Struggling to Make the Museum Relevant: The Black Panthers at the de Young Museum

5.1 / Half-Century

Struggling to Make the Museum Relevant: The Black Panthers at the de Young Museum

By Jeff Gunderson September 11, 2013

These exhibitions presciently recognized the magnitude of what were to be defining moments for two of the most fascinating movements in twentieth-century American cultural history.

On December 1, 1968, visitors to San Francisco's de Young Museum viewed the final day of Haight-Ashbury 1967, an exhibition of Ruth-Marion Baruch’s photography that depicted the epicenter of America's youth counterculture during the Summer of Love. Just a week later, A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers —a collaboration between Baruch and her husband, Pirkle Jones—opened in the same museum, drawing nearly one hundred thousand spectators. These exhibitions presciently recognized the magnitude of what were to be defining moments for two of the most fascinating movements in twentieth-century American cultural history: the blossoming of baby-boomer hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the intensification of the Black liberation movement embodied by the Black Panthers.

The main impetus for the two exhibitions, which placed the de Young Museum firmly in the limelight, was Baruch herself, a little-known photographer today but one who once moved within an elite 1950s and ’60s photography community that included Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Steichen, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange. Both of Baruch’s exhibitions were organized under the guidance of the de Young’s director then, Jack McGregor.

Pirkle Jones. Visitors of A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers in the de Young Museum, January 12, 1969.  

They could not have been confused with the young, white, student radicals present, who were reportedly “entranced by Panther machismo,” as they were already fifty-five and forty-six years old, respectively.

After first seeing Baruch’s Haight-Ashbury photographs, McGregor queried her about future projects. Baruch expressed interest in arranging an exhibition on the Black Panthers but assumed the topic was too controversial for museums then; McGregor said he would be interested in taking it on.1 Baruch then approached Kathleen Cleaver and her husband Eldridge, the Minister of Information for the Panthers, with the idea of photographing the group and exhibiting the resulting images. Eldridge Cleaver suggested she photograph at a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland’s De Fremery Park on July 14, 1968. Baruch and Jones went together that day, and both photographers responded to the rally with excitement.2 They could not have been confused with the young, white, student radicals present, who were reportedly “entranced by Panther machismo,” as they were already fifty-five and forty-six years old, respectively.3 When they showed their first images to the Cleavers, the couple responded enthusiastically, and Eldridge asked, “Why do your photographs have [a] feeling [that] none of the work I’ve seen of us by other photographers has?”4

Baruch and Jones were photographers with exemplary credentials. Both had been outstanding students in the first fine-art photography program in the country, founded by Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Art—now the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)—where they had met in 1946.5 Both were members of the Peace and Freedom Party and had grown up aware of racism and bigotry. As a student at the University of Missouri, Baruch was subject to anti-Semitism and went from boarding house to boarding house to find a place that would rent to Jews.6 Jones grew up in Louisiana and southern Indiana and was profoundly affected by the racism and violence he witnessed there. The stories his father related about attending lynchings would haunt him for the rest of his life.7

Pirkle Jones. Black Panther demonstration, Alameda County Court House, Oakland, July 30, 1968.  

Ansel Adams, troubled by the couple’s work on the Black Panther project, wrote to Jones warning him that “really well-meaning people” could get “submerged with cleverly-designed propaganda.”8 Baruch and Jones had explored socially engaged work before the Panther project—she with Haight-Ashbury and he with Dorothea Lange on what may have been one of the first photo-essays to tackle an ecological issue, The Death of a Valley (1956)—but neither had attempted a project in such a personal, committed, and immersive fashion as they did with the Panthers. The couple worked fervently from July to November of 1968. They sought to counter the media’s demonization of the Panthers, presenting them instead as deeply invested in building community.9

As the show’s opening date drew near in this tumultuous climate, McGregor, the de Young Museum, and City Hall balked at mounting what was anticipated to be an extremely contentious exhibition.

