CEDAR RAPIDS — Photojournalism in the United States dates back to the Civil War battlefields, but those depictions often were staged, setting up scenes with bodies and guns or waiting for just the right light, said Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
“Photography is never quite as truthful as we sometimes think it is. It’s never as simple or as documentary as we think it is,” she said, noting that the Civil War photographers had to carry around unwieldy equipment.
“It has a very interesting history. Nowadays we can take (photos) so easily, and everyone has a camera on their phone, versus back in the Civil War days when you were carrying around glass plates and collodion (a flammable solution used on those glass plates). It was a much more exhaustive medium.”
An exhibition opening today (1/12) at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art highlights the impact documentary photos, prints and paintings have had on the American political scene. Featuring more than 20 pieces — including four Norman Rockwell watercolors from his time in Cedar Rapids in 1944 — “Power and Protest: Political Photographs and Prints” will be on view through April 28 in the back gallery on the second floor.
The grouping from the museum’s collection and a private collector features several photos taken in Eastern Iowa of Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr. The most colorful work, however, is a serigraph (silk-screen) of Abraham Lincoln by the late LeRoy Neiman, known for his bright expressionist paintings and screen prints of musicians and athletes.
The mix also includes 19th century prints of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln, as well as 20th century depictions of Lincoln, including two pieces by late Iowa City printmaker Mauricio Lasansky.
The display is designed as a companion to the landmark photo exhibition “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times,” coming to the museum’s main-floor galleries from Feb. 2 to May 19. Those 77 pieces from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Getty Images, private collections and the Kennedy family archives document the slain president’s life from his first congressional bid in 1946 to his assassination in Dallas in 1963.
“The Kennedy exhibition is going to be really interesting, because it’s JFK through the photojournalist’s lens, and that was such a curated experience for America,” Kunau said. “Kennedy was really involved with how Americans interpreted his image and what he wanted to have emphasized. And so ‘Power and Protest,’ in a really nice parallel, also uses a lot of Associated Press photos and photos from (local photographer) Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret, but those photos are mainly of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
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“The Civil Rights Movement, like Kennedy, really used photojournalism to show the atrocities that were happening to African-Americans every day in the country,” Kunau said.
Viewers will see photos of King giving speeches; two from his Coe College appearance in 1962; and attending planning sessions. “But then there are also ones from violent Civil Rights rallies where people were being knocked down — even peaceful sit-in protests (and) store counter protests.
“So it’s a different way photojournalism was used,” she said. “It’s making this really big impact, but it also was part of Martin Luther King’s non-violent plan to engage Civil Rights activists in this country and to let the country know what was happening in the American South and what the African-American experience was like day to day, and all of the injustice that they suffered.”
Kunau said she always enjoys the research aspect of creating exhibitions, but this one offered a special learning experience.
“One thing that really struck me is that we have these photographs and that Martin Luther King was really alive to the importance of photographing these things,” she said.
“He wanted photographs of how violent the protests were and how African-Americans were being treated, but there’s also really beautiful, thoughtful photographs of the non-violence — the speeches that they gave and everything they endured at the sit-in protests. He was very inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and really wanted these protests to be non-violent.
“So it’s really documenting both sides of that, and letting everyone in the country see, ‘This is what’s happening to us, and we’re protesting peacefully for our equality and for our basic human rights — and this is what we’re facing.’
“I was interested in how important photojournalism was to the Civil Rights Era and how conscious Martin Luther King Jr. was to that importance. That was a really interesting realization for me.”
Photography hasn’t always been considered fine-art museum fare.
“When photography became ‘a thing,’ it was thought that it would replace drawing and painting as a documentary object, which is largely what it became,” Kunau said.
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“But in the early 20th century, there was a group of artists in America, based largely in New York, who were really interested in the artistic aspects of the photographic medium. You could do really interesting things with it, and it didn’t have to be just documentary, it could also be artistic.”
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IF YOU GO
l What: “Power and Protest: Political Photographs and Prints”
l Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
l When: Today (1/12) to April 28
l Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday
l Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over, college students with ID; $3 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under and Museum members
l Information: Crma.org