Charles Moore: Civil Rights and Beyond

Exhibition: April 6 - May 7, 2011
Reception: April 6, 6-8pm, to be hosted by Charles Moore’s daughter, Michelle Peel

Steven Kasher Gallery is pleased to announce Charles Moore: Civil Rights and Beyond, the most comprehensive exhibition of photography by Charles Moore ever undertaken by a gallery or museum. The exhibition will feature approximately 60 prints, mostly vintage, drawn from the photographer’s estate. Charles Moore (1931-2010) was the most important civil rights era photographer. His searing images of conflict between demonstrators and law enforcement helped propel landmark civil rights legislation.

Moore, the son of a Baptist preacher and car salesman, was born in Hackleburg, Alabama, not far from the birthplace of Helen Keller. In 1958, at 27 years old, as a photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, Moore was on hand to photograph the arrest of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. by two policemen. His photos of the event were distributed nationwide by the Associated Press, and one was published in Life magazine. This photo pushed the regional story into a national debate. It also launched Moore’s long, historic career producing images of the civil rights movement for a nation that  would be “shocked and shaken in their conscience” by the images Moore put in their hands.

Over the next seven years, Moore made some of the most significant pictures of the civil rights movement. As a contract photographer for Life magazine, Moore traveled the South to cover the evolving struggle. His photographs helped bring the reality of the situation to the magazine's huge audience, which at the time comprised over half the adults in the United States.

Some of the major civil rights era events that Moore covered:
The early efforts of Dr. King to desegregate Montgomery, Alabama, 1958-60; the violent reaction to the enrollment of James Meredith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, 1962; the Freedom March from Tennessee to Mississippi, 1963; the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, 1963; voter registration drives in Mississippi, 1963-1964; Ku Klux Klan activities in North Carolina, 1965; and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965.

Moore also photographed the civil war in the Dominican Republic, political violence in Venezuela and Haiti, and the Vietnam conflict. In 1989, Charles Moore received the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism. Moore died in March 2010, at age 79, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk; the High Museum, Atlanta; the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; The Menil Collection, Houston; and many others. 

Charles Moore: Civil Rights and Beyond will be on view April 6 through May 7, 2011.

Steven Kasher Gallery is located at 521 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10011.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 6 pm.

For more information or press requests please contact Christiona Owen at 212 966

Some captions from the exhibition Charles Moore: Civil Rights and Beyond, April 6 through May 7, 2011. Text from The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Hank Kilbanoff and Gene Roberts (Knopf: New York, 2006).

Meredith Integrates Ole Miss, 1962
Sheriffs, their deputies, and highway patrolmen came to the campus from around the state, but there was no expectation that they would back up the feds. Moore had caught that message a few days earlier in perhaps the most dramatic photo to come out of the build up. He had framed a cluster of white men laughing as one of them, a cigarette clinched tightly between his teeth, appeared to demonstrate a hard, two-handed whacking motion with a billy club he gripped so tightly it seemed sewn to his hand. Beside him, a hard-looking man with a crew cut and dangling cigarette was wrapping gauze around his arm, creating an identifying armband. Against the stereotype of what frontline segregationist street fighters look like, these men were wearing ties, coats, white shirts, and hats. Closer examination revealed that they were wearing badges. They were sheriffs from six counties, and one deputy.

Moore’s silhouetted work that night shows how painstakingly he tried to use the light of fires and flares, not electronic flashes, to illuminate the darkness. Short of war, conditions could not have been much worse. To shoot without a gas mask was to risk an inability to function at all; to shoot with it was to risk missing the picture. What was worse, Moore had left his flash and all but five rolls of film in a car he could not now reach. Five rolls of film on a night like this was like having a single strip of beef jerky to cross the Mojave. Moore could have used twenty-five, thirty, maybe forty rolls that night. He stayed mostly in the Lyceum, catching the ugly scene of the wounded and wasted.

Life magazine did not make Meredith its cover; that went to a special on Pope John XXIII. But it did devote thirteen full pages to Ole Miss. Charles Moore, on his first assignment forLife, made a strong impression. The magazine ended up using six of his photos. The picture of the Mississippi law men having a laugh as one of them grips a billy club was spread over two pages. His images of Bill Crider’s bleeding back and a marshal throwing up after inhaling tear gas were each given a full page. The magazine sent him a $500 bonus for his powerful work.