By the mid-summer of 1968, McGregor had begun to recognize the timeliness and potency of the Black Panther project, and he agreed to an earlier opening date for the show.10 After this commitment, however, violence erupted at the Chicago Democratic Convention, an Alameda County court convicted the Panthers’ co-founder Huey Newton of manslaughter, and students at San Francisco State University began a five-month strike that generated worldwide attention. As the show’s opening date drew near in this tumultuous climate, McGregor, the de Young Museum, and City Hall balked at mounting what was anticipated to be an extremely contentious exhibition. During the summer and early fall of 1968, when Baruch and Jones were photographing various Panther events, the Black Panther newspaper published some of their prints, and McGregor and the Cleavers saw sample images from the series. Baruch later wrote, however, that “at no time did Kathleen, Eldridge, or Jack McGregor…censor a single image. We were given complete freedom to choose whatever we wanted to include in the show.”11 Believing they had total support from all participants, Baruch and Jones must surely have been devastated when McGregor told them that the museum feared there would be disturbance and that he was concerned about the museum’s budget being cut as a result of the Panther show—but that he had written to City Hall for permission to hang it, and with its permission there would be an exhibit.12

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

Friends suggested that Baruch and Jones, rather than wait for a political decision, contact the press and present the matter as art censorship.13 The couple met with San Francisco journalists and art critics, who viewed the photographs and consequently contacted City Hall. Baruch soon received a call from McGregor, who reported that it had been decided that hanging the show would be less damaging for the museum than not hanging it.14 The Black Panther was the only newspaper to report on the show coming close to being barred by City Hall.15

The New York Times on December 1, 1968 announced that the de Young exhibition would include “prints…selected from a lengthy and intensive coverage of Black Panther events from July to October,”16 while the Berkeley Gazette quoted a sign at the entrance to the exhibition, which stated that the photographers’ cameras had “caught the mood of the times.”17 Publicity for the show included a graphic in the Black Panther that resembled a wedding announcement:

The Black Panthers

A photographic essay by

Ruth-Marion Baruch

and

Pirkle Jones

December 7, 1968

to

January 19, 1969

M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, California

An article in the Black Panther declared that the de Young exhibit was “likely to be the most favorable communication between the bourgeoisie and the vanguard this year,” commending Jones and Baruch on their enthusiasm and sensitivity.18 Years later, the Panther co-founder Elbert “Big Man” Howard noted that Baruch and Jones “had a great eye for humanity; nobody was posing; we were all part of somebody’s family,” and that they “captured the real love and inspiration of what the Black Panther Party was all about.”19

Pirkle Jones. Visitors of A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers in the de Young Museum, January 12, 1969.  

The photographs were faulted for being one-sided, as images of the Panthers engaging in violence were notably absent, while also praised for approaching their subject with great pathos.

The exhibit was in turn admired and detested. The photographs were faulted for being one-sided, as images of the Panthers engaging in violence were notably absent, while also praised for approaching their subject with great pathos.20 Baruch responded to her critics, saying, “We can only tell you: This is what we saw. This is what we felt. These are the people.”21 Many reviewers reinforced Baruch’s retort. Laura Devendorf, writing for the Marin Independent Journal, praised the show’s “like it is” realism;22 the San Francisco literary journal Argonaut called the show “one of the most remarkable local exhibits in years…so art-full that no matter what one’s opinion of the Black Panthers, they will know more after viewing the photographs;”23 and the New York Times described crowded galleries where “some walked slowly around the collection of 123 photographs…and left without comment…Others blurted out their impressions: ‘Beautiful…I just thought they were beautiful.’” The Times reporter also interviewed a middle-aged woman who had two young children with her, who exclaimed, “It’s frightening, I’ll say that…but they really are good pictures, aren’t they?”24

After record attendance each day of the exhibition, Baruch and Jones were delighted when McGregor suggested they extend the exhibit for two weeks.25 Baruch acknowledged that not only were the crowds “large in number, but were unusually attentive, studying each photograph and reading each caption. Many black people came, including numerous Panthers.”26 The nascent Studio Museum of Harlem also requested the exhibition for its spring 1969 roster; it would be the museum’s first photography show. After exhibiting there, A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers traveled to the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a selection of twenty-seven photographs were chosen by Minor White and exhibited at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the same year.

Pirkle Jones. Black Panthers during drill, De Fremery Park Oakland, California, July 28, 1968.  

