Neon Signs in Havana de Cuba

By Claire Boobbyer | May 6, 2019

In the 1950s, Havana was aglow with thousands of neon signs. Now, one man has made it his mission to shine a light on the Cuban capital’s vintage past:


In the mid-1900s, Havana twinkled with thousands of technicolour tubes of neon. The city’s glitterati flocked to grand theatres glowing with multi-coloured facades. Bars thrumming with jukebox tunes beckoned Habaneros inside with flashing signs. And on the city streets, the seductive curves and chrome of American-made cars glinted in the neon-lit night. Havana was a city shining in decadence, culture and art.

But following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, government regulations and different economic priorities forced many of Havana’s swanky venues to shutter, leaving their neon signs to go black with them. Decades of economic turmoil and tight trade restrictions under the US embargo have made it difficult to repair these rusted relics, and Havana’s once-bright signs have all but faded from memory.

With a little bit of light, locals can see the city’s wrinkles and the light of history 

Now, more than half a century later, a Cuban artist is switching the city’s vintage neon tubes back on and relighting Havana’s streetscapes for the city’s 500th birthday in 2019. During the past three years, artist Kadir López has been painstakingly rescuing and restoring the city's vintage signs one by one as part of his Habana Light Neon + Signs project. So far, he and his team have resurrected more than 50 signs to their former glory. And, nearly 40 years after it closed, López re-opened Havana’s famous Rex Cinema in April as the new REX Neon Center.

“Neon has illuminated the dark and allowed people to see what they didn’t see before,” López told me as we sat in the REX. “The effect of neon is phenomenal. People are looking at the city in a different way. With a little bit of light, locals can see the city’s wrinkles and the light of history.”

From the 1930s to 1950s, when bars, boudoirs and burlesque lured the mafia, the rich and the libertine to Cuba, Havana was ablaze with neon signs advertising bawdy theatre, sequinned showgirls, Golden Age celluloid, restaurants and other businesses. Havana had its own Broadway – named Calle 23 – and more than 140 cinemas (more than New York and Paris had at the time), all gleaming with neon.

In the 1960s, after the Communist Cuban Revolution closed and nationalised corporate American businesses, Castro’s new government invested in ballet, art, theatre and film, but not in the city’s ageing streets and architecture. Havana’s high-voltage signs were torn down or left to wither in situ like dead fireflies.


But thanks to the state’s increased legalisation of private businesses, property sales and foreign investment within the last decade, a growing number of Havana entrepreneurs have begun commissioning neon signs for their new businesses. This newfound commercial interest, coupled with financing from international sponsors for individual signs, has led López’s restoration project to slowly begin re-lighting the once-bright neon signs adorning state-run theatres, cinemas and restaurants that had gone dark in recent decades.

López woos potential sponsors with the line “These are abandoned creatures [that] need adopting”.

These are abandoned creatures that need adopting 


Restoring these neon relics is a painstaking process. Once López and his team receive a commission, they set up scaffolding to carefully remove and lower the old sign with rope. They then place it in the back of a pickup truck, drive it back to López’s workshop in the Kohly neighbourhood and begin slowly removing any rust before heating the tubes to bend the letters perfectly back into place. Restoring one sign may take between two or three weeks, depending on the condition of the sign and the complexity of each design. Once the sign is repaired, they’ll drive it back and resurrect it in its original location.

Like delicate filigree, López’s bright signs are also helping to shine a light on Havana’s wealth of Baroque, Art Deco and Spanish colonial facades. His team is currently restoring the gloriously curlicue Fin de Siglo sign on the eponymous department store on Galiano Street, signs for the San Rafael Boulevard and the entire neon constellation at the city's famous Tropicana Cabaret. In the past three years, López and his team have restored sparkling tubes for Central Park’s Hotel Inglaterra, the Cine El Mégano theatre and the storied Mella Theatre. Some 150 additional neon signs have been commissioned for restoration.

López grew up in Havana, whose streets were littered with rusted and burnt-out signs, but it wasn't until 10 years ago that he became interested in using old signage in his art work – a journey that eventually led him to neon. López began salvaging American petrol station signs from Havana backyards and layering them with 1950s archival photographs. He also began sifting through old maps, albums, letters and discarded signs around Cuba. Some of these signs sported the tell-tale puncture holes of neon tubes. López then took pictures of Havana theatre and cinema facades and translated these snapshots into oil on large-scale canvases for a series displayed during the 2012 Havana Biennial.

López continued to be intrigued by the puncture holes after the 2012 exhibition, and began thinking about incorporating neon into his art. “My training had all been classic, in the durability of art, so I found it hard to define neon as art,” he said. “The light of the neon – a gas in a tube that can’t escape – is akin to putting something in jail where it dies. But then I thought, that same light, the neon, gives a chance to illuminate and make change.”

In a country that produces very little, forcing thousands to go bulk shopping in Miami and Panama for everything from spare tools to paint, López wondered how he could make neon with limited materials. But his light-bulb moment came when he tracked down two Cuban glass workers and began repairing existing tubes using old tools discovered in Havana. A fortuitous meeting with Cuban-American neon sign restorer Adolfo Nodal and an introduction to Jeff Friedman of New York’s Let There Be Neon studio forged the perfect fit. With Nodal’s background and Friedman's expertise, logistics and donated supplies, López’s Habana Light Neon + Signs project was born.

López converted his backyard in Havana into a workshop. It soon took on the appearance of an unkempt graveyard with signs, wires and jumbled neon. He was at the point of quitting when he learned that Cuba’s first multiplex theatre, the 1938-built Rex Cinema, could be rented from the government. Undeterred by decades of stacked sewage inside the abandoned 650-sq-m space, López and a team of construction workers began restoring the Rex and the adjacent former Cine Duplex, transforming the two into the new multipurpose REX Neon Center.

The neon gives a chance to illuminate and make change 


In addition to housing a dazzling display of restored signs, the newly opened centre features displays about Havana's neon heritage and an array of old neon lights. The former Cine Duplex will feature a lecture space, a theatre to screen films about art and a gallery featuring the work of Cuban artists. A production centre with an in-house glass worker is set to open in the future. The hope, according to López and Nodal, is to interest young Cubans in neon light work.

Nodal’s backstory could not be more perfect to help spark Havana’s neon revolution. He spent 25 years restoring 300 signs in Los Angeles, driving the streets “like the neon police,” he said. These days, when Nodal is in Havana working on the project with López, he spends his time sifting the streets in search of forlorn dangling signs. “We want to protect them now as people will take them down,” he said.

“The ultimate goal is to bring back a sense of light in the public realm,” Nodal said. “It’s great to see an artist changing the way a city looks.”

I left the REX, walking past the blinking scarlet-red Cinecito sign towards the ice-blue letters signalling the Inglaterra and set up my camera to capture these treasures glowing in the dusk. The street was thronged with tourists and locals, and as they strolled under the neon signs fronting the city’s theatres, cinemas and cocktail bars, Havana never seemed to shine brighter.

LOOK SOUTH : Rebekah Jacob on Curating Photography

As an art dealer and curator specializing in Southern images, it has been a dutiful exploration of my own heritage to exhibit photography that has captured the beautiful, sober accretion of a place geographically below the Mason-Dixon and east of Texas (inclusive, of course). I have worked to focus on photographers whose images chronicle a region that feeds our imagination and that we trust no matter what. For the curator and artist alike, numerous exhibitions are about a land of which we profess a fondness and continue to artistically explore.


