Rebekah Jacob on Civil Rights Photography (1960-1965)

By Rebekah Jacob

To have studied and explored the archive of the renowned civil rights photojournalist James Karales has been a lifetime's privilege.   In early 2000, I was allowed the honor of sifting through thousands of contact sheets, work prints, mounted photographs, notes, and magazines still marked by his fingerprints.  Although we never met, I have come to know the greatness of a man revealed both by what he recorded and by what was left unsaid.  

I first immersed myself in these treasures in preparation for the exhibition 1969:  Controversy and Hope / Iconic Images by James Karales, organized for the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in the spring of 2009.  Karales was a lifelong and avid photographer.  Woven throughout his oeuvre of photo-essays in his trademark compassion for social injustice and eye for political upheaval, whether on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in Vietnam, in the integrated mining town of Rendville, Ohio, or during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement.  the civil rights story offered perhaps the richest materials to mine for a book.  

 

The modest Karales only occasionally printed his work and rarely presented it in exhibitions or publications beyond the initial assignment for which it was created.  delving into his meticulously preserved archive, I worked to share Karales's voice with a larger audience, focusing on the period 1960-65.  Together with Julian Cox, we spent two years editing and sequencing more than 2,000 images to arrive at a final selection of 93 plates.  A modest percentage of the images included in this book were published in Look magazine, and some have since been reproduced in books and magazines, but the majority have never been exhibited or published.  Our extensive research also included the study of vintage prints in museum collections, the Karales Archive in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, and a thorough review of the Look archives at the Library of Congress.  Photographs consigned from the Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, were also vital resources.  Recollections shared by Karales's contemporaries Tony Vaccaro, Bob Adelman, Steve Shapiro, Matt Herron, and Paul Fusco added an invaluable human dimension to the project.  

 

The 190s were the heyday of the great photography magazines, providing working photographers with the opportunity to capture the spirt of the time in elaborate, multipage spreads with large images.  Civil rights leaders embraced the medium as a vehicle to inform and educate the general public 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 provided valuable witness to the demonstrations, arrests, riots, and burnings.  

With several camera slung around his neck and a cigarette in one hand, Karales focused his intense glaze on one of the most challenging issued in our nation's history.  He balanced the job's requirements with is 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 enveloped by a massive, hand-stitched flag, or a youth with "vote" emblazoned across his forehead.  

Arguably the most signifiant work at this time comes from Karales's close access to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other key civil rights leaders.  One of only a few photographers to enter King's home, Karales crated images of Dr. King that go beyond the expected to portray quiet, telling moments.  One photograph reveals Dr. King's fatherly angst as he painfully broke the news to his young daughter that she was forbidden to visit an amusement park because of her race. The caption in the February 12, 1963, issue of Look reads:  "I told my child about the color bar."  

The photographs in this book, Controversy and Hope:  The Civil Rights Images of James Karales, present the range of civil rights assignments that Karales undertook in teh years 1960-1965:  nonviolent passive resistance training in Atlanta in 1960; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) convention in Birmingham in 1962; an intimate series of the King family at home in Atlanta in 1962; Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy's campaign in Birmingham in 1962, which includes pictures made in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rosa Parks, and other leaders in attendance.  The story concludes 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 Karales.  

Despite the passage of time, or perhaps heightened by it, we are able to see the integrity and clarity of Karales's vision against the backdrop of a crucial juncture in our shared history.  His work continues to compel us to remember both what divides us and what unites us.  It is my hope that this publication reveals previously untold moments in this pivotal era of American history. 

Preface by Rebekah Jacob, published in Controversy and Hope:  The Civil Rights Photographs of James Karales, published by the University of South Carolina Press, 2013.  

Reflection of a Decade

I am a seeker.  Born from hundreds of scribbled legal pad pages, plus blood, sweat, tears, and a generous supply of bourbon, Rebekah Jacob Gallery celebrates a decade of searching out the socially charged, aesthetically progressive artwork on which we have built our national reputation.  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.

Everything starts with the art.  We choose artists and estates from the American South and Caribbean Isles based on instinct, creativity, breadth of work, price point, and attitude. We aggressively mine and exhibit enlightened work that evokes the modern age of these two regions riddled with complexity and never-ending exploration, and which deeply connected via indigo, cotton, and slave trade.  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 Richard Sexton poignantly capture and document fading structures and archetypal characters in a way that still entrances me.

