In a new exhibition, photographers explore the roots of America’s political turmoil

·3 min read
The Capitol, Washington, 6 January 2020 (© Balazs Gardi)
The Capitol, Washington, 6 January 2020 (© Balazs Gardi)

From vaccinations to elections to policing, political common ground in America seems to be harder to find than ever. The split is born out in data too – a month before the 2020 election, according to Pew research, roughly 9 in 10 Republicans, and the same number of Democrats, worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States.

“Our crisis today is the clash between the nation’s traditional vision of itself – the American Dream – and the hard, discordant realities it lives with,” wrote Jerry Mason and Adolph Suehsdorf, the editors of the publication America in Crisis. Although their statement rings true today, America in Crisis, a Magnum Photos project, was published in 1969. Inspired by the radical political shifts in the late 1960s, the ground-breaking group initiative aimed to assess the state of the nation, examining key events in the lead-up to Nixon’s 1968 inauguration. The project had a wide scope – section titles included The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle for Equality.

“Several of us felt that the 1968 elections would be somehow special; that deeper questions for America were riding than just electing a president,” said photographer Charles Harbutt of the project. “I felt that the basic issue was that the traditional American self-image as learned through public schools, Hollywood movies, ads and Fourth of July speeches – the American Dream itself – was being challenged.”

Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, 1968 (© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos)
Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, 1968 (© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos)

As America’s political divide takes on new dimensions in the wake of a pandemic and false claims of a stolen election, the America in Crisis project is being revisited in an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. The show creates a dialogue between the original photos and American photography from recent years, searching for the historical symmetries which could shed light on the political fractures of today.

Contemporary photographers such as Kris Graves, Balazs Gardi, Zora J Murff, Sheila Pree Bright and Stacy Kranitz display next to their predecessors Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt and Mary Ellen Mark in the ongoing examination of social change and division. In total, the exhibition features 40 leading American photographers and more than 120 works.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 (© Stacy Kranitz)
Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 (© Stacy Kranitz)
Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone (© Anastasia Samoylova)
Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone (© Anastasia Samoylova)
Bungalow Family with Last Ash Tree, Midway, Chicago, 2018 (© Paul D’Amato)
Bungalow Family with Last Ash Tree, Midway, Chicago, 2018 (© Paul D’Amato)

As with the 1969 project, which included pictures from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for civil rights, race continues to be a key issue for the contributors. “What I felt about the perpetration of American anti-Black violence in 2020 was no different from how I felt about it before, and my opinions remain unchanged,” says photographer Zora J Murff. “The recorded deaths of Black people at the hands of white people that we have seen these last two years are nothing new in this country.”

The Selma March, Alabama, 1965 (© Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)
The Selma March, Alabama, 1965 (© Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)
Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020 Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects (© Kris Graves)
Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020 Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects (© Kris Graves)
Grant Park, Chicago, 1968 (© Charles Harbutt)
Grant Park, Chicago, 1968 (© Charles Harbutt)
#FXCK July 4th: rally cultivating change from injustice and police brutality toward women and LGBTQ+, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020 (© Sheila Pree Bright)
#FXCK July 4th: rally cultivating change from injustice and police brutality toward women and LGBTQ+, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020 (© Sheila Pree Bright)

The exhibition makes the case that many political battles are fought on the same frontlines as 50 years ago. “I think a crisis to me implies a singular event or sliver in time and I feel that 2020 was a continuation,” says Leah Millis, who works as a photographer at Reuters and contributed a photo of Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 senate hearing to the exhibition.

Photograph submitted by Leah Millis of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint senate hearing (© Reuters/Leah Millis)
Photograph submitted by Leah Millis of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint senate hearing (© Reuters/Leah Millis)

“Crisis doesn’t give enough breadth to the moment. It almost gives the impression that we’re weathering the storm. I have been out in the middle of it for the last few years, which probably colours my view, but I feel this goes much deeper.”

America in Crisis is showing at Saatchi Gallery, London, from 21 January to 3 April 2022