From the beginning of Rebekah Jacob Gallery, photographers — such as, Eudora Welty, Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, among others — have been essential to our curatorial program. The South at the center point of these WPA-era artists’s oeuvres, their pluralism of Southern themes becomes a poetic documentation that encompasses—and exceeds—Southern borders.

Perhaps current selections in our flat-files are a microcosm of a long, planned and unplanned road trips: images of clapboard churches, bottle trees, dilapidated structures — all waiting on someone to arrive. There are also images of bar-b-q joints whose interior decorations sparkle with white tiled walls, stuffed deer heads, ketchup bottles and checkered table cloths. These artstists’ raw, unstaged material share imagination between the photographer and viewer, spurring questions like, “Is this ‘for real’ or a movie set?’”


As a curator and broker over the past twenty years, I have been honored to sift through hundreds of thousands of images, working carefully to select photos that poignantly tell of the South, my South…our South. I mostly black/white images but color images, too, that tell of the region’s mythic terrain, African American heritage, and compulsiveness with religion (God Bless; Jesus Saves). Throughout countless projects, I am always reminded of the technical genius the artists’ concise eyes, inherent skills of knowing when to click the shutter, and undeniable patience for the subject matters. Studying these artists through their visual essays, I have come to believe that it their dedication to the medium, personal kindness, and genuine spirit that grants a fate of being at the right place at the right time.

To watch concepts doodled on a legal pad evolve into coherent, visual projects is a patient and often grueling, frustrating process. However, the labor and time of these projects always manifest themselves into a stunning selection of photography. And we at the the Rebekah Jacob Gallery hope viewers alike will experience the story of a place (below the Mason-Dixon), whose intrinsic complexities are at the root of Heritage and a place for which we are proud, no matter what.

Yours Truly (And Southern by the Grace of God):

Rebekah Jacob ; Owner and Found of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery

Raul Corrales : The Subtlety of Cuba

On an art hunt in the late 90s (during Cuba’s Special Period), I met the great Raul Corrales. He was wearing a straw hat, trunks, and flip flops and seemed as grumpy about the heat as he did visitors. In time, he warmed up to me and allowed the, in his words, “the only blonde on the island” to sift though his treasures. I spent a long, hot afternoon with the Great, and remember our conversations and his photographic treasures well.

Raul Corrales was Castro's official photographer from 1959 to 1961. While Korda tended to glorify the revolution and its leaders, Corrales's work was more subtle, reflecting the hardship of a small nation trying to find a new way. One example was a picture showing two pairs of legs outside a café, one wearing ragged trousers and barefoot, the other sporting crisp blue jeans, a leather machete sheath and fine laced boots - a telling reminder of inequality before the revolution.


Caballería (or Cavalry), shows a ragged band of straw-hatted revolutionaries riding on to a plantation of the US-owned United Fruit Company plantation in 1959. The shot was actually taken months after the revolution, and showed Castro supporters re-enacting an 1895 battle in the Cuban war of independence. But Corrales and Castro were well aware of its propaganda significance.

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In terms of pure art, Corrales's photograph El Sueño (The Dream, 1959) is generally considered a classic. It shows an exhausted guerrilla asleep on a military cot beneath a framed portrait of a voluptuous woman wearing only a pearl necklace. With one arm resting behind his head, the man echoes the woman's pose, while his rifle, and his cap resting on his groin, add a subtle eroticism suggested by the photograph's title.


Since Corrales was considered something of a national treasure in Cuba, biographies usually locate his birthplace in the province of Ciego de Avila, though some reports suggest he was born in Galicia, Spain, and brought to Cuba as an infant, when his father sought work on the sugar plantations. He himself began as an assistant in a photographic laboratory in 1944, and started taking pictures in the 1950s for the communist newspaper Noticias de Hoy and such magazines as Bohemia and Carteles.

Among his early subjects was Ernest Hemingway, who lived on-and-off between Key West, Florida, and the village of Cojímar, outside Havana, where he got the inspiration to write The Old Man and the Sea. The "old man" of the story was Anselmo Hernández, a fisherman and neighbour of Corrales, and the three men, along with Hemingway's yacht captain Gregorio Fuentes, became regular drinkers at the El Curro bar, on the Cojímar seafront.

While Korda made no shame in photographing to meet beautiful women, Corrales's pictures of poor peasants before the revolution reflected the popular ideals held by the guerrilla leaders. Commenting on Corrales's portraits of desperate sugar-cane cutters and banana farmers, Korda reportedly once told him: "When there's no longer misery in Cuba, Raúl, you're going to starve to death." To be fair, when asked years later to analyse his generation of Cuban photographers, he observed: "And then there's Raúl Corrales, who's the greatest of us all."

Buyers on the Art Hunt for Cuban Art Look to the Rebekah Jacob Gallery

Featured on the Vacation Idea Blog

Discovering, curating, promoting, and placing incredible artworks and photographs from the Southern United States and around Latin America in leading collections and prime locations around the world is the aim of Rebekah Jacob through her Rebekah Jacob Gallery. A passionate expert in the diverse art and photography seen in the South and Latin America, Jacob is one of the most trusted names in the field. Here's all you need to know about Rebekah Jacob and her ground-breaking gallery: 

- A Passionate Founder - With a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Art History, and a Certificate in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts, as well as art history teaching experience and a lifelong love and passion for art, particularly from the South and Latin America, Rebekah Jacob is a true master of her craft. A fully certified member of the International Society of Appraisers, Jacob formed her own gallery with a view to sourcing incredible artworks from her chosen locations and bringing these pieces to art lovers and collectors around the globe.

- Striving For Greatness - Jacob has used her extensive knowledge and experience throughout the art world to launch a gallery that really is making a difference. She has brokered, curated, and consulted on countless pieces of fine art and photography for many different collections and museums, working with both private collectors and cultural locations like big city galleries to find the perfect pieces for every party. Constantly striving for improvement, Jacob continues to curate, exhibit, appraise, and broker more and more artworks from all around the South and locations like Cuba.

- Art For A Cause - A big reason why Rebekah Jacob focused so strongly on art from the South and Latin America is the immense social and political influence many of these pieces had on their repsective regions. Many of the photographs and artworks she has curated and brokered from the South, for example, explored the Civil Rights Movement. She has also taken part in talks, studies, projects, and seminars regarding the importance of art and photography in civic and political movements through history.

Read more here, all the while planning your next dream vacation.

Rebekah Jacob of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery on an Art Hunt throughout Havana de Cuba. Photo credit : J. Kevin Foltz

Rebekah Jacob of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery on an Art Hunt throughout Havana de Cuba. Photo credit : J. Kevin Foltz

Rebekah Jacob on Curating Cuban Revolutionary Photography

Rebekah Jacob continues to curate rare vintage Cuban Revolutionary photographs via physical and digital platforms. Thankfully, many collectors, dealers, and institutions join our mission and lend key works to these projects — expanding creativity, developing scholarship, and increasing market rate.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was one of the most spectacular political events of the twentieth century. A dramatic chapter in the Cold War, the improbable overthrow of the dictator Fulgenico Batista by a ragtag band of young Communist guerillas and intellectuals occurred just ninety miles from the United States. Tracing the movement from the triumphal entry of the rebels into Havana on January 1, 1959, to the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, these images show the tremendous influence of photography in recording and encouraging the revolutionary movement in Cuba. Among the most outstanding works in our collection of rare vintage prints are Alberto Korda's famous portrait of Che Guevara titled "Heroic Guerrilla" and never-before-seen images of Che's death in Bolivia in 1967. Our inventory features work from over thirty photographers, including important images of pre-Revolutionary Cuba in the 1950s by Constantino Arias as well as classic images by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Raúl Corrales, and Burt Glinn, among others. Cuba in Revolutionexplores everyday life in Cuba before and after the Revolution and considers the ways in which both Cuban and foreign photojournalists helped construct the image of the revolution abroad.