The exhibition coincided with a sea change in art photography, and it was not the only exhibition at the de Young Museum to explore this new territory. During the late spring of 1968, the museum had mounted a show of the work of Edward Weston, one of the heralded Group f/64 photographers and an instructor and fellow traveler of Baruch and Jones. Between the Weston exhibition and the Black Panther show, the de Young exhibited solo photography shows by Irene Poon, David Reuther, and Fred Padula, as well as Baruch’s photo essay on Haight-Ashbury. Of crucial importance was the traveling exhibition from the George Eastman House, Contemporary Photographers: Toward a Social Landscape, shown at the de Young in August 1968 and curated by Nathan Lyons, which included Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, and Duane Michaels. It gave credence to a kind of photography that did not “attempt to define but to clarify the meaning of the human condition,” as Lyons noted.27 This subjective style of documentary and street photography had close ties to the work of Baruch and Jones.28 The Black Panther photo essay, like Lyons’ Contemporary Photographers, served as a call to artists to address controversial issues as well as the commonplace, and it gave credibility to photographers who embarked on projects in which they showed a clear point of view.29 Further evidence of this development in photography emerged in the summer of 1969 when Jerry Burchard organized what Thomas Albright of the San Francisco Chronicle called “one of the best photography surveys ever put together on the local scene,” at SFAI.30 Titled U.S.A. in Your Heart, the exhibition included the photography establishment represented by Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Aaron Siskind alongside the “underground,” which included works by Robert Heinecken, Larry Clark, Jack Fulton, Ralph Gibson, and Tom Zimmerman, and Burchard’s own printing of Bruce Conner film strips.31

Of course, the years 1968 and 1969 witnessed watershed transformations throughout society, signaled by political upheaval, social disorder, and technological innovations.  These dynamic times gave photographers the opportunity to embrace new ideas, whether in conceptual works or as embedded documentarians. They explored polemic and personal visions and wrestled with experimental forms. The art world and its photographic constituents were certainly keeping pace with the energy of the era.

Ruth-Marion Baruch. Young Woman at Free Huey Rally, De Fremery Park, Oakland, July 14, 1968.  

Epilogue

The Black Panthers were destabilized within a few years of the de Young exhibition. The Nixon administration, with John Mitchell as attorney general, joined with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and local police to harass and attack the Panthers, forcing them into situations where they would either go into exile, to jail, or be killed. In 1970, Beacon Press published The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers, which included a wide selection of the de Young photographs, along with an introduction by Baruch. In 2002, Greybull Press republished the Panther photo essay, titling it Black Panthers 1968. Selections of the photographs have been shown at Reed College, the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In 2012, the Pirkle Jones Foundation published Black Power/Flower Power, which included Baruch’s Haight-Ashbury photographs and the Panther photos. This title serves as the exhibition catalog for a show circulated by the Pirkle Jones Foundation that is available to nonprofit museums and galleries and which will be displayed at the University of California, Merced, in the fall of 2013.

Jack McGregor’s tenure as director of the de Young Museum did not survive long after the Panther exhibition. McGregor’s administrative missteps, coupled with his organization of controversial shows like Panthers, and the consolidation of the city’s museums all probably contributed to his departure from the de Young by the end of 1969.

After their Black Panther collaboration, Jones and Baruch worked independently. Baruch continued to photograph the Panthers, producing portraits of George Jackson and Fleeta Drumgo, the “Soledad Brothers,” at San Quentin, despite the FBI paying intimidating visits to her and Jones’s Mill Valley home. Jones began a photographic essay on counterculture vagabonds ensconced in Sausalito’s Gate 5 houseboats, who were conducting experimental, free-spirited lifestyles.32

Ruth-Marion Baruch spent the last years of her life with her books, writing poetry and enjoying her Abyssinian cats, Moses and Aaron. Jones continued to teach at SFAI until he retired just before Baruch’s death in 1997. The last twelve years of his long life were spent enjoying accolades, exhibitions, and publications. Ansel Adams’s foreword to Jones’s Portfolio Two applies as much to Baruch, stating that the photos “resonate of the external world…[The pictures] will live with you…as long as there are people to observe and appreciate.”33

