James Baldwin's America

  • Joanne Leonard, West Oakland, CA, 1972. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist.

  • John Simmons, Window Writing, Chicago, 1969. Gelatin silver print, 9 ½ x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist. 

  • Steve Schapiro, Stop Police Killings, Selma, 1965. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles. 

  • Bruce Davidson, Untitled (Tennessee), 1962. Gelatin silver print, 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums, © Magnum Photos, Inc., and Bruce Davidson.

  • Marion Palfi, Untitled (from “There is No More Time,” Wife of the Lynch Victim), 1949. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 1/16 in. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

  • Diane Arbus, A Young Negro Boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C., 1965. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

  • Leonard Freed, Harlem, New York City, 1963. Gelatin silver print, 13 7/8 x 10 7/8. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums and © Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos.


Sep 13 – Dec 30, 2018
Level 3, Sert Gallery

By the time of his death, essay collections such as The Fire Next Time (1963) and novels like Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) earned the prolific African American novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist James Baldwin (1924–1987) an international reputation as one of the most consequential American cultural critics. This exhibition of photographs made during Baldwin’s lifetime is both biographical and thematic. It works to visualize and explore the places, the personal, and historical events that framed Baldwin’s life and themes in his writing, including: the history of racism and the role of race in American history and life, sexuality, personal transformation, family, music, religion, violence, and the function of the artist in society and art, and social change. James Baldwin’s America charts the nation’s transformative cultural moment alongside the life of one of its most influential figures, interweaving the two narratives through the lens of the American documentary tradition.

Photographers include: Diane Arbus, Richard Balzer, Dawoud Bey, William Carter, Bruce Davidson, Roy DeCarava, Frank Espada, Robert Frank, Leonard Freed, Joanne Leonard, Ken Light, Danny Lyon, Marion Palfi, Ben Shahn, Steve Shapiro, John Simmons, Francis J. Sullivan, and Marion Post Wolcott.

James Baldwin’s America charts a second interwoven narrative as well. All of the exhibition’s photographs are drawn from the permanent collections of the Harvard Art Museums, a third of which were originally part of the Carpenter Center’s renowned teaching collection of more than 10,000 prints, 40,000 negatives, and related materials, which were transferred to the museums in 2002. A unique resource for the study of fine art, social documentary, and professional photography, the collection was established in the mid-1960s to consolidate some of Harvard University’s holdings of significant historical photographs and to support teaching of the history and aesthetic practice of photography by challenged existing paradigms about the meaning and function of photography through innovative exhibitions, publications, programs, and teaching.

This exhibition marks the continuation of an ongoing series of collaborations between the Harvard Art Museums and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and is timed to coincide with artist Teresita Fernández’s Harvard Yard installation, Autumn (...Nothing Personal), which references Baldwin’s essay Nothing Personal (1964). Commissioned by the Harvard University Committee on the Arts (HUCA), Autumn (…Nothing Personal) is a site-specific work for Tercentenary Theatre that will unfold as both a physical site and as a space for public dialogue and performance, requiring the presence and agency of Harvard students, faculty, staff, and local communities.

James Baldwin’s America is co-organized by the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the Harvard Art Museums, and is curated by Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museums.