By Rebekah Jacob

"There is no doubt the these photographic projects make me a more well-rounded curator and dealer. As a gallery owner, I must delicately balance creativity, capitalism, and journalism in order to sustain my fine art enterprise. This I have learned over time and having made many mistakes. The Cuban Revolutionary photography projects have been a key case study in my career in three ways:
Creatively, through formal education, apprenticeships with top dealers, and global travel to curate inventory, I have mastered my eye and advanced my level of connoisseurship for top-quality, rare artwork — particularly of this genre. 
Advanced skill-sets are necessary and diversely applicable when curating exquisite rare photographs, such as those by Cuban Greats (Alberto Korda, Osvaldo Salas, Raul Corrales, i.e.). Through extensive travel the US, Europe and particularly Cuba, I have sifted through countless private collections, museum collections, and have worked with the most rare material to come from that period.  I still find the material alluring and magical.
Fiscally, the Cuban Revolutionary photography projects have been very large investments of time, money, and travel. Journalistically, I continue to be fascinated by motion makers; and over time, I developed a calling towards Southern documentary photography, Civil Rights Photography, and particularly Cuban Revolutionary photography –– timeless images that document those socially changing the world.

I have seen many of RJG’s projects –– both exhibitions and publications –– take on their own organic forms, becoming a voice for thousands who sacrificed to change the world. RJG continues to take on historical projects that explore monumental themes about social change.
I would argue that I have come to know the Cuban Revolutionary collections, photograph by photograph, more intimately than any other curator or dealer in the Art World today. As I leaf through boxes of inventory on top of my flat files, I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with such rare and historical material.
I celebrate the success of  many Cuban Revolutionary projects.  And new piles on my desk await –– diverse collations of materials in preparation for the next Rebekah Jacob Gallery photography project. As always I'm excited to keep moving forward.”

843-754-0003 (RJG personal cell: fee-based speaking engagements available)


In Photos, Eudora Welty Captured Life in 1930s Mississippi

By Matthew Sedacca for the New York Times

Photographs by Eudora Welty

Before her career as a distinguished fiction writer, Eudora Welty applied her short-form prowess to photographing life in Depression-era Mississippi. 


Bursting from the fertile ground of Crystal Springs, Miss., an absurdly odd harvest blots out the horizon: a cottage-size tomato, drooping decorative leaf and all, perched atop a wooden shanty. Lured by the irresistible gravitational pull of this shrine to “The Tomatropolis,” a smiling woman poses for a photographer and offers scale, her fingers pointing childlike at the kitsch behind her.

Sure, the folks back home had to see this surreal homage to the city’s economic foundation. But even more unexpected is the photographer: Eudora Welty, the elder stateswoman of American letters.


Before becoming famous for her short stories of comedic interfamilial strife and everyday adversities subtly imbued with issues of race and class, Ms. Welty used the camera as her vehicle to preserve life, ever-fleeting with all its joys, complexities and hardships, in the 1930s. Many of these photos were featured in “Photographs,” originally published in 1989, and recently reissued by the University Press of Mississippi.

A native of Jackson, Miss., Ms. Welty briefly left the South to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison and, later, business school at Columbia University. She returned in 1931 to work at Jackson’s local radio station and contribute society columns to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

But it was in her stint as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, which itself was famed for dispatching some of the country’s best photographers and writers to chronicle New Deal America, that she flourished as a photographer. Ms. Welty captured her fellow Mississippians in their daily routines, with each frame evoking the complications of everyday life, like children hauling unwieldy blocks of ice to dinner or a fatigued-looking nurse outside a clinic.


“Poverty in Mississippi, white and black, really didn’t have too much to do with the Depression,” Ms. Welty said in an interview with Hunter Cole and Seetha Srinivasan at the beginning of the book. “It was ongoing. Mississippi was long since poor, long devastated. I took the pictures of our poverty because that was reality.”


Prints from this period were featured in her two-week solo show at the photographic galleries of Lugene Opticians in New York in 1936, but the literary world proved more receptive to her work, with Manuscript magazine publishing her first piece of fiction that same year. Her photos were finally published for the first time in her 1971 opus “One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression.”

Given her affiliation with the W.P.A., viewers might be tempted to draw comparisons between her images and those of renowned photographers of the time, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who worked for the Farm Security Administration. The differences between their bodies of work are clear, something she herself confirmed: Instead of the formalism or portrait work of Mr. Evans and Ms. Lange, Ms. Welty’s images show life as it unfolded before her, distilling the solemn quiet of a blind weaver at work or the warm communal embrace of women at a carnival.

“I was taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were there in front of me and that was the reality,” Ms. Welty said. “I was the recorder of it. I wasn’t trying to exhort the public.”


Ms. Welty’s photography doesn’t extend past the mid-1950s, a fact she attributed to a combination of losing her camera in Paris and devoting the bulk of her creative energy to writing. Still, the decades spent documenting the world around her played a part in shaping her point of view in writing that people would eventually revere.

“Some perception of the world and some habit of observation shaded into the other,” Ms. Welty said about her dual passions, “just because in both cases, writing and photography, you were trying to portray what you saw, and truthfully. Portray life, living people, as you saw them. And a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a short story, in all its depth, tries to do.”

William Eggleston : The C-Print (or chromogenic photograph)

Snapshots of the South

While many dealers and collectors chase and broker William Eggleston photographs of the dye-transfer medium, the Rebekah Jacob Gallery focuses mainly on his c-prints (or chromogenic photograph). A small, sweet format, the images are “snapshots”, created by Eggleston as he traveled along the Mississippi River throughout its Delta, exploring small, rural towns. RJG’s ongoing exhibitions create a platform for Eggleston connoisseurs to view these small formatted photographs that capture the people, places, and quirks of Eggleston’s beloved South.


Many of William Eggleston’s photographs have been processed as c-prints. The colour negative or slide is exposed to Chromogenic photographic paper (wet process paper) that contains three emulsion layers, each of which is sensitised to a different primary colour. After the image has been exposed it is submerged in a chemical bath, where each layer reacts to the chemicals to create a full-colour image. Because the chemicals are so complex, the image continues to react even after the process is completed. The chemicals are also extremely sensitive to water, light, and heat, making it difficult to protect C-prints from deterioration.

‘C-type’ was originally the trademark used by photographic company Kodak for the paper they used for making prints from colour negatives, but it is now standardly applied to all colour photographic prints.

Clarence J. Laughlin - A South of Surrealism

Clarence Laughlin was born into a middle-class family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His rocky childhood, southern heritage, and interest in literature influenced his work greatly. After losing everything in a failed rice-growing venture in 1910, his family was forced to relocate to New Orleans where Laughlin's father found work in a factory. Laughlin was an introverted child with few friends and a close relationship with his father, who cultivated and encouraged his lifelong love of literature and whose death in 1918 devastated his son.