In a parallel construction, I believe that there is no more magical place on earth than Cuba. Since my early twenties, I have made it a personal mission to share the rich visual vocabulary of Cuban artists and photographers informed by centuries of cultural and political discussion.  Revolutionary greats like Roberto Salas, Caralse, and Alberto Kordo helped incite the revolution in Fidel’s Cuba and made phenomenal exhibitions in my home state.  Later, having become well-versed in the emerging art scene, I had the opportunity to juxtapose the work of the two regions and have curated several exhibitions of Southern and Cuban artwork in Havana and throughout the Southeast.  Over the years, I have seen many of our monumentally-themed gallery projects––both exhibitions and publications—take on their own organic forms, becoming a voice for thousands who sacrificed to change the world.  

After years of diligent research and honing my skills, I at last opened my dream gallery in early 2004.  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.  We not only survived, we thrived, and as the economy rebounded, we decided to triple our inventory and our space. Progressive art requires a progressive neighborhood, so we headed north to upper King Street, an area at the heart of the city’s creative culture renaissance.  The large walls of this sexy 3,000 square foot Chelsea-like gallery were necessary to keep up with the increased production from my artists as well as the increased demand from our clients.  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 towards social media would dramatically affect my business. Technology trumped square footage, so I downsized our footprint and invested in our internet platform. Our physical location on Broad Street is 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. 

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 turns ten, I think he would have been proud to see my diligence has turned into a legacy.

- Rebekah Jacob

On Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty

I confess only one regret as a Mississippian:  that I never met Ms. Eudora Welty, the great writer and photographer whose words and images have offered me consistent, generous inspiration.  As I was reminded during a recent visit to her home at 1119 Pinehurst Street, Jackson, a failure of courage deprived me of a chance to have the privilege of knowing her. I have since tried mightily to rectify this misjudgment by immersing myself in her photography, learning about the person posthumously through her lens.  

Engrossed in my Southern Literature studies at Ole Miss back in 1997, my mind was full of Ms. Welty’s words and images as I drove to Jackson for a wedding garden party.  With the bravado of youth, I parked in front of Ms. Welty’s home at 1119 Pinehurst Street and telephoned my then-beau for a last-minute pep talk. Instead, he chided me for the southern sin of dropping by unannounced.  The sound of rapid-fire pecking on a typewriter echoed through her open window as I drove away.  I still hear that dirge nearly two decades later.

Eudora Welty; ' Chopping in the Field'  1936

Eudora Welty; 'Chopping in the Field' 1936

Since then, I have been honored to appraise, consult, and broker various portfolios and loose prints of Welty’s photographs through Rebekah Jacob Gallery.  My deep desire to address her work with the appropriate respect led to copious (perhaps obsessive) research as my team and I have chased down every possible scrap of information.  We have diligently sifted through thousands of images and supporting texts and re-read every essay/book she ever wrote. The more I slipped into her photographic world, the more I started to see how the eloquence of her written narratives was also present in visual form in her photographs.  

The upper crust of Delta life that we both grew up in was such a dramatic juxtaposition to the images she shot alone on assignment for the WPA in the 1930s, way down back dirt roads.  Suffering and proud, everyday Mississippians were imbued with the politics and economics of this complicated land when seen through her compassionate lens.  From the images—supported by many discussions with Welty scholar Suzanne Mars—it is clear the gentle, cautious hand she took when approaching her fellow Mississippians for these photographs.  No pose was forced, no intimidation used.  Instead, Ms. Welty led with respect and the result was poignant portraits of strength and dignity.  Then she tightly trimmed her kitchen-sink prints using the same critical eye with which she edited her stories.  

This intense study has only fueled my quest to get to the source of her work and to share it with others who share my respect for her oeuvre.  The negatives from 1930-1950 are lovingly preserved at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History with rare portfolios (sometimes just a loose print, others as a full unit) elusively showing up in galleries and auctions. As scholarship builds, as more new photographs are revealed, interest in Welty’s photography continues to rise.  Given the current market, I think that Welty’s body of work on WPA-era Mississippi is one of the most compelling photographic studies of the American landscape available.  There is no doubt that  Ms. Welty’s work is now considered a must-have for any true Southern photography collection.

I will continue, like so many others, to gravitate towards my North Star of 1119 Pinehurst Street where I firmly believe her legacy lives on.  There is little doubt that she will continue to inform and inspire with words and images to tell the story of our mutual homeland with grace and dignity.  Transcending her time, Ms. Welty continues to be Mississippi’s most treasured documentarian and ambassador. 

In the meantime, I am eager to tackle yet another portfolio box of gems  that just arrived at my doorstep, ready for discovery anew.

- Rebekah Jacob 

 

The Rare William Eggleston: Red-Ceiling (Greenwood, Mississippi), 1973

“For any serious arts educator, rare photography lover, and collector of Southern photography, to build a significant Southern photography collection, it’s an imperative to hopefully acquire works by Eggleston, if one has the means.” says gallery owner Rebekah Jacob.