Birmingham Protests, May 3, 1963
Young Negroes were streaming by the dozens out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and firefighters were scrambling for position when Charles Moore, the Life photographer, arrived at Kelly Ingram Park. In a short time, photographers would be everywhere, mostly still photojournalists standing at a distance, but also television crews. Firefighters pulled in heavy fire hoses and monitor guns that forced the power of two horses through a single nozzle, producing a weapon that could skin bark from a tree at a hundred feet.

Moore could see that this was not a story to be told from afar. He wanted to get as close to the action as he could, as close as the firefighters and demonstrators themselves. He wanted to hear the noise of the chaos. He wanted his images to be felt; if the firefighters were going to use hoses, his images had to feel wet. Long lenses would miss the point. Relying on short range, wide-angle lenses, mostly a 28mm, Moore hunched down and waded into the crowd. He watched as a group of firefighters, leaning forward against the kick of their high- pressure hoses, aimed them at a dozen demonstrators who were sitting on the sidewalk not more than ten feet away from the nozzles, their hands clasped protectively behind their heads and necks. Moore began shooting and moving as they opened the valves, then made his way to a position right beside the firefighters, close enough to touch them. Through his lens, he saw the straight, white laser line of water drilling into the upper back of a seated man, who pulled a woman close to shield her from the battering. Covered in a drenching mist, Moore fired away, pausing only when a piece of concrete, hurled at the firefighters from a nearby rooftop, crashed into his ankle. Badly bruised, Moore moved around the park, angling himself closer and closer to the demonstrators, close enough that he wound up in the frames that other photographers were taking from farther away, close enough to see the eyes of the demonstrators and to follow advice he’d received sixteen years earlier, when he was sixteen years old.

Moore, as a child, had been so bullied that he enrolled in a Golden Gloves boxing program. What his trainer had told him had guided Moore’s moves as a photojournalist: “By looking in my eyes, never, never blinking, never taking your eye away when I start hitting, you will know which way the lick, the blow, is coming, you’ll know before it’s even thrown,” the trainer had said. “You’ll just see that tiny, little movement and you’ll be able to block it. If you move your eyes off it, I’m going to be able to keep pounding you.” The other lesson: Watch your opponent’s feet, and you can know his every move.

By following those admonitions, Moore was able to target his camera on a scene and follow it through his lens without flinching or getting distracted. He followed a young woman as a stinging, high-pressure fusillade hit her in the back, knocked her purse from her hands, slammed her to the ground, and held her there as she screamed. He held the scene as a giant Negro man emerged from the spray to lift her with one arm and carry her to safety.

Moore was impressed how the demonstrators didn’t try to run from the park even when they could have. They hid behind trees. They crouched in doorways so the water’s propulsion, drilling them with force of one hundred pounds per square inch, couldn’t bounce them onto the sidewalks. But they didn’t run. Then he saw a demonstrator who would become his favorite subject that day: a powerfully built, broad-shouldered Negro man who, hit by a cannonade of water, seemed determined not to let it knock him down. His legs spread for balance, the man braced in defiance of the water; his only concession was to remove his hat. As Moore clicked off shots from behind, every tensed muscle in the man’s back became visible through his soaking white shirt. Moore moved closer, within a couple feet of the man. As the man turned around, Moore caught him, a handsome face, looking back at the firefighters in stoic anger and disbelief. A small bubble of water hung, tear like, from the man’s bottom eyelid, while water dripped from his chin. His glistening hands were seeking to salvage some dignity by working his saturated hat back into shape.

What Americans saw was what Moore’s camera found: young, emboldened Negroes openly taunting police officers, singing and swaying while pointing their fingers sassily in the officers’ faces. He found proud, smiling, fearless faces even as arrests mounted, reaching a thousand on a single day. He also found irony: a woman being arrested in front of a movie theater showing Damn the Defiant.

The police crackdown extended to the press: as Moore shot pictures of three demonstrators pinned to the frame of a door by the power of a high-pressure hose, police arrested him and his writer, Michael Durham. Bailed out, they were advised by Life’slawyer that they didn’t stand a chance in Birmingham courts, they could get six months in jail, and they’d better get out of Alabama as soon as possible. Moore and Durham went to the airport, where they saw an empty police car at the front entrance. Certain that the police had been tipped off that they were jumping bail, Moore eased his rental car into a parking space, left the keys in it, and began looking for an obscure entrance to the terminal. They found it, went straight to their gate, boarded the plane for New York, and left not merely as journalists but also as fugitives. As with Sitton when the Times’ lawyers had insisted that he stay out of Alabama, Moore had little choice. But for him, it also meant leaving his children, who lived with his ex-wife in Montgomery. Moore would not be able to return to Alabama for about a year, other than one daring trip from Atlanta so he could see his children.