Although he dropped out of high school in 1920 after having barely completed his freshman year, Laughlin was an educated and highly literate man. His large vocabulary and love of language are evident in the elaborate captions he later wrote to accompany his photographs. He initially aspired to be a writer and wrote many poems and stories in the style of French symbolism, most of which remained unpublished.

Laughlin discovered photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to use a simple 2½ by 2¼ view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer and was subsequently employed by agencies as varied as Vogue Magazine and the US government. Disliking the constraints of government work, Laughlin eventually left Vogue after a conflict with then-editor Edward Steichen. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively on personal projects utilizing a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from simple geometric abstractions of architectural features to elaborately staged allegories utilizing models, costumes, and props.

Through this period one of his favorite models was Dody Weston Thompson who went on to become a notable photographer in her own right.

He died on January 2, 1985 in New Orleans, leaving behind a massive collection of books and images. Thanks to the 17,000 negatives that he preserved, his work continues to be shown around the United States and Europe. Laughlin's library, comprising over 30,000 volumes, was purchased by Louisiana State University in 1986. The collection's focus in on science fiction, fantasy, mystery and the macabre. Other subjects represented include 20th-century art and design, European and American architecture, photography, Victoriana, humor, sex and sexuality, psychology, spiritualism, and the occult.[1]

Many historians credit Laughlin as being the first true surrealist photographer in the United States. His images are often nostalgic, reflecting the influence of Eugène Atget and other photographers who tried to capture vanishing urban landscapes. Laughlin's best-known book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi, was first published in 1948.

A pair of surrealistic photographs of parts on a 1939 Ford, in which the photographer's reflection as he took the pictures could be seen, were showcased in 2013 on an episode of Antiques Roadshow set in Baton Rouge, LA, and attributed to Clarence John Laughlin.[2] The man who brought the photographs to the Roadshow knew Laughlin's son, and saw the photos hanging at the son's place of business. In order to acquire them, the man traded automobile repairs and various parts, first for one, then for the other. Their retail value, as a pair, was appraised at $7,000 to $9,000, although the owner indicated that he thought they were priceless.

James Karales : Photographs of the Civil Rights Era

Controversy and Hope commemorates the civil rights legacy of James Karales (1930-2002), a professional photojournalist who documented the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights with a dedication and vision that led the New York Times to deem his work "a pictorial anthem of the civil rights movement." 

Equipped with ambition and a B.F.A. in photography from Ohio University in 1955, Karales headed to New York and found work as a darkroom assistant to master photographer W. Eugene Smith. Karales's earliest photo-essays had already come to the attention of Edward Steichen, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which acquired two of Karales's photographs from his series on the Greek American community of Canton, Ohio. Another early photo-essay, on the integrated mining community of Rendville, Ohio, was featured in Karales's first solo exhibition, held in 1958 at Helen Gee's Limelight gallery in Greenwich Village. From 1960 to 1971, Karales worked as a staff photographer for Look magazine, traveling the world during a time of dynamic social change and recording the harsh realities he witnessed at home and abroad.

By the time Karales documented the fifty-four-mile voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 he had already developed a strong relationship with its most prominent leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and had been granted unprecedented access to the King family. That connection translated into a powerful empathy in the photographs that still resonates for viewers today. 

The Village Voice described Karales's civil rights work as bearing "the weight of history and the grace of art." Controversy and Hope presents many of Karales's images from the era, including some photographs published here for the first time. Julian Cox, with the assistance of Rebekah Jacob and Monica Karales, has selected a bold representation of Karales's photographs, augmenting his visual legacy with biographical information and personal recollections. Civil rights leader Andrew Young, who appears in some of Karales's photographs, has provided a foreword to the volume.

Doris Ulmann : Appalachian People

Acting on her Humanist Beliefs : Kentucky, North Carolina, i.e.

In 1921, while divorcing her husband, Ulmann underwent major surgery for chronic ulcers. Friends noted that afterwards she was changed. Although she continued to make and exhibit her art photographs to critical acclaim, she devoted more effort to pursuing her longstanding interest in people "for whom life had not been a dance." 

In 1925, Ulmann began traveling in the southeastern United States where she photographed people in "primitive and pre-industrial" communities, including religious ones. She often posed people performing outdated tasks in antiquarian clothing. Names went unrecorded; people were important to her primarily as types. She wrote about the aesthetics of her subject selections, "A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face." 

The publication record of Ulmann's Appalachian photographs suggests that she became increasingly involved with organizations founded to celebrate the handmade object and dedicated to uplifting the makers of those objects. In 1928, her Appalachian photographs appeared in Scribner's Magazine in June and in Mentor in August. 

We shift our eyes on the South to Appalachia, the highlands where Doris Ulmann created some of her most prized photographs. After many years of rubbing rosary beads and staying on the Art Hunt, beautiful material has come from the sky. We are proud to present selected works - painstakingly curated- from several private collections that are from the root of the tree, Doris Ulmann herself.

In 1930 she displayed photographs in the first exhibition of the Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild in Knoxville where Allen Eaton saw them. Eaton was the leading advocate of American handicrafts and a representative of the Russell Sage Foundation that funded projects to improve social and living conditions in the U.S. Subsequently, Ulmann coordinated her mountain trips with Eaton's Foundation work. In 1932, folksinger John Jacob Niles began to assist Ulmann on her photographic excursions as he toured the same areas doing musical research and fieldwork, a collaboration that lasted even after her death. He included Ulmann's photographs in magazine articles he wrote, thus expanding the circulation of her work. 

In 1932, the feminist and social activist Southern Women's Educational Alliance commissioned Ulmann to photograph young people in rural Kentucky. Her photographs promoted discussions that soon led the organization to become the Alliance for Guidance of Rural Youth. In May 1934, four of her photographs illustrated the Survey Graphic article, "People of an American Folk School," about the Campbell Folk School and its cooperatives, most of them operated by women. These organizations provided practical and religious education as means of social advancement. 

At the same time, she depicted the culture of Appalachian mountain people, Ulmann also produced her best known and most artistic publication, the deluxe edition of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1933) by novelist Julia Peterkin. Visits to Peterkin's South Carolina farm inspired Ulmann to portray the life of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands, a unique vanishing culture. Peterkin's essays on the South accompany Ulmann's pictures from 1929 to 1933 of African-American workers on her farm. The portraits convey a haunting, supernatural element, as though the photographer was looking backward from the future.

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In February 1934 the Library of Congress exhibited more than 100 platinum prints of Ulmann's Appalachian subjects of which it later acquired 44. While photographing in Appalachia in July, she became critically ill and died on August 28 in New York at age fifty-two. On her death bed, Ulmann created the Ulmann Foundation at Berea School to further the work. Her Foundation also donated another 110 prints to the Library of Congress. 

When Eaton's exhibition and book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, came out in 1937, Ulmann's photographs accompanied the text. Her pictures of the makers of folk objects sometimes appeared alongside the objects themselves. Through judicious publication and exhibition, Ulmann attained her greatest wish, "that these human records shall serve some social purpose."

Rebekah on Curating Southern Photography

There is no formula for becoming an art dealer for the the discipline, creativity and business style that one pursues.  It has been a long and, at times, treacherous journey, but one filled with thrill, adventure, and the unexpected.  To master my craft has been my obsession, my life’s work.

