The American photographer who has documented the civil rights struggle in the United States, is the subject of a retrospective at the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, in Gentilly outside of Paris.
The nature of this American journey may well be encapsulated in a shattered dream. Since the late 1960s, excluded minorities have been the focus of Stephen Shames’s photographic and political observation and experimentation. In a country defined by messianism, excessive nationalism, and inexhaustible will of power, every image offers evidence of the impossibility for the American continent to ever be at peace with itself. This, in a nutshell, is the photographic realization. The era of the New Deal and of the New Fair Deal, a time of illusions, is coming to an end amid confusion. FSA or Photo League photography that kept company with the poor seems to belong to a distant past. But Stephen Shames has never given up. He belongs to those photographers who make us see the consequences of McCarthyism, of everyday racism, poverty, in short, of the enduring violence of class war. He pores over ever new quantities of materials furnished by injustices and rejection of the other. He paints suffering with raw brushstrokes. In his images, people shoot up, die of hunger, sleep little and wherever they can. Death and violence are omnipresent. But the photographer’s lucidity forbids him pity. Pain, brutal breakups, the disintegration of the closest ties, the decay of everything that was once pure and fresh, has turned the American myth into a somber and tragic reality. Confronting this reality with his camera, the artist cannot but fight it with brotherly lyricism and moments of consideration and respect. Even now, despite the accumulation of bad news, he is still at it, offering us a body of photographs free of embellishment and erasure: instead, his works sheds light on the very real fractures within a country we can never fully understand.
While soberness does not preclude certain lyricism, Stephen Shames’s photographs are not a simplistic tirade. On the contrary, they show a country that has betrayed “the ideals of its pioneers.” This nation, which loves to portray itself as a land untainted by inequality, offers a multitude of similar life stories that seem almost banal in the repetition of the same ills. The hidden drama of these American portraits relies on simple principles, stark contrasts, tightly framed shots, graphic compositions, and above all, the clarity of everyday gestures. There is no need to resort to pathos. Stephen Shames hates staged scenes. He seeks only the raw qualities in situations capable of celebrating the beauty of African Americans, of honoring the dignity of other communities excluded from sharing the dream. Power to the People, Bronx Boys, Outside the Dream spotlight men on the move. What we see are men of action. They are thoughts set in motion, some walking out in the street, others defending their country, in quest of a reality beyond simple subsistence.
As we look at these images again, we are struck by the calm of the historical movers, by their dignity and simplicity. Their commitment delivered them from submission. Thus a photographic chronicle takes on a redemptive value for the actors involved. Despite the raw realism, what stands out in this oeuvre is the dimension of fatality belied by the desire to live. As with the work of Walker Evans or Sid Grossman, it is by being presented with a harsh, disjointed, even bleak reality that we discover the complex sequence of dramatic events. It would be hard to think of a more open way of exploring the real—moving and written, sensed and tragic, but always open. This violent world, a world unbearable and inhuman for children, our world, one of the circles of hell, does offer several ways out: an escape, a leap into the void, or fight.
Thanks to the generous persistence of some photographers, such as Stephen Shames, it is still possible to think that photography may be capable of giving us access to this rare feeling: attentive gravity.
François Cheval is one of the most esteemed French photography exhibition curators of the past 30 years.
Stephen Shames, A Retrospective
October 11, 2017 to January 14, 2018
Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau
1, rue de la Division du Général Leclerc