civil Rights Movement.

Pirkle Jones Black Panther demonstration, Alameda Co. Court House, Oakland, CA during Huey Newton's Trial 1968

"We photographed the Black Panthers intensively from July into October of 1968, during the peak of a historic period and in the Bay Area, where the Black Panthers National Headquarters is located. We couldn't possibly photograph all the aspects of this virile, rapidly growing, and deep-rooted movement, but we can show you: this is what we saw, this is what we felt, and these are the people." - Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch, 1969

Both Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones were very accomplished photographers in their own right. Baruch, a Jewish American received her MFA at Ohio University studying under the godfather of photo, Ansel Adams and working alongside Edward Weston, Minor White and Homer Page. Jones was equally accomplished, studying photography at the California School of Fine Arts after serving in the Army and working as Ansel Adams assistant for 6 years, maintaining a close personal friendship long after. He also worked collaborated with Dorothea Lange, the famous documentarian, on a photographic essay about Death Valley. Baruch and Jones met while working at Adams' school and were married for 47 years until Baruch’s death in 1997.

Baruch was interested in the Black Panther Movement as allies towards similar causes (she was involved in the Peace and Freedom Party with Jones). She sheepishly mentioned to her curator friend, Jack McGregor, Director of the De Young Museum, that she wanted to photograph the Party “but who would show it?” McGregor quickly retorted with, “I will!” After meeting with Kathleen Cleaver, the Parties Communications Secretary, Ruth-Marion Baruch is given an opportunity to meet her husband, Eldridge Cleaver, which leads to her first attendance at a Free Huey rally in DeFemery Park. Pirkle Jones was a last minute add-on as Baruch was worried about getting lost driving to the rally. This became one of the first of many gatherings that the artists attended. After seeing Baruch’s initial images, Kathleen Cleaver was so impressed that she gave the couple uninhibited access to the group and never restricted how their images were presented.

Visually there are significant differences between the two artists.

Pirkle Jones' imagery tends to use a wider lens to capture groups of people, arranging a balanced composition by using repetition to show visual and conceptual harmony.

Pirkle Jones Plate glass window of the Black Panther Party National Headquarters, the morning it was shattered by the bullets of two Oakland policemen, September 10, 1968. 1968

Pirkle Jones. Audience and Ruth-Marion Baruch with camera at Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland August 25, 1968

Ruth-Marion Baruch captures a humanity of the Black Panthers which is rarely seen. She is interested in the portrait, shining a light on a singular individual. She captures tender interactions between Black Panthers attending rallies while feeding their children and holding their spouses

Ruth-Marion Barch Mother and child, De Femery Park, Oakland, CA 1968

Ruth-Marion Baruch Black Panther feeding son at Free Huey Rally, Oakland. 1968 - Baruch gives a nod to The Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which was a community service program run by the Black Panther Party. The Panthers would cook and serve food to the poor inner city youth of the area.

The show almost never surfaced as the De Young Museum nearly cancelled the show fearing backlash. Jones and Baruch pushed back against censorship and the photographs were finally displayed at the museum in December of 1968. The show was controversial (Ansel Adams thought the show was wildly inappropriate) and reached nearly 100,000 people before travelling to other museums.

Attendees at the original exhibition at the De Young Museum, December 1968

Museum visitor viewing the exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art, September 2015

The Norton exhibit includes video from the Black Panther Party Library Archives discussing it’s 10 point program and highlighting the movements differences between King’s SCLC non-violent strategy and Malcom X’s nationalistic tactics. You can also peruse through the book Black Power ; Flower Power which offers in depth and first hand accounts about the lifes of the artists, their work in San Francisco and Oakland as well as images that aren’t in the current collection.

Black Power- Flower Power, this book is free to read while at the Norton

The show is up from September 26th (the museum is currently installing a new exhibit so it will be closed until then) through January 17. 2016.

Free things are really great. Free entry to a museum because you are a Florida resident, even greater! Do yourself a favor, capitalize on this every Thursday at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL.

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