Perhaps my work has been a combination of fragments driven by imagination, social justice and politics, and mostly, my love of the South.  The Art World, for me, has been place of mythology, unpredictability, cynicism and exploration instead of exactitude.  When my mentor, Hollis Taggart, first hired me in his eponymous gallery in New York City over twenty years ago, I naively asked the question, “What is an art dealer’s career really like.”  “Darling,” he said in his dissipated Southern draw while staring me straight in the eyes, “you better damn well strap in.”  No doubt it’s been a wild ride.

I consistently craft and shape the story of my life and my eponymous gallery — the Rebekah Jacob Gallery — recording in my handwritten journals most of what I see, broker, exhibit, and relate to in one way or another.  They say an art dealer’s selection of artwork to exhibit and broker is a direct derivative and translation of who she is within the visual arts canon and/or what who she intuitively wants to search out and explore.  My autobiography is my theme, and at times, my dilemma and obsession, as I try to tell my story, document my travels, and express my ideas about politics and social justice through my work — all while mining material from my two celebrated homes and cultures:  the American South and Cuba.

To distill and collate this visual resource — an online viewing room / platform — of photographic gems, I endeavor several tasks: I sift through my gallery journals filled with copious notes; journey to particular Southern spots for extensive periods and research ; and reference libraries and photography archives across the US and beyond.  The quests are not necessarily parallel but complementary, and it is these three monumental actions that propel this creative platform into a working, malleable formation.  


To select and curate photographs to present to both new and seasoned collectors, I immerse myself in treasured private and institutional collections across the US and beyond.  To move among the archives of renowned photographers has been a lifetime’s privilege.  With my deepest gratitude to the beloved Masters themselves and the keeper of these archives, I am grateful to have been allowed the great honor of carefully sifting through thousands of contact sheets, works prints, photographs and notes — many still marked by the artist’s fingerprints. 

Meticulously preserved archives at the University of Mississippi (Oxford, Mississippi), the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), the College of Charleston (Charleston), i.e. —all have become invaluable resources.  I work diligently to select then share Southern photographer’s voices with both new and seasoned collectors, focusing from early 20th century - present.  I spend endless hours editing and sequencing images to arrive at the final selection of 30-50 photographs.  Some images included in the platform are published in various publications and news sources contemporary with the negative and since have widely circulated in print or web ; others have never been on public view. My diverse sources included vintage prints, estate prints, contact sheets, and publications. Anecdotes from contemporaries artists often add a human dimension.   

I have charted my course through the visual arts.  I have visited thousands of collections and artist’s studios all over the world, hopped on and off European trains to explore, flown on Russian planes in Cuba, and driven thousands of miles across American soil to mine material.  Perhaps my work has been a combination of fragments, completely drawing from my imagination, unpredictability, and cynicism.  And at the cornerstone these rare, rich, documentary images that tell the stories and complexities of land, my land — the Great American South.

Rebekah Jacob

Owner and Founder ; Certified Appraiser

Market Watch : Dorthea Lange & Southern Photography

Recent hammer prices indicated a healthy market for Southern photography, particularly images of the 1930s by the Masters. Works by Dorthea Lange were the highlight of the Phillip’s photography auction PASSION & HUMANITY: THE SUSIE TOMPKINS BUELL COLLECTION (NEW YORK AUCTION 4 APRIL 2019). Numbers were higher than expected indicating Southern photography continues to attract collectors beyond its region.

Dorothea Lange is remembered almost exclusively for “Migrant Mother” (1936), her photograph of an American agricultural labourer resting her chin on her hand while her young children rest their heads on her shoulders. A picture of perseverance and dignity in the face of hardship, it became a famous image of the Great Depression. But it was far from a one-off. “Politics of Seeing”, a retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre, gives Lange’s four-decade-long career the attention it deserves. It shows how her gift for imbuing personal moments with a universal resonance made her a pioneer of social-documentary photography.

Weathering the storm “Migrant Mother” (1936) 

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Lange, who was born in 1895, had a difficult childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the age of seven she contracted polio and was left with a permanent limp. A few years later her father abandoned the family. Lange headed west in her early 20s, ending up in San Francisco in 1918, where she fell in with the social and artistic elite, became a successful portrait photographer, and enjoyed what appeared to be a charmed bohemian existence. The photographs from this time have a frivolous, fleeting feel to them.

When the Great Depression arrived in the early 1930s Lange decided to use her talent to benefit society. She wanted to others to notice the hardship she noticed on the streets. She would later comment, “the camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Lange went on several long road trips through the Midwest and Deep South while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency. She was able to use the skills she had developed in her studio to strike up intimacy with her subjects, transporting the viewer into what would have been otherwise unimaginable circumstances.

Throughout her career Lange addressed issues as disparate as poverty, the environment, migration, urbanisation, racism and women’s rights. Always, though, her main focus was on the importance of family and community as a source of hope and endurance. It was her ability to empathise with people that gives her work a timeless poignancy


Susie Tompkins Buell: A Collector's Story:

In anticipation of April's auction 'Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collection,' we look at the collecting philosophy behind the American entrepreneur and market maker.

While primarily known for co-founding Esprit and The North Face, as well as for her political activism and philanthropy, Susie Tompkins Buell has played an equally large role in the photography market. Her early engagement with the medium in the 1980s and 1990s shaped the market in the decades that followed and brought a new awareness to photography. The quality of the collection, in terms of its overall aesthetic, thematic unities, and the fineness of its individual parts, is a testament to her vision and determination. Passion & Humanity: The Susie Tompkins Buell Collectionwill include masterworks by Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange and Consuelo Kanaga, among others.

Annie Leibovitz's Sumo Book

Annie Liebovitz’s SUMO SIZE BOOK

Taschen; 2014
Signed & numbered limited edition of 10,000
19.7 x 27.2 inches, 476 pages

A limited edition of 9,000 signed and numbered copies, the Annie Leibovitz SUMO presents some of the most famed actors, musicians, artists, writers, athletes, and businesspeople of our time. Available in four different cover photos, this at once intimate and iconic portrait collection is presented with a Marc Newson designed tripod book stand and a supplementary essay compendium.

Cover selects include the following: Keith Haring, New York City, 1986; David Byrne, Los Angeles, 1986; Whoopi Goldberg, Berkeley, California, 1984; Patti Smith, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1978


Since my early twenties, I have been traveling Cuba on #ArtHunts, sifting through boxes, drawers, under beds, and tops of attics to find the best of the best photography representing its Revolution. Missions accomplished.

Selected Cuban Revolutionary Photography in our drawers mark a pivot to the 20th Century and contemporary Latin American, especially Cuban, markets — at its center is a showcase of vintage prints of Revolutionary Cuban photography from 1959 to 1964 by Alberto Korda, Roberto Salas, Raul Corrales, and Osvaldo Salas. As historical and artistic artifacts, the images represent conflicting ideals of freedom and, in subtler fashion, the unauthorized reproduction of Cuban art in this period.

Alberto Korda's famous Guerrillero Heroico of Che Guevara is certainly one of the most reproduced images in the history of photography. Due to Cuban art policy during the Revolution that initially denied Cuban artists the right to intellectual property such as artwork, as well as the American embargo on Cuban exports including fine art, Korda did not receive a fair fraction of what the image is worth. Though there has been great progress, Cuban artists are still reconciling decades of exclusion from the international art community.

Due to recent sanctions by the Cuban government, vintage material of and about the Revolution cannot cross Vedado’s borders. My partners and I were luckily able to purchase and ship over 300 photographs before ‘new rules.’” We have the best of the best vintage Cuban Revolutionary images available in the world. Access our site to view — and purchase — selected work to add to your portfolio.