Notes

  1. Ruth-Marion Baruch (lecture, San Francisco Art Institute, December 11, 1975), San Francisco Art Institute Archives, Audiotape # 48.
  2. Ruth-Marion Baruch, “Preface,” The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers (Boston: Beacon, 1970), 11–12.
  3. “The Panthers and the Law,” Newsweek, February 23, 1970, 26.
  4. Ruth-Marion Baruch, The Vanguard, 12.
  5. Prior to studying at the California School of Fine Art, Baruch received the first MFA in photography awarded by Ohio University in 1946. Her work was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art and included in the exhibition The Family of Man. Jones worked as Ansel Adams’s assistant and collaborated with Adams on projects including Story of a Winery.
  6. Pirkle Jones quoted in Carolyn Alcott, “Photographer Ruth Baruch Dies,” Marin Independent Journal, October 24, 1997, section B, 2.
  7. Ruth-Marion Baruch, The Vanguard, 11.
  8. Tim B. Wride, “Reconciling California: The Rediscovery of Pirkle Jones,” in Pirkle Jones: California Photographs (New York: Aperture, 2001), 113.
  9. Deborah Klochko, “Audio In/Sight: Ruth-Marion Baruch and the Black Panthers,” Museum of Photographic Arts, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-Qhsef8kRw, accessed July 2, 2013.
  10. Baruch, The Vanguard, 12.
  11. Baruch, The Vanguard, 12.
  12. Baruch, The Vanguard, 14–15.
  13. Baruch, The Vanguard, 14.
  14. Baruch, The Vanguard, 14.
  15. “Photo Exhibit on Black Panthers at De Young Museum Till January 19, 1969,” Black Panther, January 4, 1969, photocopied clipping in Jones/Baruch Artists File, SFAI Archives.
  16. Author unknown, New York Times, December 1, 1968, photocopied clipping in Jones/Baruch Artists File, SFAI Archives, unpaginated.
  17. Author unknown, Berkeley Daily Gazette, January 14, 1969, 16.
  18. “Photo Exhibit on Black Panthers,” Black Panther, January 4, 1969, photocopied clipping in Jones/Baruch Artists File, SFAI Archives, unpaginated.
  19. Elbert “Big Man” Howard, interviewed for San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts exhibition, Streetwise: Masters of 60s Photography, Streetwise—Ruth-Marion Baruch and the Black Panthers, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNgVqizb2O0, accessed April 26, 2012; “Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard, Novato, CA,” http://www.bigmanbpp.com/, accessed May 26, 2012.
  20. Alfred Frankenstein, “Rodin, Levine, and the Panthers,” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, December 15, 1968, 35, 38.
  21. Baruch, The Vanguard, 15.
  22. Laura Devendorf, “Black Panthers Seen Via Couple’s Lenses,” Marin Independent Journal, January 11, 1969, 6.
  23. “Photos of Panthers,” Argonaut, January 4, 1969, photocopy in Jones/Baruch Artists File, SFAI Archives.
  24. Earl Caldwell, “A Photographic Exhibit in San Francisco Tells of the Black Panthers,” New York Times, December 16, 1968, 42.
  25. Baruch, The Vanguard, 15.
  26. Baruch, The Vanguard, 15.
  27. Nathan Lyons, Contemporary Photographers: Toward a Social Landscape (Rochester, NY: George Eastman House, 1966), http://www.archive.org/details/towardsociallandOOIyon, accessed July 4, 2013.
  28. Auction blurb for Contemporary Photographers: Toward a Social Landscape, http://www.photoeye.com/auctions/citation.cfm?id=3480, accessed July, 7, 2013.
  29. “In Tandem: Masters of the Darkroom: An Interview with Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones,” Darkroom, November 1979, 24.
  30. Thomas Albright, “‘USA in Your Heart’ Show,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 1969, in SFAI Archives: Exhibitions, unpaginated.
  31. Thomas Albright, “‘USA in Your Heart’ Show,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 1969, in SFAI Archives: Exhibitions, unpaginated.
  32. Wride, 114.
  33. Ansel Adams, “Foreword,” Pirkle Jones: Portfolio Two (Mill Valley, California: Pirkle Jones, 1968).

Comments ShowHide