More than three decades after his death, James Baldwin remains one of the most well-known voices in American cultural criticism. A prolific writer, Baldwin addressed issues of race, inequality, sexuality, violence, family, and personal transformation in 20th-century America, among other subjects.
Time is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America (September 13–December 30, 2018), a new special exhibition at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, celebrates and expands the conversation around Baldwin’s formidable legacy, with a selection of approximately 30 photographs taken during the writer’s lifetime. It also complements Teresita Fernández’s public art installation in Harvard Yard this fall, which references Baldwin's essay Nothing Personal, which was published in 1964 as a collaborative book with photographer Richard Avedon.
Time is Now is organized chronologically and centered on themes related to Baldwin’s life and times; it features a multi-generational set of documentary photographers, including Diane Arbus, Dawoud Bey, Frank Espada, Robert Frank, Joanne Leonard, Danny Lyon, Ben Shahn, John Simmons, and Marion Post Wolcott. All of the photographs are drawn from the Harvard Art Museums’ permanent photography collection, which was significantly strengthened in 2002 when the Carpenter Center transferred its renowned teaching collection of more than 10,000 prints, 40,000 negatives, and related materials to the museums. A number of the images in the exhibition are recent acquisitions, and most photographs have never been shown at the museums. Time is Now represents the latest in a series of collaborations between the two institutions.
We asked exhibition curator Makeda Best, the Harvard Art Museums’ Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, to tell us more about the exhibition and the photographs she selected for display.
Index: What makes James Baldwin’s life and career such enduring subjects for study and reflection?
Makeda Best: There is a great deal of scholarship on Baldwin, and a persistent theme that I noticed in my research for this exhibition and in popular writing about him is the ways in which America hides from its past. He articulated a lot of the hypocrisies and ironies in American culture, which continue to be relevant. His ideas about America not living up to its true potential and his criticism of American life and history—those things have always resonated with people.
His very deeply reflective personal journey—as a man and as a gay man—and his thoughts about the artist’s role in society are also still relevant today.
Index: How do these topics relate to the photographs in Time is Now?
Best: I think the aspirational quality of his writing is similar to the aspirations of documentary photography. Those very aspects of his life and career that I just discussed relate to the photo-documentary ideal of uncovering the truth. Baldwin shared the ideals that documentarians have pursued—the concept that we are better people, that humanity is better than this.
What is striking to me about Baldwin’s writing is that he was interested in regular people. His characters are not people who are fancy or high class; he wrote about people in everyday life, and his work came directly from his experience. And documentarians also have been interested in championing the everyday lives of individuals, focusing on people who are ignored in society.
Baldwin also talked about learning about racism through photographs. When you see the exhibition, you’re seeing the kind of photographs he looked at.
Index: What was the biggest challenge in curating the exhibition?
Best: The major task was how to construct the story: how to tell the story of James Baldwin’s America. It’s meant to be a portrait of the world that he saw. The photographs in the exhibitions are all very quiet moments. You won’t find direct portraits of historical figures other than Baldwin and that was intentional. I wanted to show how this world was experienced by common folks because Baldwin was concerned with the everyday.
I also had to show what it was like to live in segregated America as well as the deep pain of segregation and racism from which Baldwin was writing. I think of Marion Post Wolcott’s Cashiers Paying Off Cotton Pickers, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi. In this  photograph, you see the hand of the tenant farmer coming through the window. To me, the one hand references the whole history of inequality. It’s a hard image.
Another striking image is Francis Sullivan’s 1951 Untitled (Lion’s Minstrel Show), which shows performers in blackface. It epitomizes various ideas Baldwin wrote about: the people who are smiling here are representing America in a certain way, but they don’t recognize what that means. What does it mean to pose for this kind of picture?
Index: What other framework(s) did you use to organize the exhibition?
Best: At the same time as it explores Baldwin’s life and writing, the exhibition shows the arc of documentary history in America. It’s arranged chronologically by decade, with photographs that roughly span the same time period as Baldwin’s life [1924–1978]. It starts in the 1930s with photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration, including Marion Post Wolcott and Ben Shahn, and then moves into the 1950s and ’60s, with works in the photojournalistic and personal documentary styles by photographers like Steve Schapiro and Robert Frank.
Later artists whose works are in the exhibition include Joanne Leonard, a woman who brings her own interest in documentary photography. She looked to the past, to classics like Dorothea Lange, but created her own style of what she calls “intimate documentary.” There are also non-professionals with vernacular photographs. African American photographer John Simmons is a good example. He started out as a young photographer working for the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender under the tutelage of one of the great African American photojournalists of the era, Bobby Sengstacke. He’s now one of the few African American cinematographers in Hollywood.
Index: What about this exhibition do you hope surprises or inspires visitors?
Best: Baldwin had a reputation as a very pointed and shockingly revealing writer, but he also had a lot of empathy, and I think that these photographs show that. This was a moment we now think of in terms of great heroes, but these are everyday people throughout the country who lived in this moment, who acted in this moment, and whose legacy we all live in. I hope viewers see how they inspired Baldwin.
A lot of photographers in this exhibition were young when they made these images; most in their early 20s. Diane Arbus was 22. Danny Lyons was 22. Frank Espada was 21. John Simmons was only 18. And not only that, they were at moments in their lives in which they turned to photography [to pursue social justice aims]. Richard Baldwin was a law student and he had been in the VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] program; he learned photography as a way to further bring about the change he wanted to see in the world. Danny Lyon worked for SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. The New York–born Puerto Rican Frank Espada was active in tenant rights.
It’s very inspirational and exciting to think about the age of these photographers—and that’s so fitting of Baldwin. He had a strong belief in young people and their ability to make a difference.