Rebekah Jacob

Owner and founder ; Certified Appraiser


I never intended to live in Charleston, but I’m grateful for a God of providence. After seventeen years here, it might take the Rapture or a raging hurricane to dislodge me.

After the stress and physicality of unloading my father’s company in Mississippi and cleaning out over six thousand square feet of furniture, storage, files, and more, I was exhausted and eager for a fresh start. New York and its cold were no longer compelling, and I was desperate to stay on southern soil. Hollis connected to Rob Hicklin, a South Carolina–born gentleman who built an empire brokering southern masterpieces. He was of the most extreme masculine forms—an avid gun collector, hunter, and plantation home owner. My first interview with Rob was on the second level of his historic building in Charleston, exquisite portraits in hand-gilded big frames canvasing the wall. He was dressed in camouflage with an orange vest, having migrated from the woods into the city for our interview. 


I was in typical attire: black slacks and a black Ralph Lauren sweater, with a red wood shawl to add some kick. Spring had penetrated the Lowcountry, and trees bloomed aggressively. Pedestrians stirred on the streets, but there was still a chill in the air. Upon my arrival, a warm fire brewed, and the scent of scotch lingered. Masterpieces of art lined the walls with grace and sophistication, small tags indicating their value with lots of zeroes.  

I was immediately charmed by Charleston. I had a sense of place and longing to be surrounded by this elegant land. The delicately aged antebellum architecture, tranquil breeze off the bay, and familiar conversational rhythms were—and continue to be—a salve to the North’s hurried aggression. Walking the cobblestone streets, laid long before my childhood hometown was built, was an awakening to a newer version of me that realized home—and particularly Charleston—was the most romantic destination all along and perhaps the one I’d been longing for. 

And then there was the art. I was wholeheartedly seeded by the art of the South, and pioneer in the southern art market Rob Heckling offered me an entirely new and specific level of education at his Charleston Renaissance Gallery in the historic downtown. I pored over unsung masterpieces and researched an array of southern artists and their established or burgeoning markets. I was intrigued by the modern artists and photographers who pushed beyond the traditional and explored controversial tropics through progressive styles and mediums. Rob and I spent many afternoons debating the meaning of “southern modern art,” and we never came to an agreement. I eventually turned in my gallery keys on a spring day as nearby St. Philip’s rang half past noon.  

I could not ignore that a new Charleston was emerging in which contemporary did not mean just paintings of palmettos or Rainbow Row by living artists. For my gallery, I wanted to seek out artists who stay true to their southern and Caribbean roots by exploring the complexities and conundrums of the place we call home.  And I wanted to risk showing what was not yet considered fine art--photography.   

After years of diligent research and honing my skills, I at last opened my dream gallery.  Born from hundreds of scribbled legal pad pages, plus blood, sweat, tears, and a generous supply of bourbon, Rebekah Jacob Gallery launched to search out the socially charged, aesthetically progressive artwork on which we have built our national reputation. 

Rebekah Jacob Gallery began in a modest thousand square foot white box in the quiet, quaint area of lower King Street in downtown Charleston.  The odds were not in my favor; at this point, neither contemporary art nor photography had a strong foothold in the Charleston market. Yet I persevered, bolstered by the entrepreneurial spirit of my father, Les Jacob, whose voice I would often hear reminding me to put my head down and get to work, no excuses. 


Everything starts with the art.  I choose artists and estates from the American South and based on instinct, creativity, breadth of work, price point, quality, and rarity. I aggressively mine and exhibit enlightened work that evokes the modern age of the Southern region riddled with complexity and never-ending exploration.  Whether emerging or experienced, these artists expand the conventional definitions of their medium including paintings, works on paper, photography and video.  

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I was wholeheartedly seduced by the art of the American South both for its stunning visuals and for the great divides it addresses.  Many Southern fine art photographers deeply engage in the essence of place, visually examining the relationship between past and present to make sense of the peculiarities of Southern identity. I seek out artists who stay true to their Southern roots not by solely focusing on the beauty of the landscape but also by exploring the conundrums of the place we call home.  These issues of poverty, race, and inequality have become a driving point of interest for me, strongly evident in my affinity for documentary photography, whether vintage or contemporary, as it relays a strong, intricate narrative that extends beyond the place where words end.  Bringing the work of Civil Rights photographers like James Karales to the forefront likewise highlights the need for continued discussion on issues that continue (unfortunately) to remain relevant today.  My favorite WPA authors/photographers like Eudora Welty and Walker Evans traveled the Carolinas, capturing in words and images this land of elegant decay, still struggling to heal from the Civil War. Similarly, many contemporary photographers like Bill Steber who capture and document the Mississippi blues and it's 'jukers in the heart of the Delta.

In a short time, Rebekah Jacob Gallery not only survived but also thrived, and as the economy rebounded in 2010, I decided to triple our inventory and our space. Progressive art requires a progressive neighborhood, so I headed north to Upper King Street, an area at the heart of the city’s creative cultural renaissance. The large walls of this sexy three-thousand-square-foot, Chelsea-like gallery were necessary to keep up with the increased production from my artists, and I was attracted to the traditional design by a Charleston architect that was flexible enough to allow for a modern edge.  A progressive but also an ardent preservationist, I was attracted to the traditional design by a Charleston architect that was flexible enough to allow for the modern edge instilled by my designer William Bates.


However, I failed to forecast how the mercurial rise of Internet commerce and the radical redirection of marketing toward social media would dramatically affect business. Technology trumped square footage, so eventually I downsized the gallery’s footprint and invested in an Internet platform. Today, our physical location on John Street, a modest 1000 square feet, secondary to our online presence, where the majority of our art is now sold to buyers around the world. Instead of print media buys, we focus our energies on creating an e-commerce experience that is attractive and secure.  

The path has been far from easy, but after twenty years in the art business, I know that if you stay in it long enough, you get to the truly good stuff.  And regardless of hard and dark times, my passion and commitment has never waned.  

My father said that success happens when preparation meets opportunity. I have spent my life preparing through academic training, apprenticeships, professional networking, and global travels.  As Rebekah Jacob Gallery continues to grow, I think he would have been proud to see my diligence has turned into a legacy.




Civil Rights and a Heated South

Growing up in Mississippi, a complex and often heated bedrock for political discussion, a series of books, travels, and conversations made me aware of the South’s complex racial problems, even as young child.   And it has been through my constant work of mining Civil Rights photographs that I have come to some understanding of racial inequality and injustice.  I hope I have been part of change.   

First, I grew up on Clark Street, and a few houses down the way lived Walter and Mary Thompson with their two boys, Wright and William. The Thompsons fostered and encouraged the two key, intersecting parts of my life that would ultimately become the building blocks of my vocation: southern literature and southern politics. Walter was a political activist in the Mississippi Delta—mainly a red state of the Reagan era—and the first Democrat I ever knew. Despite various threatening acts by white supremacist groups that went as far as burning crosses in his yard, Walter progressively and relentlessly fought for civil rights among the races and for women. A key political fundraiser for Clinton, Walter believed in a united, colorblind America, one of unity and diversity. Mary was my high school English teacher and encouraged voracious reading, journaling, and accessing material that “made you think.” It was Mary who first introduced me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, not just in text but also with sound via a spinning 45 record. Listening to the speech in an all-white classroom at Lee Academy (yes, named for the Confederate Robert E. Lee) of the upper class, I found it sensory, compelling and life-changing.  