Jacob –– an expert in Southern photography and an Old Miss-educated curator of specific Southern genres — describes the photo as “powerful and intense.” This rare and famous dye transfer portrays a cross of white cable leading to a central light bulb mounted on a ceiling painted red. It was taken in the guest room of one of Eggleston’s dear friends in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1971.

William Eggleston emerged in the early 1960s as a pioneer of modern color photography, especially portraying the vernacular of the Mississippi Delta.

“Very few Eggleston "Red Ceiling" photographs were ever printed,” explains Jacob, “and at least two are locked up in the Metropolitan and Getty Museums, respectively. Few have ever been available for sale, so this is a rare window of opportunity for top-bidding collectors.

‘’I grew up along the Delta, mainly in Clarksdale, Mississippi, so Eggleston's subject matter is innately and intensely familiar to me,” says Jacob. “I visited the Metropolitan Museum in NYC last week just to view his current exhibition, ‘At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston.' It was touching to see the commonplace subjects of my Southern roots exhibited inside one of the highest levels of art exhibition in the world."

“Art dealing is truly an art form in itself. It is a long process of experience, credibility, smart business, and ultimately the invitation to participate." says Jacob. "Gratefully, my formal education, masters degree, apprenticeships with top photography dealers, certifications, and incessant world travel to curate rare works of art, I have mastered my eye and advanced my level of connoisseurship for top-quality pieces. The invitations to represent elite photography transactions are now trickling into RJG consistently." 
 

Radio City is the second album by the American rock group Big Star. Released in 1974, Radio City was recorded during 1973 at Memphis' Ardent Studios

Radio City is the second album by the American rock group Big Star. Released in 1974, Radio City was recorded during 1973 at Memphis' Ardent Studios

Framing Artwork: 101

#1: Invest wisely. Create a budget proportionate to the artwork, and do the math up front. Basic frames cost about $10-$13 per foot, yet more exotic woods, metals, and gold-leafed materials cost between $45 and $110 per foot, or more. Be sure to invest in UV protective glass or plexiglass to filter harmful sunlight; otherwise, the art may fade. If you frame your art well the first time, and preserve the work with the proper filters, this will prevent you from having to invest in framing again down the road.

#2: Have your art professionally appraised. Unless you know precisely what it is worth, it is difficult to budget for framing. Then, invest a day or an evening visiting an art museum and a few fine art galleries. Take notice of how their frames look on their walls, which are usually in a setting similar to a home or office. A frame shop can be a confusing place to begin the process, simply because their walls are covered in thousands of framing samples. 

#3: Use a reputable frame shop. (We love Havens Fine Framing in Mt. Pleasant) Ask gallery owners and fellow collectors for recommendations. You're looking for shops that handle, store, and secure artwork properly. And if something unlucky should happen, say during shipping, their business insurance is sure to cover the damage.  

#4: Select a frame that complements your home's interior, your life, or your workplace. When selecting a frame, how it interacts and works with the art must work in your life or profession. For example, a white mat and black frame on a black and white photograph may be visually harsh for the room. Alternative finishes include natural wood, white wood, or even a dark walnut, maple or acacia. Consider the colors of your wall, your flooring, perhaps the upholstery of your favorite furniture, and especially how lighting affects these colors during different times of the day or night.

Frame shops have infinite samples of frames and matting you can sample. Ask if you can borrow or purchase samples to take home or try out in the actual room and wall you plan to display the art. Remember to look at the frame in various lighting before taking your art back to the frame shop for a final decision.  

#5: Add value. As I explain to RJG appraisal clients, once artwork is framed attractively and properly, its value may increase significantly for two reasons: First, constant reframing can damage or decrease the value of your artwork, simply from excessive wear and tear. Second, because expert filtering safeguards your artwork, it extends the life of the piece. Akin to fine automobiles, jewelry, even real estate, that which is built to last is certainly more valuable. Never "nickel and dime" the framing process. And frame it so you love living with the art work on a daily basis. 

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Open Editions and Cuban Photography

The editioning of prints and photography was not widely practiced or expected of photographers before the 1960's, especially in Cuba. Therefore many vintage Cuban photographs have uncertain/unknown edition numbers (open editions). However due to the thin fragile negative paper and humid climates in Cuban, negatives were rarely capable of preservation after around 50 prints. The negative paper themselves often became far too fragile to use further. In addition, without a photography studio or dark room, and in the turmoil of the Cuban Revolution photographers such as Korda, printed their work in bathtubs and sinks. The printing paper available to Cubans was limited until the 1990s. Therefore differences in paper, pigment and photographs are all relative to and indicative of the given political & social status of the Cuban government at the time the photograph was printed.