Bruce Roberts, KKK Burning (Rural, North Carolina, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed, VINTAGE 

Bruce Roberts, KKK Burning (Rural, North Carolina, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed, VINTAGE 

Second, the construct of my immediate family must be noted, too. My father owned a furniture company whose customer base, for the most part, was made up of poor blacks who had to finance everything from a stove to a sofa. My father and I spent every Sunday together, driving to Memphis along Highway 61 for gymnastics and lunch. I made a catty remark late one Saturday afternoon that he should pick up a bed that the buyer could not pay off. During our trip to Memphis, he detoured down an unmarked road and knocked on the door of a tenant house. Stray dogs lurked in the clean yard, with two large oak trees accented by a tire swing. The lady, Josephine, was tidy and dressed in her best church clothes—a lilac cotton dress with shiny pearl buttons. Her home was modest but well kept, and I couldn’t help but notice the hogshead that she had been slicing next to a tiny yellow coffee pot, just big enough to serve a cup or two. I also noticed the stacked beds through a cracked door and her children on the floor nearby. My father and Josephine visited for a few minutes before he hugged her, and then we continued our travels. He said little on the rest of the ride, except, “There will always be those with more. There will always be those with less.”  

It was a turning point for me and has been a visual reference for many years. I felt spoiled with lack of understanding. I felt out of touch with the hard facts of the socioeconomics of the Mississippi Delta and how race is a large part of it. It was the first time I had seen poverty so blatantly. But I felt proud of my father and saw his kindness in a powerful way. He seemed saintly that day.  

Third, While I was studying at Ole Miss, I purchased a book on Ernest Wither’s Negro baseball players. That launched a curiosity that translated into many visits to his studio on Beale Street, unbeknownst to my mother. His studio was located in the heart of downtown Memphis, a less than safe place for whites, particularly women walking alone. But I spent many hours with him, sifting through photographs into the wee hours. I made key purchases that would remain a major part of my archive. Ernest Withers was one of the only African American photographers to document the civil rights era, mainly in Memphis. His most famous work, “I Am a Man,” captures sanitation workers protesting for better pay and equal rights. The march instigated a lot of trouble and lured Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he was shot a few days later at the Lorraine Motel downtown.  

Ernest Withers, I am a Man, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed 

Ernest Withers, I am a Man, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed 

To have studied and explored the archives of renowned civil rights photojournalists has been a lifetime’s privilege. I have been allowed the honor of sifting through thousands of contact sheets, work prints, mounted photographs, notes, and magazines still marked by fingerprints and inscriptions by the artists' hands. Although I have never met many of the photographers, I have come to know the greatness of the men and women revealed both by what he/she recorded and by what was left unsaid.  

Over the course of my career, there has been a plethora of Civil Rights images to mine, as the 1960s marked the heyday of the great photography magazines, providing working photographers with the opportunity to capture the spirit of the time in elaborate, multi-page spreads with big images. Civil rights leaders embraced the medium both as a vehicle to inform and educate and as a means to document their momentous journey. Magazines were hungry to print images from the front lines. Despite the dangers for journalists, photographers were drawn to the drama of the civil rights story and bore valuable witness to the demonstrations, arrests, riots, and burnings.  

The photographs in this particular publication present images by selected photographers--James Karales, Bruce Roberts, Bob Adelman--and exemplify assignments that photographers undertook in the years 1960 to 1965: Nonviolent Passive Resistance Training in Atlanta in 1960; the SCLC Convention in Birmingham in 1962; KKK Burnings in rural North Carolina; an intimate series of the King family at home in Atlanta in 1962; and Dr. King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s campaign in Birmingham in 1962, which includes pictures made in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with the Reverend C.T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, and other leaders in attendance. The Civil Rights story apexes with a selection of images documenting the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, which provided the culminating and iconic images of a movement that had become so personal for so many photographers, both professional and amateur.

In early 2000, I found and delved into the luring and meticulously preserved archive of Civil Rights photographs by James Karales.  Archived here in Charleston,  I first immersed myself in these treasures in preparation for the exhibition “1968: Controversy and Hope/Iconic Images by James Karales,” organized for the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in the spring of 2009.  Woven throughout his oeuvre of photo essays is his trademark compassion for social injustice and eye for political upheaval during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. The civil rights story offered rich material to mine for a various projects because the modest Karales had only occasionally printed his work and rarely presented it in exhibitions or publications beyond its initial assignment.  


With several cameras slung around his neck and a cigarette in hand, Karales focused his intense gaze on one of the most challenging issues in our nation’s history. He balanced the job’s requirements with his own aesthetic to find a different story, one of tenderness and triumph. Within the crowds, his discerning eye discovered heroic portraits of individuals, such as a teenage boy who proudly challenges the viewer under the weight of a massive, hand-stitched flag or a youth with “Vote” emblazoned across his forehead. 

Arguably the most critical work of this time comes from Karales’s close access to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other key civil rights leaders. Being one of very few photographers to enter King’s home, Karales’s portraits of Dr. King went beyond the expected to portray quiet, telling moments. In one image, Karales reveals the fatherly angst of Dr. King as he painfully breaks the news to his young daughter that she is forbidden to visit an amusement park because of her race (plate 24). The caption in the February 12, 1963 issue of Look reads: “I told my child about the color bar.”  

James Karales, MLK and Child, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed 

James Karales, MLK and Child, gelatin silver, 11 x 14", signed 

Despite the passage of time, or perhaps heightened by it, we are able to see the integrity and clarity of by these photographers' visions, against the backdrop of a crucial juncture in our shared history. Their work continues to compel us to remember both what divides us and what unites us. It is my hope that these images--and RJG's curatorial projects--reveal previously untold moments in this pivotal era of American history.  





I left New York and set forth to unload the biggest monkey off my back—my father’s furniture company.  It was time to make the life and business decision to sell the Mississippi-based enterprise and move forward.  It was an emotional time as my fondest memories correlated with daddy at his desk.  I watched him leave the house every morning with a high level of commitment, innate joy, and determination. He loved his company and “worked himself to the bone,” as my mother described.  I don’t remember him taking vacations or buying nice things for himself.  I remember him mostly in his store, hustling the floor, devising paperwork, and counting money.  I remember marveling that there seemed to be such freedom in owning and running your own gig. (My mother often quipped that Daddy sang me lullabies about entrepreneurship and independence in my crib.)  

Small town lawyers are often dynamic with their clients, often serving as advisors, surrogate parents, and North Stars.  Attorney Lee Graves was that for me, particular after my father died.  Mr. Graves is dapper, masculine, and strong—a pure bread southern gentleman.  He is wonderfully bright and intensely committed, as well as gracious.  Legend has it that he once represented a local farmer in exchange for a bag of apples, respecting that the man was too proud for have anyone assist him for free.  

Spring in Mississippi is often locked in as a part of memory.  Gardens bloom, and people come back to life; the rivers and lakes are more fished, and the rains are heavy and pure.  Fields ablaze killing back crop residue.  That one spring day in Lee Grave’s office was a turning point for me.  I had made the decision to remain in Mississippi or to sell our family company and move on with my life. 

In part, I felt saddened that I might defy my father, deny his request to carry on the company, and on many levels, forget him.  But most of me knew in the depths of my soul that I was unloading liability, geography, and commitment to an enterprise that wasn’t exciting.  Certainly, the sale of the company was a a ghost with which I would wrangle for many years; and in some odd way, that ghost would bring me incredible energy and drive to continue growing my own enterprise, the Rebekah Jacob Gallery.    

West - Burning  FieldsMS.jpg

That life decision and action opened up space and time—I found my way to Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi as an associate while simultaneously earning a Masters in Art History at Ole Miss.  Southside Gallery was a progressive, white-walled shell in the heart of the Oxford Town Square, filled with works in various mediums by emerging and established artists from the American South and the Caribbean Isles. The roster included southern greats like Eggleston, who was scheduled to visit late one spring afternoon.  

That morning after an early art history class, I darted home as quickly as possible to work in a quick run—a prayerful, meditative action that is also still a stress reliever for me. (I had not studied yoga at this point.) I then dressed in the gallery garb that is still a template of my professionalism today: a black turtleneck, leather pants, red stilettos, and red Chanel lipstick, with my hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Then I headed to the gallery.  The stress and rush of the preparations felt like those of a wedding.   I scrambled to tidy the space, patching any holes, vacuuming, and arranging fresh flowers from a client’s yard. The client, Miss Polly, was an avid gardener with lots of southern charm. An avid art collector, she arrived at the gallery with two baskets filled with fresh flowers, greenery, and bourbon. “Here y’all are,” she said graciously as she set the baskets on the counter. “Let me know if you can think of anything else. I must go…”  “Why the rush?” I asked.  “Because all this cash and jewelry in my bag is hurting my shoulder,” she laughed.

It was the kind of nostalgic spring day in Oxford when girls skip class and exercise in packs, noting their tribes with Greek letters; when writers flood Square Book’s balcony; and the locals take longer-than-usual, unorthodox lunch sessions. Mr. Eggleston arrived true to his reputation. A southern aristocrat, he was dapper, wearing a high-end sports coat, buttoned shirt, and slacks. He was polite yet mercurial. He walked in with a small stack of photographs and placed them on a positioned table. He seemed to be magnetized by the piano, another mastered medium and passion. His innovative arrangement of classical music, played by memory with no score, echoed throughout the space so that few words could be heard, but our eyes were in sensory overload.


There it was: “Red Ceiling.” Eggleston rarely titles his work, so “Red Ceiling” is more of a derivation than a formal notation. The photograph, which I had only seen in books before that day, was taken at the home of his dear friend T.C., a dentist by profession and drug lover by recreation. The house was located on the outskirts of Greenwood, down an unmarked Delta highway. In one version of the photograph, T.C. is naked, his walls covered in graffiti. Another version—and the masterpiece for which I hunted—depicted the ceiling only. Eggleston snapped the picture while lying in bed with T.C. and his wife. Eggleston noted once that “‘Red Ceiling’ is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that is wet on the wall.” Subsequently, in ensuing years, its dweller was brutally murdered, and the house burned to the ground. A sinister connotation? Perhaps.  


This photograph carries so much. Beyond the technical masterful approach, there was something gothic and dark about it. Similar to Toulouse Lautrec’s underground subjects, this photograph depicts a part of Mississippi that few ever know: a synthesis of whiskey, drugs, women, and guns. It’s a far cry from the nostalgically depicted aristocratic Delta life of antebellum homes, black servants, and debutante parties. The photograph is radical, pornographic, apprehensive, and almost disconcerting. It radiates with dark forces and presents uneasiness and emptiness. 

“Red Ceiling” by William Eggleston is arguably the artist’s most famous image. The color is key—the ceiling and walls a deep, blood red. Eggleston uses the corner—the intersection of two walls and the ceiling in the low center of the shot—to create a sense of space. Just above the corner, slightly left of center in the image, is a light fixture with a bare bulb and an on/off chain. Three white extension cords plugged into the fixture and stapled to the ceiling lead out to the walls and sizzle against the ceiling color. Eggleston remembers shooting the image while lying in bed with friends, talking (that they also had been doing other things is implied), and the bottom edge of a poster depicting the positions of the Kama sutra in the photograph amplifies the sexual atmosphere. “I think red is a very difficult color to work with,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I don’t know why. It’s as if red is at war with all the other colors.”

 “Red Ceiling” would become my most sought-after trophy as an art dealer.” Though a small format, at 12 x 19 inches, it would carry an intense, voodoo-like spell over me. When I began my career in the art business in 1999 at Southside Gallery, I (naïvely) vowed that my professional pinnacle would be to access and broker the “Red Ceiling.” It was a promise and obsession that would take me to pockets of the world to seek and view certain prints; it dominated my dreams, perpetuated and dictated extensive travel, caused sleepless nights, and ultimately set the course for a professional journey of twenty years or more that I could have never predicted.  


The task would become increasingly arduous, risky, and sometimes defeating over time, as this photograph would prove to be the one of the rarest and most sought-after images on the worldwide platform. As I advanced in my career, I began to understand the significance of Eggleston, not only as a southern photographer, but also as a global photographic force. I learned that for any serious art educator, rare photography lover, or collector of photography, in order to build a significant collection, it’s an imperative to acquire works by Eggleston—if one has the means. Very few “Red Ceilings” were ever printed, and at least two are locked up in the Metropolitan and Getty Museums, so few have ever been available for sale. It would be a rare window of opportunity for top-bidding collectors if I could actually find the photograph.  

My first attempt to broker the photograph was 2013.  A dealer from Washington, DC messaged:  “I have the photograph ‘Red Ceiling.’ Edition 4 of 12. Do you have a buyer?”  Within twenty-four hours, I boarded a flight for the US capital, binders and Apple gadgets filled with research of market comps, articles, and all-things “Red Ceiling.” After viewing the photograph and lengthy conversations, I agreed that I would consign the photograph for my 2013 photography exhibit “Somewhere in the South,” which blended southern masters with southern contemporaries, all working southeast of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Laymen would be appalled at the works we ship via FedEx. In the early spring of 2013, “Red Ceiling” arrived in Charleston, and we securely installed it on the wall, “locking” it for security purposes. The press buzzed with excitement and plugged accolades. Viewers gawked. I was elated. My team and I strategized about how to sell the photograph. We devised mailing lists, pitched stories to the press, ran advertisements in strategic publications and on web platforms. I rubbed rosary beads as frequently and with as much prayerful thought as a Franciscan monk.  I eventually returned the photograph to the owner, unsold.  

During this time-frame, I traveled to New York City to view “At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston,” installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gotham City’s skies were crisp and blue, rectangular shapes cutting the horizon like a puzzle. As I wove through the maze of rooms, I was touched to see the commonplace subjects of my southern/Mississippi roots exhibited inside one of the highest levels of art exhibition in the world. Also, when viewing “Red Ceiling,” I noted Eggleston’s referral to the photograph’s red color and its parallelism to classical music: “It was like a Bach exercise for me because I was intensely and now impatiently waiting on the crescendo and finale.”  


So, it’s the goal I have not accomplished—yet. I have not sold a “Red Ceiling.” But the hunt continues with the same level of aspiration and focus to find the photograph and be lucky enough to have a buyer. Stars must align, as we often preach and know well in this cynical business. I continue to sift through upcoming auction inventory, keep in close contact with dealers I suspect will come across a “Red Ceiling,” and travel globally to view the photograph when it comes to market. In time, I will earn that trophy with a full heart...and much relief.  Despite setbacks and disappointments, the obsession to broker "Red Ceiling" does not wane; instead, it's kicked into full gear.  

Onward, with passport in hand.